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Anathem
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562 of 600 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2008
First off, I'll let slip that I am a big Neal Stephenson fan, although I did not enjoy the Baroque Cycle. Anathem is, in some respects, "difficult" to read. Yes, there is language here that Stephenson made up, although he didn't take it to the same level that Tolkein did in his Middle Earth works. (There is an glossary of terms at the back, and entries from a dictionary are spreckled throughout the book.) And Anathem may be "slow" in that it takes approximately 200 pages to get to the core of the plot. However, I never found myself bored with the writing.

It is a difficult book to describe to others. In some ways, I felt like I was reading a novelization of "Goedel, Escher, Bach". There are some complex ideas here, some of which are expanded upon in appendices, which contain dialogues (ie in the Socratic sense of a philosophical or mathematical discussion between two people of differing views). I find such discussions intriguing, so I never found the book dry or boring, though strictly speaking, much of the material could have been removed to focus strictly on the plot. (This would, however, have weakened the reader's understanding of the plot.) Such digressions are quite characteristic of Stephenson's work (ie the discussions of language theory present in Snow Crash), and for a certain audience, it is quite enjoyable. If you have a tolerance for (or perhaps even enjoy) side-discussions of interesting material, and enjoy speculative fiction, then none of this should put you off. If you read xkcd, or liked Snow Crash, or the Foundation series by Asimov, then Anathem is likely a good bet for you. If mathematical or philosophical concepts make you cringe in fear, then you would probably not enjoy Anathem (or anything else by Neal Stephenson for that matter).

This review is based on an advance copy.
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495 of 534 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 15, 2008
Is Neal Stephenson a science fiction author? His two earliest novels, "The Big U" and "Zodiac" are contemporary satire; his masterpieces, "Cryptonomicon" and "The Baroque Trilogy" are historical romances. Take away the two Crichtonesque thrillers he collaborated on under the pseudonym "Stephen Bury," and what's left is a pair (could this be a pattern?) of books, "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age," that combine the near-future info-tech milieu of 80's cyberpunk with the irony and social consciousness of 60's sf. These two, and only two, indisputably science fiction novels came out back to back within a couple of years of each other in the early 90's.

Now, thirteen years later, we get a third: "Anathem." It is the first time Neal Stephenson returned to a genre. I think it's significant that genre is science fiction. I wanted to know, does he revive the tradition of those previous two works, or has he created something new?

Actually, he has reinvented the wheel. Shockingly, it is a bigger, better wheel. And it's about time.

"Anathem" is a work of Hard SF, meaning that everything that's weird or new in it is a rigorous extrapolation of science, mathematics and philosophy. It's the kind of book Arthur C. Clarke used to write in the 40's and 50's. He wrote about rockets and satellites because scientists were working on rockets and satellites.

Most (I would argue all) recent Hard SF, however, is about "rockets" and "satellites." Science Fiction has become an exclusively literary genre, with books inspired less by new scientific research than by previous science fiction books, and, regrettably, movies. Ideas turn into tropes, and instead of extrapolation, we get variation: of the generation star ship, the space alien, the artificial brain, the parallel universe.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Writers like Ted Chiang and Gene Wolfe write brilliant books by breathing new literary life into these old tropes. But their concerns are ultimately moral. They're not interested in New Ideas About Everything as much as in the problems and choices those ideas pose.

In the last thirty or so years, the only sub-genres of Science Fiction willing to take on new science and technology have been cyberpunk and its cousin ribofunk (addressing respectively info- and bio-tech.) But recently, both these sub-genres have been petering out because, I would argue, real-world progress in both those areas has been both too fast and too gradual: fast enough to make most writing obsolete shortly after, or even before, publication; too gradual to produce anything truly transformative for the long view (we're still waiting for AI, immersive VR, and genetically modified humans.)

(This is probably why Stephenson left the field.)

