“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


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.