Science in Fiction: Neal Stephenson and Mathematics


If you’ve ever picked up a Neal Stephenson book (remember, lift with your legs, not your back), you’re most likely in one of two categories—either you really like most of his stuff, or you tried and just couldn’t get into it. I’m here to recommend the book that got me out of the second category and into the first.

Anathem is a funny name, which will make you think of “anthem” or “anathema” or both, depending on your usual vocabulary choices. It’s meant to evoke both, but I won’t talk about why because that would be a spoiler. Unlike some of my other reviews, I’ll try to avoid specifics here because reading the book is just so darn fun that I want you to go in without too much information.

In the story, mathematicians live in (mostly non-religious) monastic communities, set apart from the rest of the population—very appropriate in some senses, especially if you know anything about grad school. In this sequestered setting, the geekiness of the avout (in-world term for math monks) bursts forth in full, joyful flower, with every conversation subject to derailing into the benefits of different coordinate systems or the existence of Platonic forms.

If that sounds awful, this may not end up being the book for you, but Stephenson is widely regarded as a master of the enjoyable mid-book lecture (or infodump, if that’s what the kids are still calling it), and here he delivers some of his most entertaining and lighthearted examples of the technique. A lot of the more in-depth discussion gets routed into optional appendices anyway, so you can skip it if you must, though you’ll be missing out!

I won’t pretend that this book will teach you a ton about math, though the appendices are engaging and educational. What it mainly does is make mathematics—not arithmetic, but full-on, nerdy mathematics—look fun, approachable, and awesomely important. The protagonist and most of his friends have been raised from childhood in the math convent (or concent—part of the fun of the setting is all the slightly-changed words and recognizable mathematical/scientific figures), so it’s second nature to them to approach every conversation as an invitation to debate. They’re hilariously blunt and merciless in pruning away nonsense to get to the logical core of every statement, and it’s a joy to read, especially when they have to deal with “normal” people.

Not only are mathematicians shown as a quirky and tight-knit community, they’re regarded as having power that makes the political authorities very nervous (rightly so, going by the vague hints about the past!) and has led to them being forbidden to access the outside world or its technology. When those walls, literal and figurative, start breaking down, the mathematicians turn out to be every bit as dangerous and powerful as the stories say. Without going into much detail, both martial arts and the multiverse are involved—yes, some math monks are those monks—and it’s a fast-paced, wide-ranging adventure with action, humor, big ideas, indistinguishable-from-magic mathematical shenanigans, and even twu wuv.

I highly recommend Anathem for these and a lot of other reasons, but I think the one that most fits the spirit of my great-science-in-fiction definition is the way it depicts the mathematical life as something that anyone can do. A lot of stories about scientists or mathematicians as we know them sort of imply that these people got where they are by being really smart and naturally gifted in ways that are unattainable for everyone else. In the world of Anathem, it’s totally different—a good percentage of the monks were dropped off at the math monastery as babies, no entrance exam required. Sure, the main characters all do brilliant things, but it’s not because they’re inherently brilliant. Stephenson shows you the process behind it, the relentless questioning and failure and revision. Thinking mathematically and logically is a lifestyle, the product of hard work and practice rather than the province of an elite few who have a mystical talent that surpasses the rest of us mortals. With the right philosophical tools, any of us can do the same.

Also, it’s just fun. Go read it. I’m making myself want to reread it right now just writing about it, and I already have too much of a reading backlog, so you need to do it for me. Thanks.


2 thoughts on “Science in Fiction: Neal Stephenson and Mathematics

    • Of course! I actually tried the Baroque Cycle before Anathem, but I never got out of Boston. 😛 Once I’d read Anathem and gotten used to his style, I blazed through. The Baroque Cycle would be a fantastic choice for the Science in Fiction category to show that science isn’t just for sci-fi, but I have to decide how soon I want to double up on authors. It’s at least going to get credit for inspiring some future posts on the history of science!


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