Anathem and Atmosphaera incognita by Neal Stephenson
Anathem was first published to near universal acclaim in 2008, and went on to win the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the year. Viewed once again from a decade’s perspective, it’s not hard to understand why. Even by Stephenson’s exacting standards, it remains one of the most rigorous examples of creative world-building the SF field has seen in a good many years The novel takes place primarily on the planet known Arbre, whose social structure and governing rules were established millennia before by a process called The Reconstitution. The protagonist and narrator is Fraa Erasmus, who is a member of the Avout, intellectuals who live in a cloistered setting, and are severely restricted both in the use of technology and the ability to communicate with the outside—or Saecular—world. When Fraa Erasmus’s mentor, Fraa Orolo, discovers—through the use of proscribed technology—that an alien spaceship is currently orbiting Arbre, everything changes. First, Fraa Orolo is banished—in a rite known as Anathem—for violating technological restrictions. Later, as the alien threat becomes more imminent, Erasmus and others of the Avout set out after Fraa Orolo, searching for answers. This journey forms the heart of the novel, and it takes them from the wastelands of Arbre through assorted hazards to an encounter with the mysteries of quantum physics, in which multiple parallel realities co-exist. It will lead, in the end, to a second Reconstitution which will permanently alter the nature of life on Arbre. Challenging, expansive, and always thoroughly absorbing, Anathem shows us a novelist at the very top of his game. At once visionary and viscerally exciting, it offers the kind of complex pleasures that only science fiction—and only Neal Stephenson—can provide. For more than two decades, Neal Stephenson has been the reigning master of the epic fictional narrative. His vast, intellectually rigorous books have ranged in setting from the distant past (The Baroque Cycle) to the modern era (Reamde) to the remote future (Anathem, Seveneves). But when Stephenson turns his attention to shorter forms, the results can be every bit as impressive, as this dazzling novella—itself a kind of tightly compressed epic—clearly indicates. Atmosphæra Incognita is a beautifully detailed, high-tech rendering of a tale as old as the Biblical Tower of Babel. It is an account, scrupulously imagined, of the years-long construction of a twenty-kilometer-high tower that will bring the human enterprise, in all its complexity, to the threshold of outer space. It is a story of persistence, of visionary imaginings, of the ceaseless technological innovation needed to bring these imaginings to life. At the same time, it shows us our familiar planet from an entirely new perspective, and offers vivid snapshots of the unique beauties and unexpected hazards of the “atmosphæra incognita” that lies between this world and “the deep ocean of the cosmos.” The result is pure pleasure, pure excitement, pure Neal Stephenson. No one with an interest in Stephenson’s work, or in science fiction at its most thoughtful and ambitious, can afford to miss this latest edition to an extraordinary body of work.