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Cover of the hardcover first edition, featuring an analemma behind the author's name
Author Neal Stephenson
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Publisher William Morrow and Company
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback)
Pages 928
Awards Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2009)
ISBN 978-0-06-147409-5 (first edition, hardback)
0-06-147410-X (mass market paperback)
OCLC 191930336
813/.54 22
LC Class PS3569.T3868 A53 2008

Anathem is a speculative fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, published in 2008. Major themes include the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the philosophical debate between Platonic realism and nominalism.

Plot summary[edit]

Anathem is set on and around the fictional planet Arbre. Thousands of years before the events in the novel, the planet's intellectuals entered concents (monastic communities) to protect their activities from the collapse of society. The avout – intellectuals separated from Sæcular society – retain extremely limited access to tools and are banned from possessing or operating most advanced technology and are supervised by the Inquisition, which answers to the outside world. The avout are allowed to communicate with people outside the walls of the concent only once every year, decade, century, or millennium, depending on the particular vows they have taken.

The narrator and protagonist, Fraa Erasmas, is an avout at the Concent of Saunt Edhar. His primary teacher, Orolo, discovers that an alien spacecraft is orbiting Arbre – a fact that the Sæcular Power attempts to cover up. Orolo secretly observes the alien ship with a video camera, technology that is prohibited for the avout. Erasmas becomes aware of the content of Orolo's research after Orolo is banished (in a rite called Anathem) for his possession and use of proscribed technology within the concent. But the presence of the alien ship soon becomes an open secret among many of the avout at St. Edhar. The alien ship eventually declares its presence by shining a light upon the Millenarian Math of Saunt Edhar, the bastion of those avout who have taken a thousand-year vow not to interact with the outside world. The Sæcular Power calls forth many avout from Saunt Edhar, including Erasmas, along with one Millenarian – Fraa Jad.

Erasmas and several companions, including Fraa Jad, decide to seek out Orolo. After a dangerous journey over the planet's frozen pole, Erasmas and his comrades eventually arrive at a concent-like establishment called Orithena, and reunite with Fraa Orolo. Orolo holds discussions with Erasmas about the nature of the cosmos and consciousness, and how he believes that the aliens are not simply from another planet, but from another cosmos that is influenced by Arbre. During the discussions between Orolo and Erasmas, a small spacecraft lands on Orithena. A female alien is on board, but dead of a recent gunshot wound. She brings with her four vials of blood – presumably that of the aliens – and much evidence about their technology. Shortly thereafter, the aliens propel a massive metal rod at a nearby volcano, triggering an eruption that destroys Orithena. Orolo sacrifices his life to ensure the safety of the dead alien's remains, an event that leads to his canonization as Saunt Orolo.

Erasmas then travels to another concent, Saunt Tredegarh, to attend a joint conference of the avout and the Sæcular Power dedicated to dealing with the military, political, and technical issues raised by the existence of the alien ship in Arbre's orbit. Tredegarh is where the Sæcular Power had brought many of the banished avout of Saunt Edhar to work on methods of collecting and interpreting the limited information regarding the alien spacecraft, as well as researching possible military options. Much research is done on the aliens, who are found to come from four planets in four distinct parallel worlds: Urnud, Tro, Fthos and Laterre. Through observation and experiment, Erasmas and his companions determine that the conference is infiltrated by the aliens, and unmask a Laterran linguist called Jules Verne Durand. He explains that the aliens are experiencing internal conflict between two factions. The currently ruling faction intends to attack and raid Arbre for its resources in order to repair their spaceship, while the opposing faction favors open negotiation. Jules Durand offers to assist the avout of Arbre in resisting the ruling faction of the aliens, believing that they can bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion.

Fearing alien attack, the avout flee Saunt Tredegarh and the other concents on Arbre. Erasmas and his comrades are taken to a distant sanctuary, where they receive training for a mission to board the alien ship and disable its weaponry. They are launched into space, unknowingly bringing with them "Everything Killers" (miniaturized Neutron Bombs) that the Sæcular Power intends to use as a last resort should the explicit goal of the avouts' mission fail. Three people – including Fraa Jad – are issued detonators.

The narrative parallelizes as the avout team boards the ship. In one Narrative, several avout destroy the ship's main weapon, perishing in the attack. In another Narrative, Fraa Jad leads Erasmas into the command center of the spaceship, where it emerges that the Millenarian avout of one thousand years in the past may have used their "incanting" powers to summon the ship to their cosmos from another universe. In yet another Narrative, Jad opens a door into a protected area and, upon being attacked, triggers the Everything Killers.

In the final Narrative (the one that continues forward) Erasmas awakens in a hospital on the starship to the perplexing news that Fraa Jad had died soon after their launch, contradicting his obvious presence and memories up to that point. It remains unclear which (or how many) of these contradictory narratives is real, and what may have happened in different worldtracks that have crossed and overlapped. However, Fraa Jad had hinted that the Incanters (and possibly Rhetors) were capable of operating simultaneously in parallel universes, so Jad is likely to have survived in other worlds.

