Chad's Reviews > Anathem

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
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's review
Mar 05, 10

Read in March, 2010

Through much of Anathem I believed that Stephenson had fallen into the trap of many authors of speculative fiction do: creating a fantastically rich setting but a relatively uninteresting plot. I would probably have been happy to read 1000 pages of exposition of the Mathic world. As I continued, however, the plot drew me in, and I ended up reading the last 400 pages or so in the span of two days.

Stephenson writes in a language that is primarily English, but includes a smattering of invented words for which English ones would have been perfectly suited. I generally tend to despise this kind of behavior, but at least he helps the reader out by including a glossary and often using words that are suggestive of their English near-synonyms. At times this does get way too cute for my taste: “Reticulum: (1) When not capitalized, a [network:] formed by the interconnection of two or more smaller [networks:]. (2) When capitalized, the largest reticulum, joining together the preponderance of all [networks:] in the world. Sometimes abbreviated to Ret.” Fortunately, it is eventually revealed that all of this is quite intentional and important to the story.

The book is dense with mathematics, physics, and philosophy presented through dialogs between characters. I find all of these topics enjoyable, but the explanations are at times ham-handed with multiple analogies to explain something that I had groked pages earlier. Although I have seen him do so well elsewhere, Stephenson does not seem to be as comfortable or competent writing about relationships and romance as he is technical details. This is not a book that has much emotional impact, but it is a damn interesting workout for the mind. Most of the technical content seems correct / plausible to my mind, but I find the explanations regarding oxygen near the end wholly unsatisfactory. (Those who have read it will likely know to what I am referring, while those who have not should not find anything spoiled.)

At first I intended to write that this was my least favorite Stephenson work, though still very good by other standards. Now that I have completed it and seen how everything fits together, I am not so sure that it does not belong to the same class as Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon.

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