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Anathem

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Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside "saecular" world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent's walls. Three times during history's darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent's gates—at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious "extras" in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn't seen since he was "collected." But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros—a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can oppose—as, one by one, Erasmas and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmas finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world—as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet . . . and beyond.

937 pages, Hardcover

First published September 9, 2008

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About the author

Neal Stephenson

105 books24.8k followers
Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem, and the three-volume historical epic the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), as well as Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,211 reviews
Profile Image for Matt.
31 reviews39 followers
September 30, 2008
I think that Neal Stephenson is very intelligent and a terrific writer. That said, I found all the made-up googlies in this snarfle, really boinged my thnoode. Surely there is a slankier way of telling us that we are reading about another zoof than to make up every other googly. It made it very difficult to forkle the snarfle and I put it down after only 80 ziffies. This will not stop me from attempting the next Neal Stephenson snarfle, however.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,388 reviews6,651 followers
August 28, 2013
One of the most challenging books I've read, and one that I got a lot of satisfaction out finishing. Stephenson's got a wildly inventive mind and reading him is like jumping onto a high speed bullet train at full speed.

It took about 70 pages to get used to the new 'language' that he invented for this story, and I had to refer to the glossary repeatedly, but suddenly it just clicked, and I was completly caught up in the world Stephenson created.

Not for casual reading, but fans of sci fi, physics or alternate world plots should give it a try.
Profile Image for Matt.
213 reviews613 followers
May 28, 2015
After digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."

Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." I wish I could say something more elegant about it, but the problem is that there isn't a lot to say about the book as a whole because the book as a whole isn't really that good or that interesting. The book as a whole is difficult to describe, because so much of the book seems like a digression from even itself that instead of a book, it's more like a lot of separate little works on a unifying theme.

That unifying theme is science, and Stephenson has a lot to say about science. And he says it, almost like he was a heretic espousing some radical concept the orthodoxy would be offended by, in code. Not only just in code, but in the form of a fictional dialogue as if he needs his own voice and opinions to be deniable. Of course, here the problem isn't so much deniability, because I'm not sure Stephenson ultimately says much of anything fresh or radical or likely to get him in trouble with the orthodoxy, as it is convincing people to read his opinions in the first place. You probably couldn't get a lot of people to read a frequently dry 937 page text on the material Stephenson is covering, but you might could if you dressed it up in the form of a science fiction story about an alternate world where the schism between science and religion occurred at the dawn of Western Civilization and both retreated to cloisters to observe their respective discipline.

More than anything, 'Anathem' reminded me of 'The Young Ladies Illustrated Primer' from 'The Diamond Age' (particularly the part where in the narrative where it illustrates fundamental concepts of computer science) only without the illustrations or the interactivity. Far more than it is a science fiction novel, the text is a primer seemingly aimed at young people most of the time, introducing concepts from philosophy, math, and science in what can only be described as a somewhat entertaining and slightly subversive way.

The most salient feature of the text to me turned out not to be the much discussed alternative language, but the fact that Stephenson has chosen to tell the story in the first person - which seemed to me to be a bit of a departure - and employs what struck me as a highly unreliable narrator. Erasmus, our protagonist, is a highly naive, incredibly sheltered, idealistic, impressionable, nineteen year old to which the appellation 'man' would seem to be dubiously applied. He's essentially a physics monk, and yet he serves as our sole window the world of Stephenson's creation which colors the events with all of Erasmus's biases and naivety. I often wondered what things looked like through the eyes of his sib, or his mentor, or any number of other characters.

The second most salient feature of the text is the frequent employment of invented technical jargon - SF bullshyte, if you will - as it is employed by the residents of the world of Arbre, and in particular, the cloistered Mathic world of Arbre. This was disappointing to me, because I went based on reports I'd heard expecting a full blown invented language on par with say the street slang of Burroughs 'Clock Work Orange' or even the elvish languages of Tolkien. Instead, what I got was a really thin 'code' full of in jokes and sly references some of which I got immediately and most of which I didn't feel compelled to track down if I didn't. In most cases, they are just bullshyte (another of his jargon words, if you are wondering) relabeling of famous real world scientists and philosophers or their theorems or philosophical schools. (For example, Thelenes for Socrates; 'Thelenes' = 'The Hellenes' = 'The Greek'.) This might be fun reading if you are in to cracking the code, but I had enough of the gist of it that there seemed to be no need. Besides, Stephenson absolutely spoon feeds the reader with definitions, both in chapter headings and within the text, to the point that not only is it full of annoying exposition, but much of the fun of deciphering the text is immediately lost. Thus, the author ends up gaining very little except where it relates to his twist, such as it is (and which you can see coming three or four hundred pages away). It seems to me that if you are going to pull this sort of thing, you shouldn't talk down to the reader but trust them to understand you. But the whole book seemed a lost opportunity for depth and creativity to me, so that was par for the course.

There is little more to say about the book as a whole except that it is generally anticlimactic at every point along the way. None of the little story arcs have particularly worthwhile payoffs, and whenever you think that the story is about to become interesting it collapses again and simply pitters out.

I probably making this sound worse that it is. Bits and pieces are in isolation really interesting, and I made it through the book easily enough. But Stephenson has raised the bar for himself pretty high in my estimation, and this is I think far from his best work.

Anyway, some other random observations:

Provener: It's a beautiful building, but considering how much time the author lavishes on the details of its layout and construction, you'd think it would play a more central role in the story.

Apert: Just once I'd like some legends introduced into a story that don't turn out to be factual and central to the plot. Of all the story digressions, I'm not sure that there is one that is more frustrating than throwing Erasmus in a cell while the story advances around and without him.

