Reviews: Anathem

Anti-good science fiction, worth reading (probably)

This book displays all the worst things of sci-fi, it's a doorstopper, full of unnecessary strange words (there's a 20 page glossary) and superfluous Capital Letters. But it's strange, good science fiction asks us to suspend disbelief about some science advance and shows us something about human character. The conceit in Anathem is about human character and it shows us something cool about hard-core science philosophy.

I never managed to suspend disbelief. The conceit is, all scientists locked themselves out of society for several millenia in fear of what they'd done and in the pursuit of pure science. They live in tiny groups and only disseminate information between each other every 10, 100 and _1000_ years. Meanwhile society rises and falls several times outside, building skyscrapers and tanks but never once discovering science again. Yet despite only sharing the best data every 1000 years and having no practical experience, when stuff happens the world will once again rely on them to solve their problems. Every now and then an intelligent person doesn't join the maths-monks and the book tells us they're terribly out of place. Oh poor him he's intelligent but unfortunately religious. It's an intelligent mechanic! but mechanics are can't express intelligence! In a world with internet, advanced computers etc people use fuel-burning stoves because they're scared to use something they won't understand.

But this book isn't about the people in the end, it's like an ancient philosophical treaty and whilst slow, it really is tense and exciting to watch conclusion pile upon conclusion.

It doesn't even get humans wrong a religious person (everyone finds the religious annoying) even held my reviews. It just isn't about people.

Despite religion being a huge theme it never really offended me though, it just missed the point a bit. In the end a conclusion is drawn 'the more he knew of the complexity of the mind and the cosmos...the more inclined he was to see it as a kind of miracle.. more extraordinary than any of the miracles catalogued down the ages by the religions of the world' But what bigger miracle is there, when right at the start God tells us that creation is ordered? That when we looked there'd be more to this world than chaos

At the end the science loses it's way a litte. But if you can face it, it's a fascinating read.

Fascinating if you're willing to take it on.

Anathem is an extremely ambitious book, but it is engrossing all the way through. The major premise is an earth-like world in which philosopher-scientist-monks segregate themselves from the rest of society in 'maths', opening their gates only every one, ten, hundred, or thousand years. A series of events, seen from the perspective of the endearing, honest, and occasionally sarcastic Fraa Erasmas, is gradually revealed to be larger and larger in scale. The result is world-altering.

The plot is overall pretty gripping; definitely not predictable. The sheer amount of new vocabulary introduced in the book can be confusing (especially with multiple names for similar things, or different names for the same thing at different points in the book), but the glossary helps to some extent.

You don't have to be intellectual or well-educated to read this book, but you do have to be curious; otherwise the various tangents will probably bore you. If you're willing to suspend your disbelief during expository dialogue, you can better appreciate the very intriguing concepts grappled with in the story.

Stephenson's satire is present throughout the novel, and is occasionally sharp-edged, especially towards religion. He doesn't condemn faith in the end, but it's certainly not treated gently.

Anathem completely held my attention, despite its length of well over 900 pages. The world is intriguing and detailed, the characters are compelling, the adventures are exciting, and characteristically, Stephenson's plot verges on mind-boggling. Overall, it works, and does so spectacularly.

My first Stephenson work

And I'm already completely in love with him. Anathem is definitely a Readers Are Geniuses kind of work, they make some attempt to explain what's going on, but you'd best be up to snuff on fields like particle physics, relativistic and quantum mechanics, the philosophy of knowledge itself, and the origins of consciousnesses if you want to be fully up to speed.

My only major beef with Anathem is that Stephenson abuses giving ordinary things new names to distraction: you will get frustrated for the first several hundred pages, asking yourself why he needs a new word for absolutely everything, from cellphones to lettuce. And when I say "several hundred pages", bear in mind that represents only a fraction of the book: Anathem is a long one, although unlike some hefty tomes out there (*cough* Lord Of The Rings *cough*), I couldn't pin down any particular part of the book that could've been cut without adversely affecting the story, so I guess it's okay. One might argue that Stephenson's long-winded descriptions about how things like clock towers work in his universe aren't strictly necessary, but that's much of the fun.

The entry for Anathem gives a pretty good overview of the plot, so I'll be brief here: it takes place in a world where very smart people isolate themselves in Medieval-university-like "maths", and make every attempt to be cut off from the outside world, which they politely but firmly regard as inferior (the outside world doesn't think much of them either). Of course, Something Big happens to start driving the plot along, in the form of lights in the sky and an apparent conspiracy to discredit the protagonist's mentor. I'll stop here.

Anathem is a page-turning read, no doubt about it. Stephenson finds just the right ratio of plot-to-scientific-rambling that neither makes the book too tedious nor leaves you totally in the dark. You'll emerge from Anathem more exhilarated then when you went on, and knowing a lot more about metaphysics to boot. Heartily recommended. This was my first Stephenson work, but it won't be my last.