Well, now he's back with his big fat (wonderful) book, and what he's done is pretty startling, because it's been done before, but not in a very long time. Instead of borrowing tropes from existing science fiction, he started from scratch. He went to the source, to the work of physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, and even French literary theorists, and produced a nineteen-forties-style SF book of Big New Ideas About Everything.

The result feels both fantastic and oddly non-fictional, or non-literary. "Anathem" often reads more like a book by William Gladwell or Douglas Hofstadder, or Jared Diamond. But that's okay. The ideas are real and new, and developed in exciting ways. And Hard SF is supposed to be chunky. (After all, it was Arthur C. Clarke who came up with the idea of the geosynchronous satellite.)

Don't get me wrong: Neal Stephenson can write. And so "Anathem" is also a cool, funny, and exciting read. (Intriguingly, aspects of it greatly resemble Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" and "Book of the Long Sun" and Ted Chiang's "The Tower of Babel," which could be a case either of convergence or descent. But I don't care.)

And best of all, if Neal Stephenson sticks to his pattern, there's going to be a second one soon.
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251 of 269 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 10, 2008
Anathem is another in a line of unique novels from Neal Stephenson. His earlier books like Snow Crash and the Diamond Age are excellent glimpses of the concept-driven novels that he has been writing for the last ten years. One weakness of his earlier books is that he didn't end stories particularly strongly (Snow Crash being a notable exception) but he has gotten progressively better at that, particularly with the System of the World, the last of the Baroque Cycle trilogy. Starting with Cryptonoicon, he started writing "long" fiction. One typical thing about these novels is that they have a slow build while you get introduced to the characters and situations. I know several very bright people who couldn't stomach the long lead-up in Quicksilver and never got to the fantastic 2nd and 3rd novels in the series, The Confusion and System of the World. Like the beginning of a rollercoaster where you need to climb to the crest of the first hill, the first sections of his novels pay off as the rest of the story becomes compulsive reading.

No spoilers to follow: Anathem finds him back in top form with a new cast of characters, a new world, and a new language. Not surprisingly, this means that the first chapters of the book are challenging and somewhat difficult, but as another review stated, nowhere near as convoluted and involved as The Lord of the Rings or (in my opinion), Dune. The more you know about history and ancient Greek thought the more you will be blown away by Anathem; and that is before the correlations to more recent philosophy and an extended meditation on zero-gravity navigation. A re-imagining of intellectual history, only Neal Stephenson can make the fine points of esoteric philosophical and intellectual minutia so much fun to read.

For me, one of the high points of the Baroque Cycle was how he made European history, the history of science, alchemy, and the history of banking and commerce so unbelievably enjoyable to read about. Anathem moves into more speculative areas by showing how the differnet ways in which we frame our thoughts have real and powerful impact on the world at large, even if it takes a long time for those speculative thoughts to produce concrete effects. I get the feeling that his novels are the product of his own intellectual curiousity about history, science, mathmatics, and now philosophy. Thankfully, he has a knack for packaging these ruminations into adventurous exciting novels and I'm incredibly happy that he's kept it up for this long. Highly recommended.
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68 of 76 people found the following review helpful
Anathem represents my second encounter with the genius of Neal Stephenson (third, if you count my aborted read of Quicksilver), and I can honestly say that while the reading experience does not get any easier, there is the same sense of satisfaction waiting at the end. More dense, less accessible, and somehow not as interesting as Cryptonomicon, it's a book that almost violently defies categorization.

I find it a really difficult book to review. The university-educated, critical reading, spectacle-wearing intellectual who lies deep within me wants to award it five stars for its sheer audacity, limitless depths of esoteric concepts, and laudable efforts to make math interesting. It really is a book to be admired as much for what it sets out to accomplish as for the skill behind it. However, the tired, overworked, long-haired geek in search of entertainment who resides a bit closer to my surface is struggling to award it any more than two stars for the brief, fitful glimpses of story hidden between the concepts. There's a really exciting novella buried here, but it would take an entire concent another millennium to unearth it.

