Imagine, if you will, a mad scientist's genetic amalgamation of Socrates, William Gibson and Tolstoy. Then imagine this creature was sent to live in a secluded convent of monks for fifty years. Then, imagine he is dropped into the middle of a major metropolitan city with a typewriter. Try to come up with a idea of what he would write. About to blow a gasket in your head?
It seems the muses decided that genetic manipulation and gregorian monasteries were a tad on the short side, so rather than going through the whole complicated process imagined above, they just told Neal Stephenson about the Millennium clock, to more or less the same result.
That result is titled Anathem, and is Stephenson's latest work. Its hard to really put the novel in words. As with so many of his works, there are multiple layers – first is the plot, second is the concept, and third is the ideas. The plot follows a young man who has grown up his entire life in a mathematical/philosophic convent, in a world which is being shaken up by fantastic and unprecedented events. To say any more really just ruins it. The next layer, the concept, is a world where the long term is taken seriously. The people and organizations think on a a scale of thousands of years rather than their own lifetimes. This world is split into the 'Mathic' world of thinkers (the aforementioned academic monks) and the 'Saecular' world (all casino's, rising and falling empires, chemical dependancies and pogroms). Thirdly, is the idea, which is, as I go it, socratic and plutonic philosophy applied on a societal level.
Sounds dense? Well I wont lie to you, it is. But the entire thing is dipped in the dark chocolate of Stephenson's wit and skillful wordsmithing. The man turns dry philosophic discussions between characters into fascinating dialog and makes what would otherwise be slow and plodding approach a break neck race, so much so that by the end of the 850 some pages, your still grasping for more.