Anathem: The first great crisis, which leads to Erasmus's next two quests - neither of which turn out to be all that important or interesting or even necessary except perhaps to Erasmus's peace of mind.

Voco: Pause for scientific investigation.

Peregrin: After 300 pages of exposition, the story commences in haste, if by 'haste' you mean meanders about for another 600 pages. Still, some of the best lines of the story occur here, if you'll pardon the minor spoilers:

"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor."
"Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and peice of string."
"That would be great."

I try to avoid spoilers, but for the record, the above lines and the conjectures that they contain turn out to be not strictly true, and even more importantly I think, and ironicly, the point of writing lines like that is somewhat undermined by later events anyway.

Feral: Something must be wrong. We are having an actual adventure here.

Orithena: Don't expect any satisfying answers here.

Inbrase: Pause for scientific debate. This, ultimately, ends up leading to: more debate.

Messal: You know that you've arrived as a successful and respected author, when just as you are reaching the climax of your sci-fi adventure, you can get away with dropping an 80 page conversation into the text and still get your novel published.

Advent: Stephenson finally returns to form. Some more trade mark Stephenson adventure... with a trade mark Stephenson let down when we reach the expected climax. Also, does anyone else find it odd how often in their stories supposed ‘hard’ science fiction authors resort to magic and techno-religions (that is to say, gods, demigods, eternity and/or heaven as brought to reality by mastery of Gnostic sciences)? Talk about putting your Faith in reason.

Requiem: Dénouement.

Reconstitution: How sweet.

Calca: Did anyone else get the impression that these were originally part of the text, and that Stephenson had been forced to put them in the appendix solely because his editor finally showed some backbone and called him on it?

I suppose I should actually discuss some of the issues Stephenson raised, but I can’t manufacture enough excitement to hold a separate Suvinian Dialog (which given a pedagogue like me, ought to tell you something), so if anyone wants my take on a particular idea, they’ll have to do some prompting.
Profile Image for Clouds.
228 reviews626 followers
May 10, 2019
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).


There are some books that deserve 6 stars.
For me, Anathem is one.

Anathem won the Locus Sci-Fi award in 2009. There were other books up for the award that year, but nothing worth mentioning in the same breath. The Hugo award went to Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – which is a wonderfully poignant little story – but to say it’s better than this? Laughable.

I love this book so much that I named one of my cats Erasmas after the hero. (We just call him Razzie unless he gets a full-name telling-off for humping his little brother.)

It’s a story about a tight-knit group of highly academic friends (who happen to be monks who worship maths and science) in a post-post apocalyptic world, being tossed out into the wider, wilder society on a quest to make contact with dimension-hopping aliens. What more could you ask for?

Jason Pettus has done a superb job of explaining quite why this is such a perfectly constructed concept (check it out) so I won’t go into that.

Skimming other reviews I’ve seen that a lot of people got bogged down my the math-love, or found the characters hard to relate to, or straight-up found it dull. I’m flabbergasted at this! Normally I understand that some books just don’t gel with some people, but I refuse to bow down on this one – it’s not the book’s fault, the book is perfect – you people are broken in some deeply intrinsic way!

It’s not just geeky, it’s got a lot of heart and humour too.
How’s this for a quote?
“Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said.
"We have a protractor.”
My personal favourite moment would be the sudden arrival of the martial-arts monks - I haven't grinned that much at a book since the mimes went all kung-fu at the end of The Gone Away World .

I spent the whole read wittering about how much I loved it to the extent that I’d barely sighed my contented little sigh at THE END before my wife snatched the tome from my grip to see what all the fuss was all about.

Somehow I’d never heard of the marvellous Mr Stephenson before I began my Locus Quest – but that was the whole point of the quest! I’d gotten incredibly lazy and wasn’t trying out new authors. This was exactly what I’d been hoping to discover.

It was the third book I read in my Locus Sci-Fi reading list – following Accelerando and Rainbows End – and the first to float my boat to the rafters. 5 stars, no hesitation.

I’ve since read Cryptonomicon , The Diamond Age , Quicksilver and Confusion as part of my quest, with The System of the World still to go before I’m finished. Snow Crash is his only novel not on my reading list and that’s the one I’m most looking forward to at the moment!

I expect I shall read everything he cares to write.
“... when I saw any of those kinds of beauty I knew I was alive, and not just in the sense that when I hit my thumb with a hammer I knew I was alive, but rather in the sense that I was partaking of something--something was passing through me that it was in my nature to be a part of.”
After this I read: Passage
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,846 followers
February 9, 2017
Oh my lord, this is still one of my top ten favorite works of literature. Like. Ever.

Not only has this seminal masterwork of fiction withstood a second read with flying colors, but it continues to define and defy both Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction categories. Heck, I think we can say it belongs on any Philosophy shelf, too, and I defy anyone to not laugh their heads off at the haircuts or Rakes or so many beautiful easter-eggs of ideas studded through the opening couple hundred pages.

What? It's just a bunch of monks talking philosophy and science in an alien world? How the heck could that be fun?

Ahh, this book moves on from that soon enough, especially when mysteries both small and really large start piling up, and the high-tech history of the world with it's truly awesome advances is only *part* of the reveals in store for us.

The world building is probably the most fantastic and excellent that I've ever read in any novel, and I'm even including masterworks like Dune and Foundation in this category. More than anything, it's the history and the alternate progressions of thought and development that is so close to our own history that is so amazing. And funny. Screw Occam's Razor. We've got a Rake. ;)

Little easter eggs abound in the opening that make so much more sense later in the novel, and on the second read, they're even better because we know what to expect. Causal Domain Shear? What's that? A haircut? OMG.

