Novel Review: Anathem

“When do we get to the good part?” he demanded.
“What do you have in mind, Arsibalt? Like in a spec-fic speely, where something amazingly cool-to-look-at happens?”
“That would help,” he allowed. (862)

By now, you may just have found time to make it through Neal Stephenson’s heavy autumn offering, Anathem. In one volume, he manage to match the ambitiousness of The Baroque Cycle— but are the results for the reader worth its considerable weight?

Title: Anathem

Author: Neal Stephenson
ISBN-10: 0061474096
ISBN-13: 978-0061474095
First Published: September 2008

Available from Amazon.com
and
Amazon.ca

Premise:

On a world that’s not quite earth, society divides itself among the saeculars, whose societies rise, fall, and frequently get lost in their entertainment options and jeejahs, and the avout, who remain cloistered most of their lives to engage scholarly pursuits.

Young Fraa Erasmus lives in such a Math, and finds his life disrupted when a mysterious craft appears in orbit around Arbre.

Much as been made of Stephenson’s invented language. Most of his words, like most of his invented history, have obviously been derived from existing sources. I didn’t find these too much of a problem, though not all were really necessary to our understanding of his invented society.

High Point

Erasmus’s journey into the world features a strong sense of Stephenson’s alternate reality, as it carries the story to places where the various speculations and inventions have real significance. Along the way, we experience some of the basic entertainment value found in many of Stephenson’s older novels—and I find it neither superficial nor infantile to suggest a novel should be, you know, entertaining, beyond the fascination many will find with his sociological and philosophical speculations. In particular, Erasmus’s encounter with muggers becomes, at turns, suspenseful and humorous. Consider our hero’s reaction when a thug accuses the earnest disciple of science of spell-casting (477).

The strong concluding chapters leaves some aspects unexplained—and those aspects strike me as fodder for an entire novel, though it would not be wholly original. I cannot explain further without spoiling the conclusion, but it involves multiple alternate timelines/universes.

Low Point

Speculative novels at times cannot avoid heavy exposition and philosophical dialogues, and Anathem features monastic academics who live in a world of heavy exposition and philosophical dialogues. Even given these facts, the novel features a few too many. I’m impressed with Stephenson’s invented history of critical thinking; I’m just not certain he needed to share all of it with us. The book shines when we see the implications of this planetary backstory. A few more appendices could have handled some of the specific background, if he felt it were necessary.

Other verbose, erudite polymaths invest that nature in their books without disrupting the novel’s flow.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. I’m not the first and won’t be the last reviewer to note the similarities between Anathem and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and, to a lesser degree, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz.

Imagery: 5/6. I know how this world functions. I have less a sense than in past Stephenson works how it looks. He makes amends in the final chapters, though by then, we’re somewhere else.

Story: 5/6. Once a story finally emerges, Anathem gives us much to consider. Many will be tempted to abandon the book; it’s not a page-turner. Of course, some would argue the book’s premise makes it critic-proof; its defenders can accuse those who find portions of the 900+ page story tedious of being insufficiently erudite, or too easily distracted.

What has contemporary culture and its jeejahs done to our attention span?

Characterization: 4/6. Stephenson fills his book with complex ideas, but few truly memorable characters.

Emotional Response: 5/6. See the comments under “story.” It may be worth noting that—-some fine satiric points aside—-Stephenson isn’t as funny as before. Of course, he’s also written a different sort of novel. It will appeal very much to some of his fans, but those who felt abandoned by The Baroque Cycle, I suspect, won’t be any happier with Anathem.

Editing: 4/6. As with so much in Stephenson, ranking the editing presents a puzzle. This book would benefit from editing of the content. The beginning drags on with too much explicit, slow-moving world-building in its start, and too many expository and philosophical dialogues in the middle. However, Stephenson’s prose style, slightly flabby in his early works, has been pared and improved.

Overall score: 5/6. This book deserves points for the level of world-building. Stephenson not only develops a society, but its complex history—and reinvents the history of critical thinking.

In total, Anathem receives 31/42.

