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Anathem Mass Market Paperback – August 25, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 788 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this follow-up to his historical Baroque Cycle trilogy, which fictionalized the early-18th century scientific revolution, Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) conjures a far-future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and mathematicians—a religious order unto themselves—have been cloistered behind concent (convent) walls. Their role is to nurture all knowledge while safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational saecular outside world. Among the monastic scholars is 19-year-old Raz, collected into the concent at age eight and now a decenarian, or tenner (someone allowed contact with the world beyond the stronghold walls only once a decade). But millennia-old rules are cataclysmically shattered when extraterrestrial catastrophe looms, and Raz and his teenage companions—engaging in intense intellectual debate one moment, wrestling like rambunctious adolescents the next—are summoned to save the world. Stephenson's expansive storytelling echoes Walter Miller's classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, the space operas of Larry Niven and the cultural meditations Douglas Hofstadter—a heady mix of antecedents that makes for long stretches of dazzling entertainment occasionally interrupted by pages of numbing colloquy. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Stephenson has never been an easy writer to pin down, and he has a reputation for not always wearing his erudition lightly. Particularly in his later books—and that now includes Anathem—readers are vetted at the door before being invited into the author’s labyrinthine worlds. The early books were held up alongside the work of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and other cyberpunk gods, though in the last decade Stephenson has carved a niche as one of the most ambitious writers working today in any genre. Anathem is intellectually rigorous and exceedingly complex, even to the point, as the Washington Post avows, of being “grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull.” Others complained of too much abstraction. Stephenson’s fans are legion, however, and many will add Anathem to their list of must-read doorstops.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 1008 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; Reissue edition (August 25, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006147410X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061474101
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 1.5 x 6.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (788 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #45,576 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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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.
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