Brittany's Reviews > Anathem

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
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Dec 19, 08

really liked it
bookshelves: sciencefiction
Read in September, 2008

Anathem is an astonishing, enormous, intimidating, and intensely enjoyable book. However, it is also the most "science fiction-y" of any book he's written so far, and that may turn some people off. Also, I'm given to understand that some people would prefer not to have to think about polar coordinates, geometric proofs, bubble universes, string theory, or relativity in their pleasure reading. That is, of course, their prerogative. Also, it's long. And at times there are scenes that go on for pages and pages where people mostly just brainstorm and talk. Some some people may disagree (perhaps even violently) with this review. However, if you DO like these things, and if you also enjoy a romping adventure tale and some good philosophical musings on the nature of consciousness, the universe, and the organization of society, then, my friend, this is a book for you.

A few weeks before the book came out, Stephenson talked about his involvement with the Clock of the Long Now. Anyone who's been interested in the project for the last couple of years knows that this is an effort to make a clock that will last centuries. And its ultimate goal is to get people to think in terms of long timelines, instead of letting our horizons become very short. Stephenson took the idea of that clock, made it many clocks, and then built a civilization around them, in the grand old tradition of science fiction writers taking new technology and then asking "What if?" And, being who and what he is, he does it with a staggering depth of detail, imagination, research, and humor. His characters are as well-developed as we have come to expect (all except one female, Cord, that I thought was startlingly cardboard for a Stephenson heroine.) This book is a testament to Stephenson's flexibility as an author. Erasmus, the main character is quiet, naive, and charmingly rational. Quite the opposite of a Nan or an S.T.

In the grand tradition of world-building epics, this is a book that makes much more sense if one reads the chronology and glossary provided before one tackles the first chapter. And then, admittedly, almost nothing happens for about 200 pages. However, once things get going, they go with a bang. The first third of the book bore an unexpected (and I'm sure unintended) similarity with the Harry Potter books. It takes place in a "mathic" community, which is a world roped off from the rest of us. The protagonists are young (in their late teens and early twenties) and completely free to do all the thinking and studying they desire. This gives them ample opportunity for the investigation of some odd happenings in their lives. And, because this is a Stephenson novel, this leads (naturally) to alien spaceships, parallel universes, time travel, codes, enigmas, adventures, technology that refuses to work properly, and people in disguise. It's wonderful. It's so wonderful that the 890-hardback pages weren't enough. Afterward, my brain felt stretched and aerated, my eyes were tired from all the reading, my arms hurt from trying to hold this heavy book up, and I wished it wasn't over.

I said some of you might not agree with me. It may not be his best work. But I sure loved it. And now I'm having trouble not applying Occam's Razor to everything that comes up in my life. And also a little sorry I don't live with the mathics, where you can expect everyone to make sober judgments based on data ("givens") rather than impressions. And here we are in the middle of an election year. Wouldn't it be nice if nobody made a decision unless they evaluated the evidence personally?

That would, of course, mean that no one could pass judgment on a book until they'd read the whole thing.
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Quotes Brittany Liked

Neal Stephenson
“Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor.”
Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Neal Stephenson
“That's funny because if anyone actually did prove the existence of God we'd just tell him 'nice proof, Fraa Bly' and start believing in God.”
Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Neal Stephenson
“They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right.”
Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Neal Stephenson
“The full cosmos consists of the physical stuff and consciousness. Take away consciousness and it's only dust; add consciousness and you get things, ideas, and time.”
Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Neal Stephenson
“I always tend to assume there's an infinite amount of money out there."
There might as well be, "Arsibalt said, "but most of it gets spent on pornography, sugar water and bombs. There is only so much that can be scraped together for particle accelerators.”
Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Neal Stephenson
“Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”
Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Neal Stephenson
“The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day's end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.”
Neal Stephenson, Anathem
tags: story


Reading Progress

02/20 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Sarah (last edited Feb 25, 2009 02:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sarah I don't want to quibble, but Stephenson started as a science fiction writer. Check out Snow Crash and Diamond Age...the novels that put Stephenson on the radar. I'm delighted to feel some of that "science fiction-y" stuff in his latest novel. Even Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle contain their own connections to computers, analytic machines and code breaking, all foundations for science fiction work.


Andrew Lutz Good review. Upon reading all of these reviews, your final sentence seems amusingly apt.


message 3: by Brittany (last edited Feb 25, 2009 02:08AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brittany Sarah wrote: "I don't want to quibble, but Stephenson started as a science fiction writer. Check out Snow Crash and Diamond Age...the novels that put Stephenson on the radar. I'm delighted to feel some of that "..."

Hi Sarah,

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply that he hadn't written science fiction before. I *loved* Diamond Age and Snow Crash. But to me, those were more cyberpunk (which is of course a form of science fiction) rather than what I would call traditional "hard" science fiction. To me, this book is his first major gambit into the grand old school where you start out with a "What if?" question and follow the thread through the story.


Brittany Kinglutzo wrote: "Good review. Upon reading all of these reviews, your final sentence seems amusingly apt."

Thanks! That's why I put it in there. :)


Kiri Occam's Razor? Surely you mean the Steelyard. I'm also becoming very fond of Diax's Rake. I'm in the middle of the book, so I'll wait to post a review until I finish, but so far I'm thoroughly enjoying myself (and the philosophy!).


Steve.  g In the middle of Anathem and enjoyed your review very much. Thankyou. Also what a fine collection of quotes! OBrian and Stephenson are favorites of mine and its lovely to see those passages out! The Terry pratchett one I have not seen before and will steal, if thats ok with you!


Brittany Stephen wrote: "In the middle of Anathem and enjoyed your review very much. Thankyou. Also what a fine collection of quotes! OBrian and Stephenson are favorites of mine and its lovely to see those passages out! Th..."

Hi Stephen. Glad you enjoyed the review and are enjoying the book! And feel free to steal -- that's what the quotes are there for!


Steve.  g Great, thanks. I have added a favorite Evelyn Waugh passage to my quotes as I'm sure I've read somewhere that its better to exchange than to theive.


Bloodshy perfect review


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