Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
If you're a nerd who delights in detailed speculation about technical subjects, philosophical questions, and the intersection between the two, and has a somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, chances are that Neal Stephenson is already high on your list of favorite novelists. If you don't fit this type, you might find that his doorstop-sized works leave you bored silly, feeling like you're watching an interminable lecture by an overly-caffeinated TED Talker.
Obviously, I belong to the former camp, so read accordingly.
Anathem definitely isn’t a reboot to Stephenson’s glib Snow Crash style (for which I’m thankful), but it is, after the Baroque Cycle, a welcome return to writing a self-contained novel with a manageable cast of characters. He imagines a planet called Arbe, home to an ancient, monkish order called the Avout. In the manner of classical Greek philosophers, the Avout have developed and maintained their “Mathic World’s” knowledge of mathematics, science, and philosophy, and have lived apart (or been segregated for mutual safety, depending on the point of view) from the rest of society and most technology, even as outside civilizations have risen, violently collapsed, and risen again over thousands of years. Naturally, there are many factions and suborders, with their own ideologies, rituals, and politics. It’s like the old “school of wizards who live outside the Muggle world” trope, but much nerdier.
Anathem is narrated from the perspective of a young, socially naive Avout named Erasmus, living in an era that’s roughly similar to present-day Earth terms of technology and social order. Erasmus has just spent the past decade of his life walled off from “the saecular” world, but briefly renewed contact with it reveals strange goings-on on Arbe, which set in motion a plot that I won’t give away, except to say that it takes a number of turns over the course of the novel, evolving from mystery to science fiction to adventure to a parallel-universe story that enlists some pretty mind-bending meta-quantum-physical ideas.
The first hundred pages or so of the novel are somewhat confusing, and readers might feel overwhelmed by all the invented names and terminology. But, if you’re patient and pay attention, it’ll all make sense. Fortunately, the story, once it comes to the fore, is interesting, and I grew to like the characters, particularly the brilliant, maddeningly roundabout teacher figure, Orolo; the martial-arts-obsessed oddball, Lio; the lovably irritating kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, Barb; and the humorously at-arms-length narration style of Erasmus himself. For me, watching different minds and philosophies play off each other through dialogue and cleverly-constructed scenes was the joy at the heart of the book, far more than “what happens”. Stephenson does a fine job of getting difficult concepts to make sense. I also enjoyed the intricately constructed action sequences, though these are fewer.
Criticisms? Mainly just the usual one for Stephenson -- i.e. that the geeking out takes precedence over everything else. If you're not onboard for all the idea construction and digressions, the plot doesn't offer any innovations or emotional experiences that haven't been done better in other science fiction novels. Also, I found the world-building a little skewed. We learn a lot about the Avout, but the rest of the cultural/political/geographical reality of Arbe remains vague until needed for the plot in some way -- e.g. "now I will explain the religion of Arbe (which is pretty interesting), so we can ponder that for a chapter before moving on".
Still, I think Anathem will stand as one of Neal Stephenson’s most ingenious novels, if you can embrace the challenge of reading it. It’s got the wit and intellect of Cryptonomicon combined with the humility to perceive the author’s own small place in a vast chain of human thought (even an imagined one). It also proves that he can do appealing characters, too. As both a thinker and a writer, he’s come a long way from the brash, callow cyberpunk who wrote Snow Crash.
On the audiobook experience, this is one of those rare books where I appreciated having both the audio and print editions. The character voices add some personality that doesn’t come across in the text and made the invented terminology less jarring to my brain, but the print edition provides a helpful glossary and is useful for parts that require several reads to make sense. Plus, the chants were a nice touch.
I was concerned by the incredible amount of details and threads in this book - but paying close attention was well worth it! This is not a book to listen to while daydreaming. Highly recommended for anyone who has an even passing interest in math!
I was completely hooked by this book. The lives of monastic academics and their curious place in the broader culture of their world was fully realized and fascinating, as was the overall story line. The gotcha that I'm sure is turning some people off are the lengthy philosophical discussions, ala Socrates, that occasionally seem to bring the plot to a crawl. But if you stick with these, you will find that the subjects of these discussions tend to weave back in to enforce and explain the story line. So, yes, challenging but overall brilliant.
This is a formidable piece of fiction, to say the least. Much has been said about the made-up vocabulary, but you soon catch on. I'll let Audible's blurb tell you what the book is about.
What you must ask yourself before jumping into this book is whether you want to be challenged; first because unless you have, at the very least, a passing grasp of philosophy, mathematics & quantum physics, understanding many of the references and following dialogues between characters (a big part of this book) will be challenging.
Then ask yourself if you're a patient reader, willing to wade through the author's self indulgent intellectual wanderings.
