Apatt's Reviews > Anathem

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
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May 16, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: sci-fi
Read from May 20 to June 05, 2012

I have been reading this book for 17 days, when you have lived with a single book this long there is inevitably separation pain, now that I have finished it I feel like I just woke up from a long weird dream. I had a lot of trepidation about reading this book, the reviews and comments from fellow sf readers (hello PrintSF dudes!) are generally positive but I gathered from them that this is a long hard one (ooh-er!) which is bit intimidating given my very average intelligence. Still, I am intrigued by what I have heard about it and so I consumed a copious amount of fish and cracked the book open...

The book is not easy to synopsize, though I am tempted to just write "Monks vs Aliens!" which will probably cause the numerous fans of the book to do the online equivalent of lobbing rotten tomatoes at me, in any case it would be a gross oversimplification and covers only a small part of the book. The story is set in a world where academics live monk-like in monasteries apart from the beer guzzling, pizza eating, TV watching, rest of the world. They devote their lives contemplating profound issues, philosophy, intellectual pursuits, and obscure disciplines. One “concent” (monastery) even specialize in kung-fu (sort of). When a spaceship is detected by one of the avouts (monk-like academics) everything change.

With Anathem Neal Stephenson has created “Abere” a world so rich in details it makes Middle-Earth look like two bedroom apartment. There is a lot of history which is gradually revealed to the reader and an almost overwhelming number of neologisms. I think the key to “getting” this book lies more with having enough patience to stick with it until you are eventually submerged in the world of the book. I definitely needed some help with the many strange new terms the author coined, but such help is easily found online (especially at the Anathem Wiki website). In any case after settling into the book there was no real need to look anything up, the book is not hard to follow once you are acclimatized to it.

Beside the online resources the book’s accessibility is helped by the normalcy the main characters, especially the narrator / protagonist. The “avouts” are not weird bastards, their behavior and motivation are generally understandable (aside from one or two hyper weird enigmatic figures).

A lot of people (including myself) have a “50 pages rule” whereby we will allow the book up to 50 pages to engage us or fling it across the room if at page 51 we are still not interested. With this book I’d recommend stretching it to 100 pages, in any case the first 50 pages are not horrible just a bit bewildering. There are still some pages or passages which are still not clear to me even now but the story itself is clear enough.

Apart from the superhuman feat of world building Stephenson has also created some very likable characters, sprinkled the book with humorous moments and even a smidgeon of romance. The book has everything really; the downside is that it may have more than you bargained for.

What impressed me the most is that the author respects his readers and give us a lot of credit to be able to follow his complex story and settings. He clearly made a tremendous effort in writing this book and expects some exertion and commitment from us in return. Seems fair, and it is well worth the effort.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

________________________________________
Notes:

- Video: Neal Stephenson's introduction to Anathem, worth a look if you are interested in this book (don't worry, no spoilers).

- China Miéville's Embassytown is the book that inspired me to read Anathem, not a lot in common in term of structure, plot or prose but Embassytown is chock-a-block full of neologisms which I normally find discouraging but I made the effort because I love his other books, and I am glad I did. The infamous neologisms of Anathem intimidated me also but after reading Embassytown I felt I was ready to tackle Anathem.
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Reading Progress

05/20/2012 page 94
10.0%
05/25/2012 page 313
33.0% "Curiouser and curiouser!"
06/03/2012 page 844
90.0% "Say zhoost!"
04/22/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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Palmyrah 'What impressed me the most is that the author respects his readers and give us a lot of credit to be able to follow his complex story and settings. He clearly made a tremendous effort in writing this book and expects some exertion and commitment from us in return. Seems fair, and it is well worth the effort.'

Very well said indeed.


message 2: by Apatt (last edited Aug 26, 2012 08:17AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Apatt Palmyrah wrote: "Very well said indeed."

That's very kind Palmyrah, thanks! I'm looking forward to reading Cryptonomicon soon :)


Chris Cryptonomicon was even more difficult to follow, although it didn't help that I was reading it in multi hour sessions. Amazing book. I still reread it to pick up more details.


