A sprawling disquisition on “the higher harmonics of the sloshing” and other “polycosmic theories” that occupy the residents of a distant-future world much like our own.
Stephenson (The System of the World, 2004, etc.), an old hand at dystopian visions, offers a world that will be familiar, and welcome, to readers of A Canticle for Leibowitz and Dune—and, for that matter, The Glass Bead Game. The narrator, a youngish acolyte, lives in a monastery-like fortress inhabited by intellectuals in retreat from a gross outer world littered by box stores, developments and discarded military hardware. Saunt Edhar is a place devoted not just to learning, but also to singing, specifically of the “anathem,” a portmanteau of anthem and anathema. Polyphony can afford only so much solace against the vulgar world beyond the walls. It’s a barbaric place that, to all appearances, is post-postapocalyptic, if not still dumbed-down and reeling from the great period of global warming that followed “the Terrible Events” of a thousand-odd years past. Our hero is set to an epic task, but it’s no Tolkienesque battle against orcs and sorcerers; more of the battling is done with words than with swords or their moral equivalents. The hero’s quest affords Stephenson the opportunity to engage in some pleasing wordplay à la Riddley Walker, with talk of “late Praxic Age commercial bulshytt” and “Artificial Inanity systems still active in the Rampant Orphan Botnet Ecologies,” and the like, and to level barrel on barrel of scattershot against our own time: “In some families, it’s not entirely clear how people are related”; “Quasi-literate Saeculars went to stores and bought prefabricated letters, machine-printed on heavy stock with nice pictures, and sent them to each other as emotional gestures”; and much more.
Light on adventure, but a logophilic treat for those who like their alternate worlds big, parodic and ironic.