The world of Anathem

In the beginning, Father Cnoüs had a dream. What it really was is anyone’s guess, but his two daughters interpreted it in different ways. Hylaea believed she saw a world of perfect forms, the intellect’s heaven. Deät believed she saw a world ruled by an imperial deity and his angels – I don’t know whose heaven that is, but it would be whatever part of us yearns for someone to tell us what to do. Anyway, then enough time passed so that all the details were forgotten but what I just wrote was remembered.

Along came Thelenes (rhymes with “Socrates”), and his student Protas (rhymes with “Plato”) who used dialogue to explore the world Hylaea had believed her father had seen. It was the Hylaean Theoric World, or the world of the relations and forms which give our world its structure. Not long after this, the Ark of Baz (rhymes with “Christianity”) was established, predicated upon magic, superstition, and authority. People lived out the tensions between the daughters’ two interpretations.

After several centuries, Saunt (savant + saint) Cartas (sounds like Descartes, but maybe Augustine?) established the mathic disciplines. These were closed communities, within walls (intramuros) of concents which, depending on the particular order, would open their doors only once a year, or once a decade, or once a century, or once a millenium. The avout living within the walls dedicated their lives to study of science, math, logic, and philosophy, living simple and spare lives, and teaching one another chiefly through gentle and respectful dialogue. (Except when someone needed to be “planed”, or publicly humiliated through ridicule of unreasoned opinion.) They would sing songs based on harmonies of mathematic proportions, and tend giant clocks. Eventually there came to be various philosophical developments and divisions within the mathic world: the followers of Halikaarn (rhymes with “Leibniz”) split off from the followers of Protas, and the followers of Proc (rhymes with “Locke” – hey, it really does!) split off even more dramatically, and denied the existence of the Hylaean Theoric World. Tiresome bores. In dialogue they make frequent appeal to Diax’s Rake (don’t believe in something merely because it makes you feel good) and Gardan’s Steelyard (rhymes with “Occam’s razor”).

The outside world, extramuros, continued to be populated by people uninterested in such bookish things. Weird children who liked reading books would be collected, or sent off to the maths to become avout. Mostly they chattered away on their jeejaws (rhymes with “cellphones”) and treated themselves to unending videos (speelies) of celebrities, violent deaths, cats, sporting events, and hair styles. These people were the slines (derived from “baseline”), who made money and technology and attending their deities. Their rulers (called “Panjandrums” by the avout) ran the extramural world.

There were conflicts between the two cultures, and sackings and pillaging and disbanding and reunifications, but over many centuries this order maintained itself. And then the story of Anathem unfolds, in which we discover that the Hylaean Theoric World is in fact another possible world in the multiverse, one rich in informational content (so “up-wick”), and residents of some of the other down-wick possible worlds, including Earth, have found ways to travel to and threaten this Anathem world. The avout have to figure out what to do about it, and so on, and so on.

NS finds just the right balance of familiarity and strangeness, and it is difficult not to start using many of the new terms he invents. I have been spending more and more of my waking hours intramuros – meaning, in my head – and the world run by the panjandrums is becoming increasingly unfamiliar and bizarre. I think I shall continue to explore the Hylaean Thoeric World, and open my doors only every thousand years or so. You may call me Fraa Jad.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to The world of Anathem

  1. Sandi says:

    I am curious how the author depicts Earth…


  2. Huenemann says:

    He says very, very little about Earth. One of the “aliens” we first meet is “Terran”, and we are told that the being looks just a little weird around the mouth – so this tells us only a bit about how we differ phyiologically from the Arbreans (world of Anathem). Also, we cannot digest one another’s food.


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