Do *not* expect this to remain a sleepy monk community that has remained cloistered with a few exceptions for 5 thousand years.

*Do* expect some truly wonderful and crazy science, philosophy, action and adventure, aliens, space-travel, time and space hacking, immortality, shaolin monks kicking all sorts of ass, horrible world killers, and multiple dimensions.

Holy crap, right?

It's a damn near perfect story, including great characters, pacing, reveals, science, politics, philosophy, and even religion and poetry. It also continues to blow my mind. How can something this complicated in its entirety read so easily, so effortlessly? But it does, and it's funny as hell, too.

I remember my first reading of this getting under my skin and confounding me at the same time. I kept wanting to categorize and pigeonhole it, and with every new hint that came along to tell me that I was going to fail miserably, I slowly got the hint that I just needed to go with the flow, trust the author, and just get fully immersed. There's no other way around it.

And there has never been a book quite like this in my life, ever before or ever since.

I can't even say that my love of this novel is a case of right place, right time, because with the second read almost eight years after the first, you'd think that I'd have grown as a person. I've certainly read a lot of new books, too. But, alas, this one still packs one hell of a punch.

The total-action scenes at the climax had me gasping for air, literally. I actually started crying from just how freaking awesome it all was. :)

Don't ever let any tell you that there is nothing new under the sun, or that SF or literature is dumbing down. This is one of the smartest pieces of fiction I've ever read. I am in awe.
Profile Image for Mayim de Vries.
576 reviews778 followers
May 22, 2019
As the most popular review of this book shows clearly: this is not a novel for everyone. You cannot run a marathon if you didn't go through a proper training. Sitting on the couch all year round is not the necessary regimen. This book is very similar: it requires an intellectual gym, so to speak. Knowledge of Latin, history, and philosophy, a wide frame of civilisational reference, linguistic sensitivity, attention to detail, engagement and patience. If you are not equipped with the above, save yourself the torment and just skip it (unless hate-reading is your hobby).

But if you are proficient enough to brave these deep waters, you will find a masterpiece:

💭 a world where scientists are considered a danger to the society;
💭 a world where academic communities live rigorous lives ever fearing the possible Sack;
💭 a world where those who care for knowledge that is unadulterated and happiness that does not come from chemicals in your blood close themselves in secluded places opened once in ten years;
💭 a world where a mixture of the Plato Academy and the monks of Mount Athos is the ultimate counterculture and the most dangerous form of rebellion;

⭐️ a book as demanding as it is rewarding;
⭐️ a book that doesn’t spoon-feed its reader;
⭐️ a book that requires thinking and apt attention (not your causal read);
⭐️ a fantasy, with a flavour of science-fi spanning well beyond the genre’s boundaries;
⭐️ a book that can be read like a puzzle with a doll inside a doll inside a doll.

No doubts about it: one of the best reads this year. With my rare five-star recommendation.
Profile Image for Sean Gibson.
Author 6 books5,653 followers
January 29, 2018
Reviewing a 1,000-page book that’s part alternate history, part close encounters of the third kind, part futuristic sci-fi utopian fantasy, and part philosophical treatise is like trying to milk a camel while sitting in quicksand.

Incidentally, if you’ve never tried that, I don’t recommend it—you end up getting both milk and sand in some pretty weird places. Also, it’s worth noting that, as a general rule, male camels don’t particularly enjoy being milked and have a tendency to make their displeasure known by humping you as hard as they can.

(It’s also worth noting that, in this context, “humping” means slamming your head into the ground with their humps—given that, in this instance, the ground is quicksand, it doesn’t actually hurt all that much, but see previous comment re: getting sand in some pretty weird places.)

Anathem is my first exposure to Mr. Stephenson’s oeuvre, and I’m given to understand that it’s not necessarily his most accessible work. Admittedly, I don’t possess the intellectual horsepower to fully comprehend everything that’s going on here (then again, most days I lack the intellectual horsepower to light a candle), but I suspect that’s true, as there are some pretty dense and brain-bending digressions in what can, at times, be a gripping and thoughtful narrative about time, space, and coexistence.

Even in those instances, however, Stephenson’s stylistic verve saves the narrative from veering into unreadable territory. It’s almost annoying how effortless he makes it seem, imbuing the book’s narrator, Erasmus, with a voice that’s by turns authoritative and unsure but always likeable and unequivocally human. Whether he’s theorizing about quantum physics, engaging in dialogue about parallel universes, teasing (and being teased by) his intellectual brothers and sisters, or wrestling with the confusing emotions that surround the bonds of family and passionate love, Erasmus is the reader’s guide to a world that’s similar to our own yet distinctly different enough that we need him to guide us through it.

Anathem is not an easy (or quick) read, unless you happen to be one of those rare individuals capable of extracting milk from an ornery camel atop a shifting bed of colloid hydrogel. It is, however, a rewarding and worthwhile read, even if it’s one that’s more likely to make you think than make you breathless with excitement (though it does that on occasion, too).

But, hey—we could all stand to do a little more thinking in our lives about the world around us and the way we relate to other people (and races/genders/ethnicities). I just might need a break from doing that for a while after this. Maybe I can find the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay movie…
Profile Image for Simeon Berry.
Author 3 books158 followers
February 10, 2017
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 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.
Profile Image for nostalgebraist.
Author 2 books414 followers
July 21, 2012
Anathem is a very odd book, and one whose appeal I do not understand.

