5 reasons why academics should read Anathem

I just read Neal Stephenson’s 2008 novel Anathem and now I walk around pestering everyone I know telling them to read it too. Well, not everyone: just people who are or have been in academia. Judging from Goodreads reviews everyone else finds the novel too long and theoretical, full of made up words, and full of characters who are too detached from the real world to be believable. Pay no heed to the haters - here’s why you academic types should read Anathem:

1. You will feel right at home even though the story is set in an alien world (I).

The planet is called Arbre and its history and society are not radically different from Earth’s. Except that at some point (thousands of years before the story begins) the people of Arbre revolted against science and confined their intellectuals to monasteries where the development and use of technology is severely limited - no computers, no cell phones, no internet, no cameras, etc -, as is any contact with the outside world. Inside these monasteries (“Maths”) the intellectuals (the “avout”) dedicate themselves to the study and development of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. As the use of technology is restricted, all that research is purely theoretical.

Arbre’s Maths are therefore an allegory for Earth’s universities. How many of our papers and dissertations end up having any (non-academic) impact? Maybe 1% of them? Fewer than that? In (Earth’s) academia the metric of success is usually peer-reviewed publications, not real-world usefulness. Even what we call, say, “applied econometrics” or “applied statistics” is more often than not “applied” only in a limited, strictly academic sense; when you apply econometrics to investigate the effect of economic growth on democracy that is unlikely to have any detectable effect on economic growth or democracy.

So, in Anathem you find this bizarre alien world where intellectuals are physically confined and isolated from the rest of the world and can’t use technology and yet that world feels familiar and as a (current or former) scholar you won’t react to that in the same way other people do. If you go check the reviews on Goodreads you’ll see lots of people complaining that the Maths are unrealistic. To you, however, Maths will sound eerily natural; Anathem would be more alien to you if the Maths were, say, engineering schools.

(Needless to say, the allegory only goes so far, as Arbran’s avout are legally forbidden from having any real-world impact; having no choice in the matter, they don’t lose any sleep over the purely academic nature of their work. And of course people do produce lots of useful research at Earth’s universities.)

2. You will feel right at home even though the story is set in an alien world (II).

The way an Arbran avout progresses in his or her mathic career is entirely different from the way an Earthly scholar progresses in his or her academic career - and yet way too familiar. In Arbre you start by being collected at around age 10. That makes you a “fid” and you will be mentored and taught by the more senior avout, each of which you will respectully address as “pa” or “ma”. When you reach your early twenties you choose - and are chosen by - a specific mathic order. There are many such orders, each named after the avout who founded it - there are the Edharians, the Lorites, the Matharrites, and so on, each with specific liturgies and beliefs.

The avout are not allowed to have any contact with the outside world (the “extramuros”) except at certain regular intervals: one year (the Unarian maths), ten years (the Decenarian maths), one hundred years (the Centenarian maths), or one thousand years (the Milleniarian maths). And only for ten days (those days are called “Apert”). You can get collected by any math - Unarian, Decenarian, Centenarian, or Millenarian. If you get collected, say, at a Unarian math, and you show a lot of skill and promise, you can get upgraded (“Graduated”) to a Decenarian math. If you keep showing skill and promise you can get Graduated to a Centenarian math. And so on. The filter gets progressively stricter; only very few ever get Graduated to the Millenarian maths.

So, the reward for being isolated from the outside world and focusing intensely on your research is… getting even more isolated from the outside world so that you can focus even more intensely on your research. Sounds familiar?

3. Anathem gives you vocabulary for all things academia.

Think back to your Ph.D. years and remember the times you went out with your fellow fids for drinks (well, if you were actual fids you wouldn’t be able to leave your math - you could, but then you wouldn’t be able to go back, except during Apert - but never mind that). Weird conversations (from the point of view of those overhearing them) ensued and you got curious looks from waiters and from other customers.