Erasmas finds that the aliens have brought up a high-powered delegation from Arbre. A funeral ceremony for those lost on both sides of the attack forms part of the signing of a peace treaty between the aliens and the Arbrans. On Arbre itself, the Sæcular Powers and the avout have agreed to cooperate as equal powers. The people of Arbre inaugurate a second "Reconstitution", revising many of the rules that had restricted the work and lifestyle of the avout. Erasmas and friends set about the task of building a new concent, dedicated to Saunt Orolo.

The "Discipline"[edit]

In the novel, avout follow a life path called the Discipline, sometimes referred to as Cartasian Discipline, after Saunt Cartas, the founder of the mathic world. It is a set of rules governing what is (and is not) allowed for avout to know and/or do, and was codified centuries before the time of the story in the Second New Revised Book of Discipline.

Chief among these is that the avout are separated, both mentally and literally, from the Sæculum, or outside world. There are different levels of separation. For example, within a concent, there are different terms of residency. There are 1-, 10-, 100-, and 1,000-year orders. Each of these celebrates "Apert", a festival opening the concent to the outside world and allowing the flow of information between them, on an interval determined by that number. For example, a 10-year order would celebrate Apert once every ten years, remaining isolated otherwise. Likewise, a 100-year order would only celebrate Apert every hundred years, and a 1,000-year order once every 1,000 years. It is an essential part of this that at any time an order celebrates Apert, all orders below it also celebrate Apert. For example, a Millenarian (1,000-year) order would celebrate in the year 3000. Because 3000 is also a multiple of 100, 10, and 1, Centenarian, Decenarian, and Unarian orders would also celebrate. Exceptions to this rule include "hierarchs" (those who administer the concent) who are required to confer with the Sæcular Power on decisions of weight.

The main secondary aspect of the Discipline is that the avout are allowed to own only their "bolt, chord, and sphere". These objects are made with "newmatter" (matter made with a modified atomic structure to be more versatile), and can be made to alter their shape, texture and other physical properties without the use of tools or other outside technologies. The bolt is a length of newmatter fabric and is used as clothing; the chord is a newmatter rope used to secure the bolt; and the sphere is a newmatter balloon of adjustable size, shape and hardness, and serves as a multipurpose tool.

There are several restrictions governing, for example, the use of "sequencing" (genetic engineering), "syntactic devices" (computers), or other "praxis" (technology). Due to the restrictions, avout can only work on an entirely theoretical basis de jure.

Philosophical and scientific content and influences[edit]

Roger Penrose inspired the novel's "Teglon tiles", based on the aperiodic Penrose tiles, and the discussion of the brain as a quantum computer, based on Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind.
A geometric proof of the Pythagorean theorem is written on the side of the alien ship

Large portions of the book involve detailed discussions of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. Most of these discussions use fictional Arbran terminology, but treat ideas from actual science and philosophy. Stephenson acknowledges the work of author Julian Barbour as the source for much of this material.[1]

A major theme of the novel is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics based on a directed acyclic graph, which accounts for the various "worldtracks" and "narratives" explored by Fraa Orolo and manipulated by Fraa Jad.[1] Another major theme is the recurring philosophical debate between characters espousing mathematical Platonic realism (called "Halikaarnians" in the novel) and characters espousing nominalism (called "Procians" in the novel).

Stephenson cites the work of Roger Penrose as a major influence on the novel. Specific ideas from Penrose's work include: the idea that the human mind operates in certain fundamental ways as a quantum computer, espoused in Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind; Platonic realism as a philosophical basis for works of fiction, as in stories from Penrose's The Road to Reality; and the theory of aperiodic tilings, which appear in the Teglon puzzle in the novel.[1] Stephenson also cites as an influence the works of Kurt Gödel and Edmund Husserl, whom the character Durand both mentions by name in the novel.[1]

Much of the Geometers' technology seen in the novel reflects existing scientific concepts. The alien ship moves by means of nuclear pulse propulsion.

As an appendix to the novel, Stephenson includes three "Calca", discussions among the avout of purely philosophical or mathematical content. The first is a discussion of a cake-cutting procedure corresponding to the geometric problem of "doubling the square" presented in Plato's Meno. The second presents configuration spaces (called "Hemn spaces" in the novel) as a way of representing three-dimensional motion. The third discusses a "complex" Platonic realism, in which several realms of Platonic ideal forms (called the "Hylaean Theoric Worlds" in the novel) exist independently of the physical world (called the "Arbran Causal Domain" in the novel). The mathematical structure of a directed acyclic graph is used to describe the way in which the various realms can influence one other, and even the physical world can function as part of the realm of ideal forms for some worlds "downstream" in the graph.


