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Dec 2010
Anathem - Neal Stephenson - Atlantic Books, 2009
* * * *
Science is, of course, a wonderful thing, but its effects on the way we live are not universally seen as beneficial. Its predominantly questioning mode, derived from Karl Popper's criteria of falsifiability and testability, can be applied to challenge the assumptions of any established worldview, and the result is constant change and uncertainty. All scientists are, to a greater or lesser extent, revolutionaries. As are the engineers and entrepeneurs who turn scientific knowledge into technology.

But a lot of people - the overwhelming majority in this country, if the recent referendum on electoral reform is anything to go by - don't like change. They have found a comfortable mode of living and don't want things to alter. Nor are those who hold power - captains of industry and finance, politicians, the media, religious and military leaders - particularly fond of ideas or innovations that could challenge their hegemony. Given the strength of these forces of conservatism (for want of a better term), it is surprising that so much scientific, technological and social innovation has been permitted over the past two hundred years. Could this be an anomaly? What if societies were to revert to a "natural" state where those with a talent for science or philosophy are corralled and restricted in their activities, as they were in the middle ages? What might such a society be like, and what would happen when those talents are suddenly required again? This is the basis of Anathem, and the results are entertainingly idiosyncratic. However there are some clumsinesses in the background and characterisation that make this not quite as great a novel as it could be.
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