Why? Because you spoke in the jargon of your field - you used non-ordinary words and you used ordinary words in non-ordinary ways. Like “instrumental” or “endogeneity” or “functional programming”. Not only that: the conversations were speculative and obeyed certain unwritten rules, like Occam’s razor. Clearly these were not the same conversations you have with non-avout - your college friends, your family, your Tinder dates. And yet you call all of them “conversations”. Well, not anymore; Anathem gives you a word for inter-avout conversation about mathic subjects: Dialog. Neal Stephenson goes as far as creating a taxonomy of Dialog types:

Dialog, Peregrin: A Dialog in which two participants of roughly equal knowledge and intelligence develop an idea by talking to each other, typically while out walking around.

Dialog, Periklynian: A competitive Dialog in which each participant seeks to destroy the other’s position (see Plane).

Dialog, Suvinian: A Dialog in which a mentor instructs a fid, usually by asking the fid questions, as opposed to speaking discursively.

Dialog: A discourse, usually in formal style, between theors. “To be in Dialog” is to participate in such a discussion extemporaneously. The term may also apply to a written record of a historical Dialog; such documents are the cornerstone of the mathic literary tradition and are studied, re-enacted, and memorized by fids. In the classic format, a Dialog involves two principals and some number of onlookers who participate sporadically. Another common format is the Triangular, featuring a savant, an ordinary person who seeks knowledge, and an imbecile. There are countless other classifications, including the suvinian, the Periklynian, and the peregrin.

(Anathem, pp. 960-961)

(Yes, there is a glossary in Anathem.)

You can’t get much more precise than that without being summoned to a Millenarian math.

Dialog is just one example. You left academia? You went Feral.

Feral: A literate and theorically minded person who dwells in the Sæculum, cut off from contact with the mathic world. Typically an ex-avout who has renounced his or her vows or been Thrown Back, though the term is also technically applicable to autodidacts who have never been avout.

(Anathem, p. 963)

You left academia to go work for the government? You got Evoked.

Voco: A rarely celebrated aut by which the Sæcular Power Evokes (calls forth from the math) an avout whose talents are needed in the Sæcular world. Except in very unusual cases, the one Evoked never returns to the mathic world.

(Anathem, p. 976)

Reviewer #2 says your argument is not original? He’s a Lorite.

Lorite: A member of an Order founded by Saunt Lora, who believed that all of the ideas that the human mind was capable of coming up with had already been come up with. Lorites are, therefore, historians of thought who assist other avout in their work by making them aware of others who have thought similar things in the past, and thereby preventing them from re-inventing the wheel.

(Anathem, p. 967)

Got friends or family who are not academics? Well, ok, J. K. Rowling has already given us a word for that - muggles. But in some languages that word gets super offensive translations - in Brazilian Portuguese, for instance, they made it “trouxas”, which means “idiots”. Not cool, Harry Potter translators. But worry not, Neal Stephenson gives us an alternative that’s only a tiny bit offensive: “extras” (from “extramuros” - everything outside the maths).

Extra: Slightly disparaging term used by avout to refer to Sæcular people.

(Anathem, p. 963)

That cousin of yours who believes the Earth is flat? He is a sline.

Sline: An extramuros person with no special education, skills, aspirations, or hope of acquiring same, generally construed as belonging to the lowest social class.

(Anathem, p. 973)

And of course, what happens to a scholar who gets expelled from academia? He gets anathametized.

Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, used in the aut of Provener, or (2) an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the mathic world.

(Anathem, pp. 956-957)

And so on and so forth. Frankly, it’s amazing that academics manage to have any Dialogs whatsoever without having read Anathem.

(I must note that Neal Stephenson not only puts these words in the book’s glossary, he uses them extensively throughout the book - there are 40 occurrences of “evoked”, 90 occurrences of “Dialog”, and 57 occurrences of “sline”, for instance. And because there is a glossary at the end he doesn’t bother to define these words in the main text, he just uses them. Which can make your life difficult if, like me, you didn’t bother to skim the book before reading it and only found out about the glossary after you had finished. Damn Kindle.)

4. Anathem might be the push you need to quit social media for good.

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, about the importance of focusing hard and getting “in the zone” in order to be productive. (Well, “reading” is inaccurate. I bought the audio version and I’ve been listening to it while driving - which is not without irony.) There isn’t a whole lot of novelty there - it’s mostly common sense advice about “unplugging” for at least a couple of hours each day so you can get meaningful work done (meaningful work being work that imposes some mental strain, as opposed to replying emails or attending meetings). The thing is, at a certain point, much to my amusement and surprise, Cal Newport mentions Neal Stephenson.