I don't think it would be unfair to call it an piece of expository nonfiction disguised as a novel. Virtues like plot momentum, characterization, drama, verisimilitude, and the like are subordinated to exposition. The book intends to do one thing, and one thing only -- it intends to expose the reader to a set of concepts and arguments Stephenson finds interesting. Stephenson is pretty explicit about this in his acknowledgements:
Anathem is best read in somewhat the same spirit as John L. Casti's The Cambridge Quintet, which is to say that it is a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present.
There's nothing wrong with this as a goal. Sometimes ideas go down better when put in the mouths of characters -- anyway, that's one possible explanation for the appeal of philosophical dialogues. (Anathem, in fact, includes a lot of exchanges that sound, self-consciously, like philosophical dialogues.) And by using an entertaining story as a delivery system, an author can get concepts across to people who would never encounter them otherwise. What's disappointing and perplexing is how flimsy Anathem's delivery system is, how little appeal it has on the level of pure story. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.)

The characters are made of cardboard. The dialogue is stiff and artificial, full of exposition awkwardly jammed into characters' mouths through unconvincing "as you know, Bob" devices and the like. This is the kind of book in which characters often make jokes that are not actually funny, requiring the narrator to explain to the reader that a joke has been made -- the point being not to make the reader laugh, but to convince the reader that the characters are people and not robots. The setting is a fictional alternate universe which is described in loving detail, but which is strangely uninteresting, since many features of its culture turn out, upon examination, to be features of our own world given new names. (The alternate history includes a Rome-like empire called "Baz"; Catholics are "Bazian Orthodox" and Protestants are "Counter-Bazian"; Socrates, Plato and the Sophists are "Thelenes," "Protas" and the "Sphenics"; academic scientists/logicians are "Halikaarnians" while humanists are "Procians"; philosophy and theoretical science are "theorics"; the internet is the "Reticulum"; smartphones are "jeejahs"; Occam's Razor is someone-or-other's steelyard; etc.)

The plot moves at an absurdly slow pace. Its core is a set of maybe three or four major revelations, each separated from the next by hundreds of pages of dithering and blather. There is a huge amount of scene-setting before finally, on page 300 or so, we get introduced to something that, in some science fiction novels, would appear on page 1: the characters discover that an alien spaceship is hovering over their planet! It isn't until maybe page 600 or so that, after a huge amount of overly obvious foreshadowing involving theories of "the polycosm," that the next big plot point drops: the spaceship is from an alternate universe!

In some science fiction novels, the alternate universe concept would just be tossed off in the course of a page or two, and things would move on. In Anathem, the concept itself is the whole point. There are, I would guess, upwards of 100 pages of dialogue in the book solely about whether alternate universes could exist, whether they could interact with the universe in which the book is set, their possible relation to a much-discussed realm of Platonic mathematical forms (the "Hylean Theoric World"), whether they can be understood by invoking the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, etc. The book does very, very little with its alien spaceships and alternate universes; it ends, so to speak, where many science fiction stories would begin. Rather than crafting stories about the effects of these concepts, it crafts a story about people who try to understand them.

Yet very little understanding is achieved. Despite all the long-winded argumentation, the key concepts and arguments remain vague. The basic line of thought that leads the characters to the alternate-universe idea in the first place is odd and questionable. (Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the aliens and their ship are made of "newmatter," a special sort of matter that could conceivably be formed in an alternate version of the Big Bang -- but which the characters also know how to produce technologically on their own planet, which would seem to render the alternate universe explanation unnecessary.) The characters talk on and on about the Hylaean Theoric World, but it is never clear exactly what the term means. A realm of perfect mathematical ideas that influences the real world? But what form would that influence take? Mathematical inspiration? The mathematical nature of fundamental physical law? Both? No one is ever quite clear on this score.

Why did this book make me angry? Because it sacrifices so much for so little gain. With 1000 pages of pure, hardcore exposition, uncorrupted by any need for likable characters or humor or action or plausibility, the least Stephenson could do was create a truly captivating web of concepts. Yet all he really gives us is a few ideas about alternate universes and Platonic forms bolstered by a few vaguely specified and unconvincing (though very, very long-winded!) arguments. The book received a good deal of high praise from reviewers for being "philosophical," for challenging the reader to engage with big ideas. What's funny is that the conceptual burden of Anathem is actually much lighter than that of many science fiction and fantasy novels (no -- of many novels, period). Readers are capable of absorbing information at a much faster rate than Stephenson presents it; a reader of Anathem is more in danger of being bored than being overwhelmed. The difference is that in other novels, readers will gladly do the "work" of puzzling through a confusing fictional edifice as long as they have some prior investment in finding out what happens. Give people a fun protagonist or a bit of action and they'll ingest ten Anathems worth of "theorics" without complaint. In some perverse way, maybe the very austerity of Anathem is its appeal: people (like the book's many rave reviewers) felt that something so boring must be good for them, like eating vegetables. To me, it just felt wasteful and insulting.

(I haven't even mentioned one of the core conceits of the setting, which is a group of academic, non-religious monasteries called "concents" that live in slow, measured contemplation in isolation from the outside world. I think the concents are a cool idea, but one that Stephenson doesn't fully make convincing. In any case, I don't want to go into them because the book isn't really about them, just as it is not really about the characters. As Stephenson himself would admit, the whole setting is a pretext for conceptual exposition.)
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews751 followers
April 29, 2015
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.
Profile Image for Brittany.
1,214 reviews125 followers
December 19, 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.
April 18, 2018
Q:
Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec ...
“Do your shamans walk around on stilts? ...
“Do you fancy you will see your dead dogs and cats in some sort of afterlife?” (c)
Q:
Orolo had asked me along to serve as amanuensis. It was an impressive word, so I’d said yes. (c)
Q:
My talent for envisioning things, and spinning yarns in my head, failed me that evening, as if it had gone on vacation. I could make no sense of my interview with Spelikon. (c)
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,648 followers
May 2, 2017
"You can get a lot done in ten millennia if you put your mind to it..."
- Neal Stephenson, Anathem

description

I float now between 4 and 5 stars. Drift. Bounce. Return. I need to sleep, dream, and return to this later. Perhaps, my response will solidify in my sleep. Perhaps, later I'll find words, emotions, and rational responses to this big, ambitious, knot of a novel. Later.

