There are a number of technical problems to writing sci-fi and fantasy. Chief among them is the tremendous amount of work required to set up a culturaThere are a number of technical problems to writing sci-fi and fantasy. Chief among them is the tremendous amount of work required to set up a cultural matrix: a language, a history, an iconography, etc. that makes the world fully realized and engaging. In this new 900-page doorstop, Stephenson tries to solve this problem with approximately 200 pages of exposition, setting up the mindset of a post-apocalyptic monastery where you have religious scholarship without the religion (mostly). So you have to wade through a lot (and I mean a lot) of invented slang and jargon--mostly revolving around philosophical and metaphysical conceits--as well as 4,000 odd years of this history (which still seemed somewhat murky and half-finished at the end of the book). After it was over, I still never really quite got what the Elkhadarian school of philosophical thought really was.
Let it be said that I love Stephenson. Zodiac and The Big U were entertaining little novella playets, and (while obnoxious in places) Snow Crash was a great post-consumerist action thriller. The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon are fantastic techie epics (who else would think to pit Confucianism against Victorianism in the battlefield of nanotechnology?), and (while clearly in need of some pruning and wildly anachronistic) the Baroque Trilogy is awesome.
But Stephenson has always had problems with plot. One of his tricks is to walk us through incredibly complicated quantum possibilities, indicate the most spectacularly threatening one, and then have it occur, almost off-stage, as if the verbal rehearsal actually was the thing itself. Action by conversational fiat. (Now that I think about it, Greg Bear, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and even Robert Heinlein did this. Maybe it’s a sci-fi thing. Still, it feels like cheating.) Anathem has this in spades, only with a lot more talking. Granted, I really enjoyed the characters, and once the plot really got rolling (around page 400 or so), I was totally hooked. Plus, I feel like I understand quantum mechanics a lot more--though I’m sure my confidence is unwarranted--and I am suffused with that trademark Stephenson glow that comes from signing onto a very cogent, earnest, and unsentimental analysis of the way society should work. (Stephenson does great, sometimes even brilliant, macro analysis.)
However, the action is mostly in stasis for a good two-thirds of the book, and it takes a very hardcore geek to make it through the Many World theorems that stand in the place of much of the plotting. So I think the audience for this book will be very small (possibly composed solely of physics majors?), which is a shame, as he’s still a great writer. He may need an equally great editor, though....more
A lot of excellent ideas, and impressive number of threads, although the plot payoff seemed a little thin. Stross has a ferocious technical imaginatioA lot of excellent ideas, and impressive number of threads, although the plot payoff seemed a little thin. Stross has a ferocious technical imagination and intelligence, but his narratives are very dependent on a conversational voice, which has its limitations. The futuristic world is sometimes not very richly described, as narrative that is pretty much speech recounting events make that difficult. Also noticed that--in this book in particular--the narrators tended to be especially caustic and jaded, and thus closer to the squirmy uncomfortableness of horror that the unsuccessfully-wry cynicism of noir....more