It all comes down, in Neal Stephenson’s fertile imagination, to whether the number three was a prime number before any human noticed that fact about it, and will thus continue to be a prime after we’re dust and ashes. Or whether we made it up, so to speak—primes being cultural constructs very useful to humans (especially now, for data encryption and security purposes). In that case, three will cease being prime (or anything else, for that matter) once we are no longer around to care. If that the sort of question that interests you—and it is a fairly basic issue in formulating your view of the true nature of what Douglas Adams called Life, the Universe and Everything—then Stephenson has a novel for you. A large novel, as is his wont: the 960-page Anathem (HarperCollins).
Philosophical discussion as something pivotal to plotline is, putting it mildly, astonishing; even so, it isn’t the whole of Anathem. There’s wordplay way beyond the title—which does nicely pack together the idea of a rousing tribal tune with the curses of tribal anathemas. There’s a space-opera mystery, aliens, kung-fu fighting and even romance, not to mention the revenge of the prime-believers over the cultural relativists. It’s all engrossing, witty, and very readable. Well, most of it. As the author himself, a self-deprecating guy and diehard Tolkien fan, puts it: “I’m told it’s pretty gripping once you get past page 100.” Like getting past Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party? “Exactly.”