**Later**

There are two reviews I want to write. The first follows the path which measures this novel by the volume of its output, the creativity of its universe, the philosophy, physics, math, religion that gets refracted through Stephenson's intimidating gaze. But there reading Anathem also comes with a patina of frustration. My other, second, parallel review wants to nit pick about the super-reliance on dialogue as a way for Stephenson to discuss and regurgitate ideas of semantics, being and consciousness that thinkers and writers have discussed for hundreds (and some ideas thousands) of years.

There are other authors who use fiction as a way to introducing the public to philosophical ideas. Literature often does this. Cormac McCarthy, Herman Hesse, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, etc., all use(d) fiction as a way to explore semantic, philosophical, and logical problems. These authors serve as translators. Taking ideas that might not get a lot of traction beyond really specialized groups of philosophers, and introduce them to a larger public by creating a narrative that folds them, bends them into coherent stories.

Stephenson fits into this tradition. In the spectrum of this genre of philosophy novel, Stephenson's novel finds itself closer to philosophy and further from a narrative-driven novel. The expositionary/dialogue format (one fraa debating another fraa) seems to take up large segments of the book. Each of these dialogues slows the narrative down. I get why and what Stephenson is doing and his construct is perfect for this manner of writing, it just comes at a cost.

description

But at the same time. I still love it. So, that.

I'm glad too, at the end, to see the Millennium Clock acknowledged. My first thought when reading this book was another book I own and skimmed 10-years earlier called Clock Of The Long Now: Time And Responsibility: The Ideas Behind The World's Slowest Computer. Obviously, this clock and the clock's idea were a big inspiration for Stephenson and I was glad to see that acknowledged. At times this book also, obviously, gave me A Canticle for Leibowitz vibes and even Ender's Game vibes (not so much, but a bit towards the end).

Anyway, I'm still chewing on this review and the book. If nothing else, reading Anathem has pushed me towards reading more Stephenson.
Profile Image for Scott  Hitchcock.
779 reviews223 followers
October 27, 2017
DNF 33%

To like this book you will have had to have been a philosophy major who likes a book about monks debating non sequiturs in a fictitious version of earth where there's no plot and because of your heart condition you never achieve a heart rate of over 43 in your cryogenic chamber.

To be fair some of the comparisons to the ridiculous issues of modern society did make smile at how the author spun it but the ratio of reading to a smile or a that's an interesting point moment were too few and far between.
Profile Image for Ray.
Author 16 books280 followers
July 25, 2020
One of the greatest science fiction (or speculative fiction) novels of the 21st century, and I mean it. Neal Stephenson's Anathem is both an epic thought project, and surprisingly readable for a thousand-page novel with a whole glossary in the back.

The glossary puts people off, I know, but it's only tough at the beginning. After a few hundred pages you get used to all the Orth terminology and it flows just fine. The descriptions of theorics and takes on human consciousness and the many worlds interpretation on quantum physics, and various debates on nominalism, all in entertaining Socratic Dialogue.

On the planet Arbe, you see, the 'Saecular' world of the semi-literate who spend all their time on smartphones is segregated from the world of the literate educated. Basically, Stephenson has taken the line from some of his other novels, that geek is an ethnic group, and pushed it as far as that concept can possibly go...

In the mathic world, there are levels of educated monks. For thousands of years, the university system has been this way. There are the undergrads, who cut themselves off from society for one year at a time. There are the postgrads, who cannot interact with the rest society for ten years at a time. Then there are the doctorates, who can only leave their enclaves once every hundred years. Also, there are thousanders who are basically enlightened Buddhas. (And martial arts types monks too, and the Ita who are the techies of this world, and more. It's complicated.)

So don't be intimidated, and embrace the adventures of Fraa Erasmus and his friends as a mysterious threat comes to this other world and then this leads us all pondering the nature of reality. Makes for a very good read and many a level!
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 12 books1,261 followers
June 3, 2009
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

Is Neal Stephenson the most brilliant living author currently in the United States of America? Oh, wait, I can answer that for you right away: Yes. Yes he is. And that's because Stephenson can do something almost no other American writer currently putting out work can; he can take a healthy dose of the popular zeitgeist at any given moment, mine it to understand the underlying fears and hopes these trendy obsessions actually express, twist it using some of the most inventive speculative fictional tropes that have ever been created, infuse it with the kind of heady, complex "pure science" usually only understood by nuclear physicists and NOVA hosts, then spit it out in these breathtakingly dense thousand-page tomes every couple of years. Of all the thousands of published writers of our generation, I'm convinced that Stephenson will be one of the mere handful still being read and studied a century from now, and there's a very good reason that so many people call him "the heir of Thomas Pynchon," the creator of his own one-man literary genre that can't be called anything else but "Stephensonian." And thus have I eagerly followed along in real time with nearly all of Stephenson's backbreakers over the decades, all the way back from the 1992 cyberpunk classic Snow Crash (the direct inspiration for the very real Second Life); then to his stunning redefinition of steampunk, 1995's The Diamond Age; then to his masterful examination of the real history of 20th-century code-breaking, 1999's Cryptonomicon; and then to his massive three-book, three-thousand-page overview of the entire beginning of both science and finance as we know them, the career-defining "Baroque Cycle" (2003's Quicksilver, 2004's The Confusion, and 2005's The System of the World).

