“Our opponent is a [very powerful entity],” I said. “We have a protractor.”
Since it’s some 200 pages before you find out exactly what the opponent is, I won’t spoil it by quoting the line in full, but it’s a funny line, as is the follow-up.
The book opens in what amounts to a monastery (concent, rather than convent – one of many lovely word-plays in this book) that keeps mathematicians and physicists isolated from the secular world, rather than religious folk.
The concents have a shaky relationship with the outside world, something hinted at in the timeline at the start, which unerringly follows great new discoveries with sackings of the concents and massacres of the avouts (equivalent to monk). The avouts still have permission to use these discoveries, and there’s a hint that the oldest of them have gone even further with their research into that old saying about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic…or multi-verse theory, anyway.
Erasmas is a young avout, and we are introduced to the concent, its layout, functions and politics, through his observer eyes. In between all this description (and there’s a lot of it, and it’s hypocritical of me to say I didn’t mind it given how much I dislike info-dumps normally, but I am justified by how interesting and different the world being described is – make no mistake, this is not a alternate history of Earth), the plotline slowly peeks out: Erasmas’s teacher Orolo is up to something, and is thrown out of the concent in quick order.
His devoted students, Erasmas among them, in turn seek the same heresy that got him thrown out…meanwhile avouts are being summoned out into the secular world where they are normally, except at set times, excluded. This is a sure sign that something world-shaking is going on out there. When Erasmas’s turn finally comes, he breaks orders to seek Orolo, and the story rolls on from there.
Don’t be put off by the thickness of Anathem; it’s, as is typical with Stephenson, both a cerebral tour de force and an adventure novel, especially in the second half.
If you choose to pay attention to the long socratic dialogues, you will end up with a recapitulation of the history of scientific philosophic thought. You can, however, skim through these discussions and still easily follow the core adventure yarn as our cerebral heroes work out how to take on their enemy with a protractor.
Stephenson is not an easy read; Anathem is dense and wordy, but it’s rewarding and memorable.