Imagine a world where society harvests its most intelligent children and sends them to live in monasteries where they spend their lives in contemplation of mathematics, physics, genetics, propaganda and quantum theory instead of prayer. Now imagine that they can’t use any technology more advanced than a sextant. (They use chalk boards in the classrooms!) By the way, their monastery, called a concent, is an enormous clock the size of a city designed to keep time for ten thousand years. The clock also controls a system of gates separating the Avout (as the monks are called) from the outside world. One gate only opens once a year, another every ten years, another every hundred, and still another opens only once in a thousand years. When these gates open, Avout get ten days to interact with regular citizens. It’s also their opportunity to move into a deeper level of the concent.
This is life for Fra Erasmus, a young Decinarian who’s biggest concern is whether to stay with his fellow tenners or walk the labyrinth and join the hundreders, but everything changes when the Inquisition shuts down the observatory at the top of the concent, the government conscripts Avout to work on a top-secret project, and Erasmus suspects his mentor of smuggling contraband technology.
Think of Anathem as the novel Tolkien might have written if he studied philosophy and physics instead of historical linguistics. Inspired by his design work for the Clock of the Long Now, Stephenson created an entire world, complete with a three-thousand year history, where the intellectual elite are forbidden from using anything but the most primitive machines, yet they harness the power of thought to create advanced technologies from genetically modified trees that grow paper, to manufactured “newmatter” with unique atomic structures, and there are legends that some Avout can actually change reality just by thinking hard. Pick up Anathem if you enjoy philosophical arguments, science-fiction grounded in current theoretical physics, and a sprawling adventure yarn.