And now, after ten days in a row of reading at least four hours each and every day, I have finally finished Stephenson's latest, the epoch-defining yet often headscratching Anathem; and in fact I found it so dense, so generation-defining, I've come to realize that I simply will not be able to make all my points in the usual thousand-word essay I normally do here regarding any given book. So instead I'm doing two essays on two days, one spoiler-free and the other spoiler-heavy (today's the spoiler-free one), the first essay devoted to nothing else but the superlatively complicated backstory, and not even touching the book's actual plot until the second essay. (GoodReads readers, this is one of the rare times when you will literally have to go to the CCLaP website for the second half, because of there literally not being room here for both.) Because it's important right away to understand what Stephenson is trying to do with this novel, and will make your reading of it (a part-time job, I warn you now, that will take most people four to six weeks) go a lot more smoothly; he is no less than redefining the very relationship between religion and science, and methodically explaining how there's actually a lot less differences between the two than most of us think, if people would simply choose to embrace both subjects in this interrelated way.

And really, this grand a goal is not actually as big a stretch as it might seem at first; after all, according to how recent history has played out, we're hovering right around a time these days where we as a society will be creating a big giant new way for us to even think about such basic subjects as faith, reason, the meaning of life, and more. There was the Enlightenment of the 1700s, for example, which pushed atheistic rationality to the forefront of society; then the Romanticism of the 1800s, in which emotions and spirituality were brought back into style; then the Modernism (and Postmodernism) of the 1900s, where science and religion were first presented as an "either/or" proposition, where rationality and faith were first cemented in the mind as eternally struggling enemies. And now here it is, the early 2000s; so what kind of "ism" will define this age? Well, if you study the subject like I do, the pretty obvious answer is that we're set to go through a century where we profoundly redefine what the relationship is in the first place between religion and science, which is why it's not really such a surprise that Stephenson would latch onto the subject himself, a good ten or fifteen years before it becomes the dominant subject of the popular culture at large, just like all his other novels have done too.

And the way Stephenson does this is of course unexpected and magnificent, which is by creating an entire different planet called Arbre which is almost just like Earth, but different in several basic important ways. For example, the first three thousand years of Arbre's written history are almost exactly like the last three thousand years of our own (from ancient Greece to now); except that in the oldest surviving myth they have, their version of our "Remus and Romulus" tale, theirs supposedly involves a father who near the end of his life professes to having a vision of what he calls a "perfect other world," then dies before he can explain what exactly he meant. So one daughter, Deat, interprets this how the religious of Earth usually would, into terms of a "heaven" and a "god" and "angels" and the like; but the other daughter, Hylaea, takes it to mean that he glimpsed a realm of pure perfect science and reason, not so much a physical place like a "heaven" but more like a Taoist-style existence of pure energy, where instead of a deity running things who takes the form of a person, there is instead only the pure clocklike perfection of a completely rational universe.

And so all the way back to the beginning of Arbrean society, there have actually been two major ways to think of religion, not only the "deist" way which is the only one we have on Earth (known as "deolatist" in their world, after the daughter Deat), but also this "religion of science" known as Hylaeanism, later in history generalized to the more inclusive term "Mathism." And the Mathists have their own monks and their own monasteries, essentially mirroring how the study of science got its actual start in ancient Earth as well; and anytime one of these monk scientists has a sudden breakthrough, like Newton discovering gravity or Einstein discovering relativity or Pythagorus inventing his theory about triangles, this is considered the Mathic version of a miracle, or perhaps more like speaking in tongues, a sort of short, profound connection that monk suddenly has with this so-called semi-mystical world of pure rational perfection, known in their language as the "Hylaean Theoric World" (with "theorism" being their word for our "science"). And this is just inspired of Stephenson to do, I think, because this hearkens all the way back to what real Earth's first scientists actually were trying to do too, the so-called "natural philosophers" and "alchemists" of the 1600s; to them, "science" wasn't a standalone subject unto itself but rather a simple subset of religion, a way of understanding God better by intensely studying the things that God creates, and understanding how we should live our own lives by studying how such creatures as trees and animals do it out in the "natural world," a.k.a. "the world that works the way God wants the world to work, when we humans aren't using our big giant brains to screw it all up." And again, for anyone who's ever studied Eastern religions, you can see a lot of similarities between this and some of the basic tenets behind Taoism and Buddhism -- the idea that God is too infinitely complex a creature for us to ever understand, so all we can do instead is study the things that God creates, and get our cues on how to live our own lives by metaphorically interpreting God in its most purely rational form, what we now know as "scientific concepts," things like gravity and photosynthesis and DNA.

Newton and the other proto-scientists of the Baroque "Royal Society" always saw their pursuits as an offshoot of religion; it's only been in the last 150 years that science has taken on a reputation as being an abomination to God, as the insane efficiency of the scientific process (theorize, test, observe, record without bias) has meant a profoundly fast increase in scientific sophistication, to the point where scientists must now spend their entire lives studying the specific pursuit they mean to make their career just to get caught up, and now not just observe nature in action but actively manipulate it, thus "playing God" in the eyes of many instead of merely worshipping God through natural observation. All Stephenson does is merely formalize this process, on a planet much like Earth's but where he can take certain artistic liberties; on Arbre, scientists literally are monks, universities literally monasteries, where specialists literally devote their entire lives to the pursuit of specific knowledge, literally do wear robes and shave their heads and live in cloisters and everything else. Except unlike Deolatism/deism/traditional religion, commandment number one among Mathics tends to be, "It's a sin to presume that you will eventually understand everything there is to know about the world," with commandment number two being, "And it's an even bigger sin to make up stories about the things you don't understand." When all is said and done, Stephenson argues that this is really the only big difference between science and deism, with all the other conflicts playing off it in one way or another: that science is all about trying to discover what makes the world work the way it does, without tainting your observations with fictional stories regarding the way you really, really wish the world worked, while the entire point of deism is precisely to make up such comforting and easily understood fictional stories, as a way of easing the fear and threat so many feel in the face of the unknown.

