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REVIEW: Anathem by Neal Stephenson


Big, sprawling, complex, satisfying; these are all words you could use to describe Neal Stephenson’s latest opus, Anathem. At over 900 pages long, including appendices and glossary, Anathem follows in the mold of the books in the Baroque Cycle, yet manages to tell a complete story. It’s sprawling not just in the distances the protagonists physically cover, but also in the intellectual and philosophical distances they cover. Complex because of the ideas being covered and the fact that we, as readers, have to learn with the protagonists and aren’t spoon fed the answers. Anathem is also ultimately satisfying, with a ‘proper’ ending, unlike Cryptonomicon, that also manages to leave a few mysterious unanswered.

All in all, a very enjoyable read, especially if you like Stephenson.

I won’t try to summarize the plot. Doing so risks exposing even the little surprises that are key to the story. Instead, I’ll give the back drop for the society. The citizens of Arbre are separated into two differing ‘societies’. Those who choose to pursue science and math live in cloisters, called Maths, apart from everyone else, the saeculars. These Maths are divided according to the period of time they open their gates to the outside world: every 1, 10, 100 , or 1000 years. At that time, the Avouts and the Saeculars can mingle for a few days, with people leaving or joining, before the gates close. Aside from this odd setup, the world of Arbre is really little different from a present day Earth, however it is a bit further advanced. From here, the story slowly unfolds as we learn more, bit by bit.

It’s this worldbuilding that is one of the stars of Anathem. Stephenson has created a living, breathing, complex world for his characters to inhabit. We discover that the current society has risen and fallen at least three times before the ‘present’ and the acts that occurred during the ‘Sacks’ of the Maths will have consequences in the story. Stephenson also constructs Arbre to be eerily similar to Earth, but with differences. The chief among them being the words in everyday use. Unlike Gene Wolfe who uses unusual or archaic words to create his atmosphere, Stephenson has created a large lexicon of words his characters use. So many that there is an extensive glossary in the back to help.

Unfortunately, even though this tack creates a believable world, it slows the reader day, particularly in the beginning, as many trips to the back of the book are needed before the new words become familiar. Of course, even later on there will be new or rarely used words that necessitate a look in the book, slowing you down again and breaking up the pace of the story.

Arbre is also constructed along the lines of Earth in terms of its ‘scientific’ philosophy. Careful reading, and trip to the back, will allow you to discern which scientific idea or theory the Avouts are talking about using their unique language. You’ll see ideas such as General Relativity, Occam’s Razor and others couched in the vernacular or Arbre. Some of the fun is in deciphering these. Add in a couple of really interesting, and one enigmatic, character, and you have a nice skeleton to hang the story on.

The other star here has to be on the intellectual end. Fans of Stephenon’s infamous infodumps can rejoice. Anathem is full of them, even moving two to the appendicies, and they are all not only interesting, but germane to the mystery to some degree. That means you’ll need to pay attention when they characters go off on a several page tangent that doesn’t seem relevant. I assure, they are relevant. Stephenson also does a great job with starting out slow and then expanding the characters, and our, understanding to encompass large, more complex ideas and theories about not only scientific philosophy, but also about the Universe as a whole. A masterful, maddening job, for even though these infodumps are germane, they also tend to break the story up, slowing it down.

Which leads me to my biggest issue with Anathem, the pacing. The story starts out very slow, almost a ‘slice of life’ about the Maths. It’s not till page 112 or so that the plot rears its head. From there, events being moving, slowly, as the characters are cast about and then set into motion. For 3/4 of the book, the pacing swaps between slow, ‘what does it mean’ and the occasional action sequence to liven things up. Then, and you’ll know when this happens, the story takes an incredible (and awesome! (read those infodumps)) science fictional turn (yes, it was SF before, but not to this extent) and then runs pell mel to the end. Now, maybe because I read Anathem during the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, but I wanted the front sections to be a faster, however interesting they were. Of course, I could have been distracted by the lack of power for 4 days (sorry Tim!).

Ultimately, despite the pacing and ‘flip to the back’ issues, I found Anathem to be an enjoyable and intellectually satisfying read. It’s not as frenetically inventive as Snowcrash or as finely hones as Cryptonomicon, but I think Anathem can fight it out with the other two as Stephenson’s best work.

Note: If it seems I’m being rather vague or tight-lipped about the story or the characters, that’s because this is a book whose enjoyment is derived immensely from the discovery during reading. I usually try not to let out any spoilers in my reviews, even more so here, as even little hints could spoil things for you. I’d rather that not happen.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

4 Comments on REVIEW: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

  1. I’ve had a hard time working my way through the first 150 pages and then stopped for reasons not related to the book. A complete re-read is scheduled for March.

    Last October I met Neal Stephenson during his German promo tour for “The System of the World” and he acknowledged the toughness of those first pages. He said: “It will get better after that!”. Matches with your experience, JP.

  2. Agree that it’s slow going early.


    I thought it paid off in the end, though i would quibble with a few things he did.  But the SF aspect are really cool…

  3. I’m reading it now and loving the story, but I agree that the first part was unusually slow. I’d recommend Cryptonomicon ahead of it.

  4. At the beginning of the book I felt like I was spending more time in the glossary then reading the actual story.  However, the difficulty lied more in remebering what the words refered to, not in understanding the ideas themselves.  Once I got familier enough with the vocabulary my progress spead back up again.  Defiately worth the effort!

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