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National Anathem

In Anathem, author Neal Stephenson, who’ll share his new book with the public tonight, presents a cadre of teenage monks on the fictional but notably Earth-like planet of Arbe who live outside the rush and bustle of normal society -- and their essential separateness allows them to filter out what’s inessential and superficial from what’s vital and important. Stephenson believes such a group might come in handy today. “I think anyone who opens their eyes and looks around at things like our presidential campaign can see that we’ve got a serious problem right now with taking the kind of short-term and sometimes thoughtless view of what’s going on,” he says.

As this comment suggests, the fantasy aspects of Anathem aren’t really all that fantastic, since the parallels between the imaginary world and the place where we all live remain so close to the narrative’s surface. But there are plenty of unique aspects to the story as well. Stephenson has invented a glossary’s worth of new terms unique to Arbe, freely inserting them into intricate discourses that he renders accessible thanks to his generous use of slang and humor. Example: One extended passage deals with an attempt to prove or disprove the existence of pink dragons that fart nerve gas.

“It’s certainly the case that a book full of philosophical dialogues could come off as being awfully heavy,” he acknowledges. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. In my experience dealing with mathematicians and physicists and people who deal with heavy, serious topics for a living, I find that there’s a lot of warmth and a lot of humor. It’s not forbidding all the time. These people enjoy what they do. They take a lot of joy in it. They enjoy imparting that to other people. They’re human beings. And I wanted to reflect that here and have them come off as real people, and not as icy, emotionless freaks.”

Stephenson speaks at the Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street, tonight at 7:30 p.m. Free tickets are available starting at 6:30 p.m., with a limit of one ticket per person in line -- and the author will sign a previous book for each copy of Anathem purchased at the store. For more details, call 303-436-1070 or visit -- and read an extended Q&A with Stephenson at
Tue., Sept. 30, 2008


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