As Cal Newport tells us, Neal Stephenson is a known recluse. He doesn’t answer emails and he is absent from social media. To Newport, that helps explain Stephenson’s productivity and success (No, I won’t engage you in a long Periklynian Dialog about how we can’t establish causality based on anecdotal evidence. That’s not the point and in any case Cal Newport, despite being an avout himself - he’s a computer science professor at Georgetown - is trying to reach an audience of extras and Ferals.) I had read other Neal Stephenson books before - Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, REAMDE, Seveneves -, but I had never bothered to google the man, so I had no idea how he lived. After Cal Newport’s mention, though, I think Anathem is a lot more personal than it looks. Among its many messages maybe there is Neal Stephenson telling us “see? this is what can be achieved when smart people are locked up and cut off from the world”. “What can be achieved” being, in Neal Stephenson’s case (and brilliantly recursively), a great novel about what can be achieved when smart people are locked up and cut off from access to the world.

5. Anathem may be an extreme version of what happens when people turn against science.

Flat-Earthers and anti-vaxxers are back. People who don’t know what a standard-deviation is pontificate freely and publicly about the scientific evidence of climate change. Violent gangs openly oppose free speech at universities. I’m not saying these slines are about to lock up Earth’s scientists in monasteries, but perhaps the Temnestrian Iconography is getting more popular.

“[…] Fid Erasmas, what are the Iconographies and why do we concern ourselves with them?” […]

“Well, the extras—”

“The Sæculars,” Tamura corrected me.

“The Sæculars know that we exist. They don’t know quite what to make of us. The truth is too complicated for them to keep in their heads. Instead of the truth, they have simplified representations— caricatures— of us. Those come and go, and have done since the days of Thelenes. But if you stand back and look at them, you see certain patterns that recur again and again, like, like— attractors in a chaotic system.”

“Spare me the poetry,” said Grandsuur Tamura with a roll of the eyes. There was a lot of tittering, and I had to force myself not to glance in Tulia’s direction. I went on, “Well, long ago those patterns were identified and written down in a systematic way by avout who make a study of extramuros. They are called Iconographies. They are important because if we know which iconography a given extra— pardon me, a given Sæcular— is carrying around in his head, we’ll have a good idea what they think of us and how they might react to us.”

Grandsuur Tamura gave no sign of whether she liked my answer or not. But she turned her eyes away from me, which was the most I could hope for. “Fid Ostabon,” she said, staring now at a twenty-one-year-old fraa with a ragged beard. “What is the Temnestrian Iconography?”

“It is the oldest,” he began. “I didn’t ask how old it was.” “It’s from an ancient comedy,” he tried.

“I didn’t ask where it was from.”

“The Temnestrian Iconography…” he rebegan.

“I know what it’s called. What is it?

“It depicts us as clowns,” Fraa Ostabon said, a little brusquely. “But… clowns with a sinister aspect. It is a two-phase iconography: at the beginning, we are shown, say, prancing around with butterfly nets or looking at shapes in the clouds…”

“Talking to spiders,” someone put in. Then, when no reprimand came from Grandsuur Tamura, someone else said: “Reading books upside-down.” Another: “Putting our urine up in test tubes.”

“So at first it seems only comical,” said Fraa Ostabon, regaining the floor. “But then in the second phase, a dark side is shown— an impressionable youngster is seduced, a responsible mother lured into insanity, a political leader led into decisions that are pure folly.”

“It’s a way of blaming the degeneracy of society on us— making us the original degenerates,” said Grandsuur Tamura. “Its origins? Fid Dulien?”

“The Cloud-weaver, a satirical play by the Ethran playwright Temnestra that mocks Thelenes by name and that was used as evidence in his trial.”

“How to know if someone you meet is a subscriber to this iconography? Fid Olph?”

“Probably they will be civil as long as the conversation is limited to what they understand, but they’ll become strangely hostile if we begin speaking of abstractions…?”

(Anathem, pp. 71-72)

This is it. Go read Anathem and tell your fellow avout and Ferals about it. See you at Apert.