Apatt Chris wrote: "Amazing book. I still reread it to pick up more details."

That's enough of a recommendation for me :)


message 5: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Great review, I want to read this


Apatt Lyn wrote: "Great review, I want to read this"

Thanks Lyn! It's really good, though I like his Snow Crash better.


message 7: by Cecily (new) - added it

Cecily I keep meaning to try Stephenson... and then you mention Embassytown. That might clinch it (even though you said Snow Crash is better).


Apatt Cecily wrote: "I keep meaning to try Stephenson... and then you mention Embassytown. That might clinch it (even though you said Snow Crash is better)."

I kinda like Thomas Hardy better too! Stephenson is sometime tough for me to read (though that probably means child's play to you).


message 9: by Cecily (new) - added it

Cecily I'm not sure: I haven't read Hardy since my teens and twenties (I preferred his poetry to his novels) and have yet to dip my toe in Stephenson. But I will. Eventually.


Stuart I'm a huge fan of Snow Crash and Crytonomicon, but I've held off on Anathem for all the reasons you listed. And I totally recognize the depth of world-building Stephenson undertook. I prepared myself for a major commitment. But I've gotten over 300 pages into the story, and I still can't get myself to care about the events of the story. If he can't hook me after that amount of pages, then he's gone deep into self-indulgence territory, and I'm not going to pursue any further at this point. Length is not the issue: I enjoyed every bit of Cryptonomicon. He's just taken too much precious time to set things up in the length an entire novel could be completed. Quite disappointed...


Apatt Stuart wrote: "I'm a huge fan of Snow Crash and Crytonomicon, but I've held off on Anathem for all the reasons you listed. And I totally recognize the depth of world-building Stephenson undertook. I prepared myse..."

It's a funny old world Stuart, I didn't like Cryptonomicon very much and struggled to finish it. I like this one better :)


Stuart That's what makes sharing book opinions so rewarding. You never know how others will respond to the books you like, and vice versa.


Apatt Stuart wrote: "That's what makes sharing book opinions so rewarding. You never know how others will respond to the books you like, and vice versa."

What other Neal Stephenson books have you read? I only read Anathem, Snow Crash, Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon, I only like parts of Diamond Age, I love Snow Crash which is wild and great fun.


Stuart As I said above, I loved Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, but like you only parts of Diamond Age. Pretty much like half of what I've read. Doubt I would ever try Baroque Cycle or Reamde.


Apatt Stuart wrote: "As I said above, I loved Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, but like you only parts of Diamond Age. Pretty much like half of what I've read. Doubt I would ever try Baroque Cycle or Reamde."

Yeah, our opinions are not so far apart! :)


message 16: by 7jane (new)

7jane I have a copy of this book, and I do need to read it XD Wonderful review <3


Apatt 7jane wrote: "I have a copy of this book, and I do need to read it XD Wonderful review <3"

Thanks 7Jane! It's really good, if it's difficult to follow in the beginning just look up some online info, or watch that YouTube clip I mentioned in the review, or discuss it on Reddit!


message 18: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Nice. It seems a lot of Stephenson's work is complex. The books that grabbed my attention (Anathem, Cryptonomicon) I happily had to reread before getting a full emersion experience. The books I hated right away (Snow Crash, Diamond Age), I couldn't bring myself to reread and probably missed the best parts. Anathem ranks as one of the best SF novels I have ever read.


Apatt Joe wrote: "Nice. It seems a lot of Stephenson's work is complex. The books that grabbed my attention (Anathem, Cryptonomicon) I happily had to reread before getting a full emersion experience. The books I ..."

Thanks Joe, I seem to be the only one who don't like Cryptonomicon so I guess it's not his fault!


message 20: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Don't sweat it. I'm stranded alone and naked on I-Hate-Snow-Crash island.