If both answers are yes, then you'll probably enjoy this clever & intricately written book. But I don't think it's a book people will revisit. Just like climbing a mountain for a great view, it's unlikely you'll want to expend the effort a second time.
Stephenson sees into the future with a depth and insight that is matched by very few if any speculative fiction authors. Anathem is long, confusing, challenging, even tedious at times but it is also funny, satisfying, thought provoking, paradigm shifting and just great story telling. I couldn't stop listening and much credit is due to the terrific narration of Oliver Wyman, who handles the language and vocabulary of Stephenson's densely realized world with ease and humor. A great listen and if your mind and outlook is not changed by this story...read it again.
While I have enjoyed Stephenson's other books, some of the other reviews left me with doubts. After reading this book I conclude it's a true masterpiece. The book mixes philosophy and physics in a compelling way. The development of the language (commented on by other reviewers) rapidly grows on you, and in the end is critical in establishing the reality of the world he portrays (despite being a bit punny at times). While the book isn't fast paced, it contains a layering of mysteries which are resolved at just the right pace, giving the story a real sense of depth and breadth. If you are after a fast-paced action novel, look elsewhere, but if you find slightly deeper books that bring philosophy mathematics and physics into play, you will enjoy this book. As a footnote, the narration is excellent, and a real pleasure to listen to.
This is the first book in a long time which fully involved me. Wound up taking the dog for extra long walks just to listen to it.
Complex, deliberate and demanding, this world-building tale is not for everyone. It really makes you work to understand the language - somewhat in the fashion of Dune or A Clockwork Orange.
In places it verges on satirical with depictions of popular culture, religion and caste systems. This is spec-fiction at it's most intense and detailed. Just don't look for swashbuckling adventure, it's not that type of epic.
Seriously, you might not like this book. You might not "get it". But, if you do, you will realize that this is a remarkable story, filled with mind-expanding themes, cutting edge science, and much, much more. It is completely original science fiction...unconventional...not part of any series...unlike anything. Very worthy of it's author. What's more, it's intelligent...literate...and it stays with you for a very long time after you're done. I highly, highly recommend it! It's well performed, too. But, you know...if you want space opera (and sometimes I do, too)...this ain't that. At all....
In many ways Stephenson's writing seems to have gotten even better since the days of Snow Crash and Diamond Age (not to say it wasn't good then). The characters in Anathem are more three dimensional and the dialog more natural. Also, although the book bleeds erudition and is filled with abstraction, it doesn't have that annoying characteristic often found in sci-fi in which breakneck action is clumsily broken by digressions into "ideas" that the author is "playing with."
Stephenson does make extensive use of made-up words. The made-up terms represent real ideas, most (or all) of which we are familiar with, but you can't call a Platonic ideal a by that name on a different world that has no connection to Earth, can you? The novel deals with math, logic, science, and philosophy of science, and many important ideas have to be renamed for the story to work. Don't worry though, it is usually quite clear from the fictional name what Earth word is equivalent. For example:
Consent = convent or monestary
Cnois = gnosis or knowledge
Syntax = binary device or computer
Again, don't worry about the terminology and history at the beginning. Listen to the first 4 hours and you will realize that most new words are obvious from their root or synonyms, and proper names don't really matter. It's a large book and takes time to get going, but it's wonderful and one of Stephenson's best works (and one of the best books I've read on Audible in the last year or two.
I've been a fan of sci-fi for thirty years now, I've read hundreds of books and listened to hundreds more here on audible. The vast majority of these books I find entertaining and enjoyable but from time to time I come across a book that feels like more than entertainment, its a book with a message, a work of real literature. In this short list are books such as The Hyperion Cantos, Armor, The Ender series, and a handful of others.
Anathem is now added to that list. I will admit, I usually like more action in my books than Anathem provides but it creates a world so rich in detail that I was three quarters through the book before I realized that no one had died...yet. Just because this book takes its time getting to the violence doesn't mean it doesn't have any.
"So you like it, I get that, but what kind of book is this?"
This is a hard question to answer and I don't want to spoil anything because much of this books strength lies in mystery and discovery. I can't really compare it to any other books because its not really like any other books, not even other books by this author except in his use of humor.
The best I can do is this: Imagine a world with nearly seven thousand years of technological history but one that has remained as at more or less current levels due to a series of wars, natural disasters and politics. In this world are a society of scientest-philospher-monks living inside sealed monastery like compounds. They have virtually no contact with the outside world and have been denied the tools of modern science by a larger world that is afraid of what they could create given their dedication to knowledge. Anathem is written from the point of view of one of these people, an eighteen year old apprentice working under the tutelage of an astronomer/theoretical physicist.
As a last note I will say that this is one of the best read audiobooks I have ever listened to and the brief musical clips at the begining of each chapter fit the story perfectly.