(Listened to on CD while commuting.)
Somewhere in a parallel universe is a world similar to Earth called Arbre. Many thousands of years ago on Arbre, the “Terrible Events” (nuclear war, etc.) prompted a backlash against the those perceived as being responsible for such destruction. Scientists and scholars were segregated into “concents” cut off from the rest of society and only allowed out to mingle once every year, decade, century, or millenium, depending on the Order. The concents are kind of like monasteries, but exist for scientific rather than religious purposes. The “Avout” (members of concents) use virtually no technology (part of the deal after the Terrible Events) so their theoretical work can’t easily endanger the world again. (This scenario kind of reminds you of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” in a way, no?) The story of Anathem is about a young Avout named Erasmus.
Erasmus’s mentor, the astronomer Orolo, discovers a strange object in the sky. After a loooong time, we (the readers) finally figure out it’s an alien ship. After a much loooonger time, we figure out that they’re not really aliens; they are people from parallel universes (one of which is our own, although that is kind of a tangential, amusing point in the story). There’s fear and confusion between the Arbreans and the Geometers (the “aliens”) that almost leads to mutual destruction. But Erasmus and company save the day. Oh and there’s a millenarian named Jadd who can travel between parallel universes somehow. Kind of cool because he can choose how the future unfolds in a particular “narrative” by (ultimately) picking which random quantum states come about. Yeah, a little hard to grasp. Lots of discussion in this book on what it means to have parallel universes, and what it means to have them interact.
I did like the book. I really liked the early part, when Erasmus was traveling around the world following after Orolo and nobody knew quite what the “aliens” were all about yet…lots of adventure and mystery. The ending was good but not great; I guess I kind of feel that the whole Jadd-altering-parallel-universe-narratives thing was kind of a cop-out ending.
One big, big plot hole that I thought was unforgivable: How in the world did Orolo get to Eckba???