More than anything else, I guess my problem is its all just so boring. Plot developments are so few and far between, it feels like the story never moves ahead. There's a lot of talking, a lot of thinking, a lot of writing, and a lot of calculating going on that, quite honestly, I would have been content to have seen left off the page. Yes, it's interesting and, yes, I can honestly say I learned a few things, but they were hard lessons. By the times the aliens actually appear, I'd honestly forgotten that there were aliens in the book, and by the time we get to the revelations about Fraa Erasmas . . . well, I'd stopped caring.

It took me nearly a year of on again/off again reading to get through it, and it was more a sense of obligation that kept dragging me back than any real desire to get back into the story. The book never really grabbed my attention, and simply didn't offer my any incentive to keep reading. I feel bad, because there's a nagging voice in the back of my head that keeps telling me I should appreciate it more, but appreciation is not the same as enjoyment, and therein lies the rub.
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99 of 117 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2009
Unlike many of the other reviewers of Anathem, this was my first crack at a Neal Stephenson novel. I was looking for a intellectual challenge, wrapped in a stimulating, well-written novel. Sadly, I got too much challenge and too little well written novel. Regarding this novel, a few things are abundantly clear:

1. Neal Stephenson is a heckuva of a smart guy--eons--(as he would say "cosmi" or "polycosmi") more so than me;

2. This book was a "labor of love" to read; unfortunately, more "labor" than "love;"

3. It is clear that Mr. Stephenson's focus in writing this novel was on the concepts he presents, and unfortunately, plot and character development merely serve as a vehicle for presentation of such ideas. (The quote from the NY Times Book Review on the book jacket states that the author cares as much about telling good stories as he does presenting cool ideas. I couldn't disagree more!)

I enjoyed the first 200 pages or so, even though it required constant reference to the timeline in the front of the book and the glossary in the rear. I thought the introductions of Apert and the concurrent presentation of the secular and theorical worlds was fascinating. At that point, there was little plot, but in a 900 page novel, one expects these things to be drawn out.

I LOVED the next 400 pages or so. (I was certain this was going to be a 5 Star Review). It was largely plot driven, and while there was plenty of philosophy, geometry, science etc., I felt that it served the story, and I was able to wrap my apparently limited mind around it.

Then the book simply wore me down. I HATED the last 300 pages--I doubt I would have finished it, had it not been for my rule that "what I start, I finish." The writing grew more obtuse than the parts that preceded it (or maybe I just collapsed under the cumulating heft of all those weighty ideas). Given my stupor, I lost the will to go back and find and then re-read and re-read again earlier lengthy digressions (which just didn't seem to generate an adequate payoff. The plot slowed down (or maybe I just didn't get it) and I lost interest. At that point, I was just grinding, crawling to the finish.

All this having been said, I nonetheless give the author his props! He is clearly a clever fellow, but this book is way too much uninteresting manual labor for way too little payoff. I blame the failings of this book on the lack of a good editor--or any editor, for that matter. At 500 pages, this would have been book of the year. At 900, it's an overindulgent swing and a miss.
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58 of 69 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 13, 2008
Stephenson's is a fascinating mind. He latches on to so many differing ideas and swirls them into a world both familiar and unique. In Anathem we are introduced to a world drenched in history from the viewpoint of a scholar class that is set apart from the popular culture.

The hallmark of Stephenson's writing is an effortless ability to explain and illuminate the big questions. Anathem tackles the biggest of questions and to elucidate further risks draining the reader's motivation to tackle a 1,000 page story. Suffice it to say that the journey is entirely worthwhile.

The author invites his readers to examine their beliefs--not only what they think they believe but to engage in the dialogue familiar to the students of philosophy. Stephenson is adept at weaving exposition into the narrative without seeming overly preachy; although, as he did in the Baroque cycle, his disdain for shoddy thinking is always present: witness the many references to BS, which echo Dr. Frankfurt's illuminating work.