  • Erasmas (nickname "Raz"): The protagonist of Anathem; a Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. The neglected son of slines, he was collected by the concent at the age of eight.
  • Orolo: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. He is an eminent cosmographer and Erasmas's mentor at the concent, but he's later Thrown Back for using forbidden technology to observe the Geometers in violation of the Discipline's isolation requirements.
  • Arsibalt: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and one of Erasmas's friends. The estranged son of a Bazian prelate, he seeks to reconcile religion with theorics.
  • Lio: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and one of Erasmas's friends. He's known as an absent-minded eccentric and is interested in military history, Vale-lore(martial arts), and unusual gardening techniques.
  • Jesry: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and one of Erasmas's friends. Unlike Erasmas, Jesry comes from a prosperous burger family, and is bored with the routine of mathic life preceding the arrival of the Geometers. He becomes famous for going into space with the Warden of Heaven (a religious leader of the Sæcular Power) to investigate the Geometers' ship.
  • Ala: A Decenarian suur from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and later a major organizer of the Convox. Although they disliked each other as children, she and Erasmas become romantically involved in the course of the story.
  • Jad: A Millenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Jad is evoked in the same aut as Erasmas and accompanies him to Bly's Butte in search of Orolo. He later reappears at the Convox.
  • Cord: Erasmas' relative and a machinesmith who lives extramuros near the Concent of Saunt Edhar. She accompanies Erasmas on his search for Orolo.
  • Sammann: An Ita (a social caste of computer experts) from the Concent of Saunt Edhar who accompanies Erasmas on his search for Orolo.
  • Yulassetar Crade (nickname "Yul"): An extramuros wilderness guide, member of the expedition to find Orolo.
  • Ganelial Crade (nickname "Gnel"): An Counter-Bazian deolater (and Yul's cousin) who volunteers to drive the avout to the Convox, member of the expedition for Orolo
  • Jules Verne Durand: An alien linguist who infiltrates the convox to gather information for the Geometers.


The novel was partly inspired by Stephenson's involvement with the Clock of the Long Now project, to which he contributed three pages of sketches and notes.[2][3] A separate compact disc, entitled IOLET: Music from the World of Anathem, containing eight experimental vocal compositions by David Stutz, will be sold separately through CD Baby and the Long Now Foundation, with profits going to The Clock of the Long Now project.[4][5]

To create the world of Arbre, Stephenson constructs new vocabulary. In order to familiarize the reader with the new words, many of which are analogous to English, Latin or Greek words and ideas, he put a glossary at the end of the book. Each chapter begins with a definition of one of these words, which usually relates to the chapter in some way. In addition, the Orth language spoken by the characters was created by Jeremy Bornstein at the author's request,[1] and has been documented.[6] The word anathem was invented by Stephenson, based on the word anthem and the Greek word anathema. In the book, an anathem is a mathic ritual by which one is expelled from the mathic world.


Anathem received mostly positive reviews. Paul Boutin wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "the lasting satisfaction of Anathem derives … from Mr. Stephenson's wry contempt for today's just-Google-it mindset. His prose is dense, but his worldview contagious."[7] On, Andrew Leonard described the book as "a page turner and a philosophical argument, an adventure novel and an extended existential meditation, a physics lesson, sermon and ripping good yarn."[8]

Michael Dirda of The Washington Post disagreed, remarking that "Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity", but describing it as "fundamentally unoriginal", "grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull."[9] The novel entered The New York Times Best Seller list for Hardcover Fiction at number one [10] and achieved the rare distinction for a novel of being reviewed in Nature.[11]

Anathem won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2009 [12] and collected nominations for the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards the same year.[12] In 2008, the novel received a nomination for the British Science Fiction Award.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d e Neal Stephenson, Clocks, Orreries, etc., acknowledgements for Anathem
  2. ^ Anathem, By Neal Stephenson – The Long Now
  3. ^ Long Now: Projects: Clock
  4. ^ Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Music
  5. ^ Iolet: The Music of Anathem
  6. ^
  7. ^ Boutin, Paul (September 9, 2008). "Bookshelf: Internet-Free And Glad of It". The Wall Street Journal. pp. A23. Archived from the original on 12 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-15. 
  8. ^ "Philosophy! Theology! Global catastrophe! Adventure!". September 15, 2008. Archived from the original on 13 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-15. 
  9. ^ "Michael Dirda on 'Anathem'". Washington Post. September 7, 2008. pp. BW10. Retrieved 2008-09-15. 
  10. ^ "Hardcover Fiction". The New York Times. September 28, 2008. Archived from the original on September 8, 2014. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  11. ^ Book review in nature
  12. ^ a b "2009 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-21. 
  13. ^ "2008 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-21. 

External links[edit]