And like I said, thus does the first three thousand years of Arbrean written history pass remarkably like Earth's, with their version of a Roman Empire (the "Bazian Empire") which eventually adopts Catholicism ("The Ark of Baz") as its official religion, which eventually leads to a Protestant Reformation (the "Anti-Bazians") which turns into their version of the Renaissance ("The Rebirth"), which on Arbre is when the gates of the ancient Mathic monasteries were first flung open, so that most of the science-worshipping monks could disperse themselves among the public at large, ushering in their version of our "Modern Age" or "Scientific Age" or whatever you want to call it (basically, the last 500 years of history, from the Renaissance to now), which the Arbreans call "The Praxic Age" on their world, "Praxism" being their word for "technology." And in fact Stephenson does something else really smart when laying out this alternative ancient history, which is to wisely separate what we humans know as "science" into three distinct pursuits on Arbre -- not just the scientific process (logic, rationality, etc), which is technically the only pursuit the Mathics embrace, but also the study of numbers (Earth's "mathematics") and the study of just technology, which are the pursuits the "Saecular" (non-Mathic) parts of Arbrean society mostly concentrate on, and especially when it comes to the subject of "syntactic devices" (things like computers, for example, which can be taught to "read" and "write," but don't even begin to understand the context of what they're parsing, of how to enjoy a joke or be emotionally moved by a poem).

Mathic monks instead concentrate on so-called "semantic thought," or the idea that understanding things in context is the most important pursuit in life; and thus is it that only a portion of Arbre's society understands the reasons why technology works, but doesn't actually use any of the technology their theories spawn, while a much larger portion of the population invents and uses all the technology of Arbrean society, but doesn't understand how any of it works. And also thus is it that what might seem to be very scientific people to us are actually considered blindly religious to the Arbreans, the so-called "number-worshippers" who idolize the specifics of math without understanding any of the underlying theories that make the equations work. (This would be roughly translated to Earth's technology worshippers; think of the socially-retarded Comic Book Guys of the world, who can program a computer application but don't know how to even start having a rational, polite discussion with another human being. And in fact Stephenson very cleverly uses as the ultimate example the so-called "Secret Brotherhood of the Ita" associated with each Mathic monastery, a bastardization of the old corporate "I.T. administrators," the number-worshippers who actually ensure that the monasteries and their giant central worship-clocks keep functioning, but who are physically separated from the monks so that their "tech worship" won't "poison" the Mathics' purely theoretic minds. Freaking brilliant, Stephenson.)

But see, all this is only half the backstory of Anathem; because in their timeline, right around our early 2000s is the actual Year Zero of their current calendar, because of a series of apocalyptic occurrences on Arbre in those years known simply as "The Terrible Events" (with us knowing for certain that these events take place right around their early 2000s, despite the new calendar, because of Arbre even having their version of what they call "The Three Harbingers," roughly corresponding to our World War Two, World War One, and Europe-wide political revolutions of 1848, all of them supposedly minor omens of the apocalyptic events that were to come). And for what it's worth, Stephenson leaves the details of the Terrible Events purposely murky, but highly implies that the mess started with the exact kind of accidental molecular disaster that conspiracy theorists have been crowing about this year regarding the very real Large Hadron Collider just built at CERN, the idea that we may just accidentally create a miniature black hole with the thing because of messing around with stuff we don't nearly understand yet, with Stephenson implying that this kicked off a blind panic and a series of voluntary nuclear weapon discharges in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the rapidly expanding artificial black hole, leading to all the other nuclear-armed nations of the world discharging their own weapons in their own blind panics, resulting in all the mass death and chaos and ecological disaster such events would cause.

Whatever the case, we do definitely know that what was blamed for the Events, among both the Mathics and the Saeculars, was the commingling between the two groups that defined the Praxic Age; and thus did the monk scientists retreat back into their monasteries and once again close the gates, an event known as "The Reconstitution" and that marks year one of their "modern" calendar. And thus does yet another entire three thousand years pass, three thousand years of "future history" that haven't actually happened on Earth yet, where humanity ends up progressing in two distinctly different ways; how the Saecular world essentially becomes a neverending chaos of revolutions and superstitions, a Second Dark Age ruled by an alliance of brain-dead tech worshippers and traditional Evangelicals, where skyscrapers and post-apocalyptic wars come and go faster than people can even keep track, while the Mathic monasteries become timeless closed citadels of pure theoretical thought, where monks master such impossibly dense subjects as quantum mechanics and genetic manipulation using nothing more than chalk marks on slate, stick drawings in the dirt. And thus is an uneasy truce developed between the two societies, with both pretty much agreeing to leave the other alone except when absolutely necessary; well, except for the three times in the last three thousand years when the monks got a little too full of themselves, when they started taking on scientific progressions again deemed a little too much like "playing God," at which points the now almost exclusively superstitious Saecular world rose up against what they considered the "witches" of the Mathic world and slaughtered almost all of them, known historically by the remaining Mathics as the three "Great Sacks," the last of which occurred nearly 800 years before the beginning of our current story.

