Anathem by Neal Stephenson

February 23, 2009 at 12:46 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

When I first heard a new Neal Stephenson book was coming out, I wasn’t too interested. When I heard it was a space opera, I started paying more attention. I’m one of those people who enjoyed Stephenson’s work up to, but not including, the Baroque Cycle. I only made it through Quicksilver. I wrote about my complaints somewhat after the fact, but basically it boiled down to the book being about five times too long, historically untrustworthy, and thematically uninteresting (“enlightenment: yay”).

The good news is that Anathem is two times too long, in fact maybe even only one and a half times too long. Instead of being an endlessly discursive narrative, it’s a very focused narrative that just spins its wheels for a couple hundred pages in the middle. That’s a much more forgivable problem. Meanwhile, Stephenson is still writing all this for the greater glory of modernism, but in this time, it’s philosophy that’s on the menu, and the portion size is very large. I enjoyed this, but if you don’t like philosophy, this is not the book for you.

That said, the best part of the book is the marvelous world he has constructed for his philosophy lectures. Stephenson’s monastic theorists are probably his most interesting creation, and his social satire is more subtle than usual–that is to say, still not that subtle, but more effective. The plot isn’t bad, and while the ending wasn’t what it could have been, I always go into Stephenson expecting the worst when it comes to his endings so I was fine with it. The characters are, well, who reads Stephenson for his characters? The main characters are drawn from broad types and there’s some incredibly chemistry-less romance. The two reasons for reading the book are the world-building and the philosophy, and while that praise sounds a little faint, I enjoyed both a great deal.

Much of the online discussion of the book has gravitated towards Stephenson’s invented vocabulary. Yes, sometimes it’s clever and more often it’s annoying, but really while it’s going to shock any non-genre readers he’s picked up from Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, by science fiction standards it is on the high end of the scale but not off it. The real problem I had with the invented lingo, which I haven’t seen much in discussions, is the fact that in reading the book I learned a lot of philosophy, but all that knowledge is filed under invented terms instead of the ones from our world. I mean, I kind of see who the Plato analogue was, but I don’t know enough real philosophy to connect a lot of the terms and the other philosophers. I’m sure someone will create a nice chart, but I probably won’t see it before I forget everything the book taught me anyway.

All things considered, this might be Stephenson’s best work. It’s not as fun as Snow Crash and not as effective as Cryptonomicon, but it has a lot more interesting world-building and didactic content than either (don’t get me started on Snow Crash‘s faux-linguistics). Stephenson’s come a long way from the bold stylist who made a name for himself with outlandish satire, and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.


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  1. Hi, from Toronto, Canada

    Just a quick hello from as I’m new to the board. I’ve seen some interesting comments so far.

    To be honest I’m new to forums and computers in general 🙂


  2. […] the appeal here is in the detailed worldbuilding. The difference is that instead of Anathem‘s exploration of philosophy and quantum mechanics, Seveneves wants to look at the challenges humans face living in Earth orbit, now and in the […]

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