Stuart Apatt, Joe: I'm starting to think that even Neal Stephenson fans (as I would consider myself) do not like all his books equally, and outside the Big 4 (Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Crytonomicon, Anathem), the ones that I've seen the most negative reviews are the Baroque Cycle. If anyone claims that series is not self-indulgent, I suspect they are lying...


message 22: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Ha! You are so right. I was terribly disappointed that I just couldn't get into those novels (Baroque Cycle). The time period interests me but the story just wasn't right for me to be able to concentrate long enough to figure out what the heck was going on. I don't think I even kept a copy of the novels.


message 23: by Apatt (last edited Apr 30, 2015 07:20AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Apatt Joe wrote: "Ha! You are so right. I was terribly disappointed that I just couldn't get into those novels (Baroque Cycle). The time period interests me but the story just wasn't right for me to be able to conc..."

Did you read his more recent books Reamde and Seveneves? (not sure if Seveneves is on sale yet).


Stuart I have Reamde on audiobook and Seveneves will be released on May 19 2005. But I have other books well ahead on the TBR list.


message 25: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe I'll admit I've soured a bit on Stephenson. I just don't trust the brand. If you find anything like Anathem, please shout.


Apatt Joe wrote: "I'll admit I've soured a bit on Stephenson. I just don't trust the brand. If you find anything like Anathem, please shout."

Embassytown is in some (minor) way like Anathem! I've soured a bit on Stephenson too!


message 27: by Cecily (new) - added it

Cecily Apatt wrote: " Embassytown is in some (minor) way like Anathem..."

That pushes this up the TBB and TBR piles!


message 28: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Thanks, Apatt. It seems I had already put Embassytown in the "no thanks" category, but based on your advice and other reviews I just read....I'm changing my mind. I'll let you know how it goes.


message 29: by Cecily (new) - added it

Cecily Embassytown is a curious book. It's one of my favourites, but I can see why some would dislike it. It's main theme is language and abstraction, dressed up in a light salad of sci-fi. If you love sci-fi, but are not so interested in language, it might not be quite your thing.


Stuart I thought Embassytown was one of the best SF books I've read in the last few years, especially if you like languages. It's also very compact at 345 pages, the same number of pages before I gave up on Anathem!


message 31: by Apatt (last edited Apr 30, 2015 05:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Apatt Cecily wrote: "Embassytown is a curious book. It's one of my favourites, but I can see why some would dislike it. It's main theme is language and abstraction, dressed up in a light salad of sci-fi. If you love sc..."

Come to think of it the only similarity I can recall is the neologisms. Any way, I like Embassytown better than Anathem. I haven't read the recent Miévilles because they are YA and I prefer OA books ;)


Michael Love the review, especially the laughs from your "so rich in details it makes Middle-Earth look like two bedroom apartment". I liked how this fantasy world can host such human people and how the surprise in the plot changes how you digest that.

I like philosophical novels but I'm with you on the extra pleasures of a romp like Snow Crash. I found Reamde a fun techno-thriller with heart, not too far from the ride in Ready Player Run. I probably pushed Zodiac with you before as also fun and thrilling (not sci fi, but features a quirky extreme eco-activist in a story running only a surprising couple hundred pages).


Apatt Michael wrote: "Love the review, especially the laughs from your "so rich in details it makes Middle-Earth look like two bedroom apartment". I liked how this fantasy world can host such human people and how the ..."

Thanks Michael, funny I don't remember writing that two bedrooms gag, may be I stole it from somewhere :D I'm amazed to find a Stephenson book compared to Ready Player One, now I'm tempted!


Michael Apatt wrote: "Thanks Michael, funny I don't remember writing that two bedrooms gag... I'm amazed to find a Stephenson book compared to Ready Player One, now I'm tempted!"

If you want to take a chance on winning "Seveneves", the Goodreads Giveaway program is giving away 100 copies. However doorstoppers (1000+ pages) are popular this year and 5,000 people have already signed on for the lottery. A couple of unread Baroque Cycle volumes are already weighing down a shelf with a Hamilton or two.


Apatt Michael wrote: "Apatt wrote: "Thanks Michael, funny I don't remember writing that two bedrooms gag... I'm amazed to find a Stephenson book compared to Ready Player One, now I'm tempted!"

If you want to take a cha..."


I only read e-books nowadays Michael, for the large font sizes you know.


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