On a planet somehow more polarized than our own, civilization has divided itself into two castes: The Saeculars--people as we know them, more or less--and the Avout--bookish misfits unwanted by lay society. The Avout are content to advance their knowledge under imposed asceticism, segregated into monastic communities centered around giant clocks, surrounded by stone walls as the outside world spins its wheels in a never-ending cycle of apocalypse and rebirth. Our narrator is witness to a monumental discovery that will go through the millennia-old status quo into upheaval. Equal parts rollicking sci-fi action comedy and philosophical treatise, Stephenson's novel uses a fantastic setting to relate a message of cooperation across political, religious, and intellectual boundaries that grows ever more relevant with each passing year. A substantial attention span is required, as the epic tale unfolds over the course of 900 pages filled with imagined vocabulary and history, but the effort is well worth it.
Since childhood, Erasmus has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery. There, he and his cohorts are sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, and unpredictable secular world, until the day that a higher power decides it is only these cloistered scholars who have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe.