The story takes place in a world like Earth, but one whose history is extremely different. They stand later on the timeline, but upheavals in their history have caused profound changes in the shape and type of progress they have made. At some point in the past, scientists and theoreticians were cloistered away to lead monk-like lives as the “avout.” The limits on their tools and procedures have caused major changes in the way new sciences develop and are disseminated.
Enter Fraa Erasmus. He’s a young student, nearing majority. The story follows him through his life at the Concent of Saunt Edhar for a time, giving us a feeling of what is normal for him, so we recognize it as things begin to change. The changes are wrought by strange news and behavior from within and without the cloistered community.
These changes, and where they take Fraa Erasmus and his fellows are complex, ambitious, and enjoyable, but I don’t want to give anything away.
A few other reviews I have read made mention of Stephenson’s invention of terms. Some like it, and some dislike it. Personally, I come down on the side of those that liked it. I am generally skeptical of changing words when there are perfectly good English words already. Stephenson faced an interesting challenge in Anathem, however. There were two major languages spoken by the main characters, and he had only one (English) in which to render them. The use of slightly different, but still recognizable word-forms served multiple purposes. For one thing, it allowed us to understand the strangeness of the common (Fluccish) language to the ears of the avout, who would not interact with it for years at a time. It also clearly illustrated both the similarities and differences between Arbre and our own Earth. Most of Stephenson’s new terms were clearly derived from an English word, suggesting a different process of coming to its modern form. The rest were clearly explained in the text.
I was deeply impressed by this book. The humor, science, adventure, romance, and politics were all well written and engrossing.