Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM considered as science fantasy is situated somewhere between LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILION. Most fantasies, whatever their magical system, function with the laws of classical physics (and mathematics) for the non-magical parts of their world’s laws. Tolkien’s dragons may breathe fire and have magical power, but in their flying they obey classical aerodynamics, as do the Eagles. Stephenson has realised the “fantasy” potential in modern post-classical physics and philosophy of mathematics, and has harnessed that to create a world whose underpinnings are stranger-than-fantasy.

However, ANATHEM is much  more than a science fiction  or science fantasy novel, it is perhaps the most accomplshed example of what non-philosopher François Laruelle has advocated under the name of “philo-fiction”. Philosophically speaking, ANATHEM, like Laruelle’s own NON STANDARD PHILOSOPHY, is to be situated somewhere between Badiou’s LOGICS OF WORLDS and Deleuze and Guattari’s A THOUSAND PLATEAUS.

All four embody ways to implement the project of immanentising Plato. For Badiou mathematics is a scale model of achieving happiness outside neoliberal narcissism, hedonism, and relativism. By his own admission he is making a metaphorical, or qualitative, use of the matheme, as Laruelle does of the quantum.

In ANATHEM the world of Platonic ideas is given a science fiction treatment, immanentised (as in Badiou and Deleuze), but also pluralised. ANATHEM provides us with a vista not only of multiple empirical causal worlds, but also of multiple noetic Platonic worlds. It comes closest to those who advocate “loosening up” or pluralising Badiou by giving category theory primacy over set theory, although it follows also the path of the quantum described by Laruelle.


  1. I have been surprised that there is so little written on the philosophy in Anathem – the more “technical” reviews I can find have been by mathematicians or physicists. The idea of a MWI quantum physicalist platonism struck me as hilariously good, and I did wonder if he was riffing off someone modern other than Penrose and Deutsch and Tegmark etc eg the argument about what we could share with a bat is everything in the Platonic Realm. Another feature is that the standard SFnal transcendence here simultaneously old-school platonic and vanVogtian. Finally, I can see why you might characterize it as Science Fantasy, but so much of the pleasure is how well he fits in (speculative) physics and cosmology – for example, how time-travel by rocket is allowed in the Godelian rotating universe


  2. I am trying to see ANATHEM in terms of a more general tendency that includes philosophy, physics, and (some) science fiction. Given that our global paradigm of thought is no longer monism (Platonism) how can we avoid falling into the multiplication of meaningless language games (relativism)? The multiplication of worlds at the object-level mirrors the multiplication of formalisms and of language games at the meta-level. How can we accomodate both the plasticity of the real, which allows for multiple interpretations and ways of life, with its resistance, that selects out only a few possibilities as valid and viable? In the novel, the disputes between syntactics and semantics, between theors and rhetors, and also between Protans and Procians, reflect this dilemma.

    The collapse of the wave packet is both a physical phenomenon and an allegory in physical terms of this more general problem. I have tried to take a step back from the physical speculations that you cite, and that Stephenson himself has indicated are the source of the cosmology in the book. Many critics think that fundamental physics and cosmology have become too speculative, almost abandoning any empirical confrontation with experiment. I think this is a mistaken criticism, as very often in science the speculation comes first.

    I agree with you that it was a stroke of genius to make the Platonic world of ideas into one of a plurality of worlds. The idea is all at once strange, brilliant, and hilarious. Yet there is a second idea associated with this, namely that there is not just one Platonic world, but many, each with their own asssociated sub-worlds and sub-sub-worlds, and so on. This second idea, that of Complex Protism, is developped in the third Calca, at the end of the book. The line is replaced by a network, and the mode of existence of abstract ideas is given a quasi-materialist basis.

    I did not use “science fantasy” to mean that the cognitive scaffolding was less scientific than in classical science fiction. I wanted to indicate the world-making ambition of the book, and its resemblance to the genre of Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN and its sequels. The “fantasy” element is the impressive world-building, including different but parallel history, and different languages. The story not only does not take place on Earth, but not even in our cosmos.

    So if we are climbing a Hylaeatic ladder, I would put the science of multiple worlds first, then their philosophical sublimation, then their literary (science fictional) deployment. The pluralist-but-not-relativist allegory resonates back and forth between these three levels.

    Thank you for your comments, and I hope this response makes some sense.


  3. I take your points. My thoughts were along the lines of the aesthetic. In The Book of the New Sun, the cosmology is as fully formed as Stephenson’s, but engages both the fantastic mode and the SFnal way of reading, and I seem to recall Wolfe himself using the term science fantasy for it with approval. Indeed, Wolfe likes to sometimes subvert the SF reading by providing deliberately “wrong” pseudo-scientific explanations – though I suspect there is usually a correct deeper solution that I can’t see. But while Stephenson is up front and didactic in Anathem, Wolfe is far more allusive and elusive.

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