Frankly, I don't quite know how a Stephenson novice would approach Anathem. Like anything artfully and skillfully complex, Anathem requires one to reach for the "upsight," it requires one to think--and I don't believe that I could pay this work a higher compliment than that. In a world that is increasingly defined by torrents of BS, Mr. Stephenson invites us to rejoin the great thinkers of the past and to try and make some sense of the situation in which we find ourselves.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2009
I don't often write reviews but because this book reminded me strongly of another that I've loved for many years, I thought I would chime in.

One of my favourite books is "A Canticle For Leibowitz" by Walter Miller. Its premise that our own civilization will not be the last of its kind, that others will know some of what we know and build similar worlds on the wreckage of our own is not new in SF but the book's presentation of this "future history" through the eyes of monastic observers was a lot of fun to read and an interesting premise. Except... it was a bit sad. We moved through ages of change and while the monastery survived these ages, our protagonists came and went, sometimes rather horribly. We readers knew the answers to the mysteries that teased them since we were confidentes of the omniscient narrator. And threaded through the story was the notion that we learn nothing from history except that we learn nothing from history; it certainly felt true for Miller's story but some truths make us sigh with regret.

Neal Stephenson has written the book that I always rather wished Walter Miller had written - a future history of civilization through the eyes of a (sort of) monastic witness written as a first hand account. And one that certainly would take exception to the idea that history does not teach us anything! Altogether, this was a more hopeful, humorous and intriguing presentation of the idea that empires come and go, even when they have our modern technical "advantages".

I found this book very nearly instantly riveting. I always give Stephenson's books more latitude to establish their premise, make their worlds and characters sensible and real for me; he's a slow, careful builder of plot and scene. I've always felt that the investment of time was worthwhile. This book is no exception; after a few chapters of extra focus over language and cultural referents, I found myself completely taken in and looking forward every evening to joining Fraa Erasmus' world again.

I liked everything about this book. The writing is, as always, brilliant and clear. The characters are interesting, funny, charming and I liked the protagonist, Fraa Erasmus, or Raz, very much. He's one of those wonderful characters who is much more special and interesting than they themselves think. I found the life that his order lives to be frankly appealing and very well drawn. We spend enough time in their world for it to start making a great deal of internal sense.

There's a thread of scorn for the modern clutter of electronics and its incidental glorification of ignorance that runs through the whole book, ostensibly presented as the point of view of our ascetic hero but it's easy to imagine that the author too has lost patience with our own doodad ridden culture. At any rate, he skewers it beautifully throughout the novel. His portrayal of IT experts as pariahs and low caste members of Raz' culture made me laugh out loud. (Am I the only one who thinks "ITA" pointedly echoes "ETA", the untouchables of old Japan?)

I found myself wishing that we had retreats for rationality like Fraa Erasmus' order in our own world and wondering if a disasterous collapse or a dark age is the only way to get them. If you like any of Stephenson's other books, you'll probably like "Anathem" as well. I had a great time reading it. I highly recommend it.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2008
It's interesting looking through the wide range of reviews already here for this book. It appears some readers want to be "spoon fed" and can't accept why, for instance, Stephenson would say "jeejah" instead of PDA or mobile phone. Partly because the concept is not properly captured by either term and partly because there is an explanation coming in a couple of hundred pages as to _why_ things on Arbre are _like_ Earth but not the same. It's important to the plot that we have an ongoing sense that this is "like" Earth but not "identical" to Earth. If the reader isn't able to mentally substitute "mobile communication/computing device" for "jeejah" after the first few occurrences then they shouldn't be reading speculative fiction.

Like Stephenson's previous work, Anathem expects the reader to bring an open, attentive mind to the process. This is not a novel to be lightly dipped into and read like some throwaway pulp adventure. It contains some quite detailed discourse on areas of philosophy and cosmology (amongst many other things). It is driven more by ideas than by people or situations.