6 replies on “Novel Review: Anathem”

  1. Fez says:

    Pretty Good
    I found this book very enjoyable, and although the ending was a little odd at first glance, but Fraa Jad mentioned that a person’s consciousness could track the narrative in which the person was still alive. We saw a glimpse of some possible outcomes that would have ended with the death of Erasmas, and for some reason he retained memories of those outcomes — at least that is implied by his statement that the book was, in fact, his journal of the events.

    It’s made me wonder if something were to kill me today, would I even know it? Would my consciousness have ‘skipped over’ to a narrative in which the events that led to that outcome never happened? It’s a very interesting take on the parallel universe idea, which has intrigued me since even before Sliders was on the air.

    I haven’t yet read any material online about what others believe transpired, but perhaps I should one of these days…

    I thought the pacing at the beginning was a tad slow, but I thought it was fitting. Life was slow, normal, etc there. As the plot built up, the pacing increased. After a while, it did become a page-turner, but it did take a while to get there.

    I know lots of people say that his work could use the heavy hand of an editor, and to some extent I agree, but there was a lot of very complex subject matter that if it was just glanced over, would have confused people even more. To me, that’s part of the charm of his novels. You aren’t always just led along the plot by the ear, like some books have made me feel.

    I have read most of Stephenson’s works, and I have liked them all, but some more than others. I plan to revisit Anathem later for additional readings, as I’ve done periodically with Cryptonomicon and others. Reading it again after a year or two I always find something new that I missed.

    I’m currently rereading the Baroque cycle, taking breaks now and then to read other books (Like Anathem, and Soon I Will Be Invincible). I just started Confusion again, but who knows how long that will take to finish. :-)

  2. octa says:

    Better than his other stuff
    I’m halfway through it right now and trying very hard not click on yours and Fez’s spoiler tags(so far so good!).

    I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m at the part where Erasmus is sneaking over the North Pole border. It definitely drug on at times but there was a fantastic mystery overlaying the whole thing that kept me reading. It reminded me of "Spin" in that sense.

    Stephenson books are pretty light on the romance and this, so far, hasn’t been much different. What is in there is terribly written and I wish he just wouldn’t bother with it.

    Anywho. It took me a year to finish Cryptonomicon while I constantly got bored and put it down. It looks like it’ll be 3 weeks to finish Anathem if that’s any indication of how interesting it has been.

    • Timeshredder says:

      Re: Better than his other stuff

      Anywho. It took me a year to finish Cryptonomicon while I constantly got bored and put it down. It looks like it’ll be 3 weeks to finish Anathem if that’s any indication of how interesting it has been.

      Interesting. I flew like Superman’s pooch through Crypto, but I took my time finishing this one.

      No– don’t hit those spoiler tags ’til you’re done. : )

    • Fez says:

      Re: Better than his other stuff

      Stephenson books are pretty light on the romance and this, so far, hasn’t been much different. What is in there is terribly written and I wish he just wouldn’t bother with it.

      I have to agree on this one. Almost any time a "love scene" (and I use the term loosely) appears in one of his books I instinctively cringe. :-)

      Anathem turns out better in this category, though, since it handles relationships in a much different context than we are used to here on Earth. Any awkwardness can be blamed on their different ideals about relationships and liaisons, but I don’t recall any adverse reactions to the subject this time.

      • Timeshredder says:

        Re: Better than his other stuff

        Anathem turns out better in this category, though, since it handles relationships in a much different context than we are used to here on Earth. Any awkwardness can be blamed on their different ideals about relationships and liaisons, but I don’t recall any adverse reactions to the subject this time.

        He even avoids the one sex scene by having Raz choose not to go into details. Raz isn’t the sort who would. Given Stephenson’s track record, I consider this a wise choice.

      • octa says:

        Re: Better than his other stuff
        It helps the other relationships are conveyed really well. The dialogue with the sister especially just oozes with authenticity. The circle of friends is also good reading, they each have a very distinct personality that is immediately recognizable. My one crticism is they tend to fall into neat stereotypical cliches, but that can be forgiven if they drive the plot :)

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