Anathem is highly recommended for the reader who wants to have their mind exercised by what they're reading. It is definitely not recommended for readers who wish to simply sit back and be entertained - they should go see a mindless action film or equivalent.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 12, 2009
Let me just say right off the bat that "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson is not for everyone. It starts slow. It takes forever to read as you try to remember what each of his new words means and which fraa and suur is which. Stephenson started the pace of his book slow on purpose; he is able to capture the slow and deliberate days passed in a monastic setting (for an example of this in film, the only one in recent times that comes to mind is Kevin Costner's slow pace at the start of "Open Range"). All of a sudden, 200 pages in or so, comes the tipping point when the reader is at the edge of his seat and has come to take interest in the plights of the characters. Stephenson has a message for modern society in "Anathem" but at the same time he has lovingly created a fascinating world and a host of fun and intriguing characters. There have been few novels that have haunted me and sent me to the world of the text the way "Anathem" has. By the time I was done, I did not want the story to end and was saddened when I had finished it. There are parts of the book that will drive you crazy, forcing you to take notes or reread past passages. Despite this, this remains one of the best speculative fiction novels, and yes one of the best recently released novels, I have read in a long time. It's not for everyone but if you can survive the first part of the book, you will be rewarded with a spectacular, well crafted and intelligent novel.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2010
This isn't your typical review; if you want to know what I think of this excellent book, scroll down to the last paragraph. Instead, I wanted to share my first impressions of the book and how I ended up getting sucked into it:

Neal Stephenson's other works hook the reader from the very first chapter. I defy anyone to read the first part of Snow Crash and not compulsively turn the pages. Anathem isn't like that, though: It's a speculative fiction novel, as he says in the "Note to Readers". All the words and terminology for everyday things that the characters use are confusing, at first. I started reading the first chapter, and felt like I was (a) missing a bunch of the plot because of all the weird words, and (b) that I'd been plopped into the middle of a story, rather than at the beginning.

But I plowed onward, just reading it without worrying too much about things I didn't understand. By the time I'd gotten about halfway through the second chapter, things started to click. I then went to the glossary (should've done this first!) and read it, even though I didn't know all the terminology yet.

That did the trick. From that point on, the story really resonated with me. And then I went back and re-read the first chapter, to pick up on all the stuff I'd missed before. After that, the remainder of the book was a real page-turner. I couldn't wait to get home from work each night so I could read more, and was sad that it ended.

One more thing: There are a few appendices in the back, named "calcas" (basically, they're side discussions with deeper dives into some of the problems the characters encounter). Don't skip these, because they're entertaining (I thought so anyway), and one of them (the third one) introduces some important plot points. You'll see them footnoted in the text, so go read them when indicated, and then go back to the main text.

If you've decided to jump in and read this book, go for it...but don't give up after the first few pages! It isn't light reading by any means, so don't be discouraged if you don't "get it" right away. Things do get really interesting, and if you follow my suggestions above, it'll be even more so.

I have to give a quick shout to my Kindle, which I read Anathem on: It was extremely helpful to use the 'search' feature to go back in the text and find a word where it had first been used. Looking things up in the glossary was one thing, but seeing it used in context was another. Plus, there were quite a few things (people's names, especially) that weren't in the glossary. The Kindle really improved my reading experience for this particular book.

And finally, about the book itself: You'll notice that I gave it five stars. This book stands alongside Stephenson's best works, in my opinion. Some people didn't like the Baroque Cycle, I know, so this is really a return to the page-turning thrill ride, a la Cryptonomicon, etc. Anathem isn't a casual read, and there's lots of dialog that you should really pay attention to and read slowly. And in true Stephenson style, Anathem is a fun mishmash of all sorts of fun stuff - science, math, astronomy, philosophy, religion, space aliens, quantum theory, the past, the present, the future, and fully-developed characters that you actually care about, whose Middle Ages-esque existence is interrupted by technological thunderbolts, which they've studied extensively but have never encountered face to face (until now). If you like any or all of the above, get this book. Now.
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