Okay, got all that? Good; now we're ready for page one of the actual book. And like I said, another fifteen hundred words concerning just that subject will be coming tomorrow. I hope you'll have a chance to come by again then.

(UPDATE: Part two now online.)
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
733 reviews3,390 followers
November 18, 2018
Please note that I put the original German text at the end of this review. Just if you might be interested.

The evolution of thinking and philosophy in conjunction with technology thought further.

Stephensons novel contains a plethora of plots, allusions, and concepts. Arbitrarily, some that caught my eye.
Societal implications are caricaturing the sober reflections of previous models of politics, economics, and religion. Or spin it into the future to a fictional, renewed collapse.

And how the splinters and fragments of previous ideologies transform into new cults. This time not dedicated to the Transfiguration, Indoctrination, and Monotheism, but with the focus on enlightenment. Admittedly, every specialized section has the small flaw to put forward a kind of omnipotence claim for correctness in the whole context. But in a scientific background in which words, logic, forms, and reason are sometimes hotly debated. Always without a sword, a loosely holstered firearm or a nervous finger, hovering over DEFCON 1´nuclear missiles.

This could also be interpreted as a satire on the nature of dogma formation in the sciences. This is luckily approaching its end, as the simple exponential growth leaves no time for myths to form. Thanks to the singularity in scientific research with exponential growth of computational power, etc. In the past, one could easily derive one's own little glorification for a new thesis or new general opinion that could not be challenged for a few decades. Which, unfortunately for the progress, also happened much more often than necessary. After all, even Einstein was massively dissed and trolled before his breakthrough. The one´s before him burned.

In the book, the old, current and future science schools are treated under the aspect that already a long history of the future has introduced various new developments. Above all, the overlapping of natural science and the humanities, primarily philosophical, intuition and interpretation is devoted much space. How do proven hypotheses affect the construct of the ego, mind, consciousness? And how are the ancient theses of antiquity revitalized under this aspect and implemented in new technologies and social models?

The parallel development of science and humanities and constant interaction and mutual inspiration permeate the work. In the form of debates and monologues of the protagonists as well as "practical examples" in the course of the plot.

Also, understanding the theses leads to transference and change in consciousness and perceptions of the protagonists. A incubation of the self-perception of the reader is optional too. Through a digression through various schools of thought the one or the other self-perception error of the reader is revealed. If not, genuine respect. Godmode has been reached.

Summing up, one considers not only one's own epoch but even the nearer and more distant future, down to a framework of several millennia, with much more realism and with less optimism about the future and a lens that has been transfigured in a utopian way. Preferably, it allows one to humbly and objectively, soberly and rationally consider the fallibility of any seemingly immaculate technology, idea, worldview, social model, etc. And realize how small, insignificant and even to an inestimable extent wrong many of today's mantras could be.

As recommended by Stephenson himself, parallel reading of the footnotes provided separately on his homepage hones the depth of the text even more. Also independently, these footnotes represent a compact collection of the significant milestones in the evolution of philosophy as well as concentrated mental power in the smallest of spaces. What a pity that putting footnotes in fiction is contradicting the unwritten conventions of those genres (except for satire).

In that case, they could have increased the enjoyment of reading. If not already as physically manifested footnotes in printed editions, so at least in the Ebook as optional fade-in and fade-out hyperlinks for keywords or at the end of each page. For example, the continuing literature, encyclopedias and underlying philosophies of the schools of thought created by Stephenson.

Die Evolution von Denken und Philosophie in Verbund mit Technologie weiter gedacht

Stephensons Roman, beinhaltet eine Fülle an Plots, Anspielungen und Konzepten. Willkürlich einige, die mir besonders ins Auge fielen.
Gesellschaftlichen Implikationen, die die nüchternen Betrachtungen bisheriger Modelle aus Politik, Wirtschaft und Religion karikieren. Oder sie in die Zukunft bis zu einem fiktiven, erneuten Zusammenbruch weiter spinnen.

Und wie sich aus den Splittern und Fragmenten der bisherigen Ideologien neue Kulte entwickeln. Diesmal nicht der Verklärung, Indoktrination und Monotheismus gewidmet, sondern mit dem Fokus auf die Erleuchtung. Zwar hat jeder Kult den kleinen Makel, für sich selbst eine Art von Allmachtsanspruch auf Richtigkeit im ganzen Kontext zu stellen. Aber in einem wissenschaftlichen Zusammenhang, in dem mit Worten, Logik, Formen und Vernunft mitunter auch heiß debattiert wird. Aber immer ohne Schwert oder locker im Holster sitzender Schusswaffe oder einem nervösen, über DEFCON 1 schwebenden, Finger.

Das könnte man auch als Satire auf die Art der Dogmenbildung in den Wissenschaften auslegen. Diese nähert sich jetzt sehr langsam ihrem Ende, da das schlichte exponentielle Wachstum, keine Zeiträume für Mythenbildgung mehr frei lässt. Der die wissenschaftliche Forschung erreichenden Singularität sei es gedankt. Früher hätte man um eine, für ein paar Jahrzehnte nicht anfechtbare neue These oder neue Allgemeinmeinung, leicht eine eigene kleine Glorifizierung ableiten können. Was, leider zum Nachteil, auch häufiger geschah. Immerhin, selbst Einstein wurde vor seinem Durchbruch massiv gedisst und getrollt.

Im Buch werden die alten, aktuellen und zukünftigen Wissenschaftsschulen unter dem Aspekt behandelt, dass bereits eine lange Zukunftshistorie diverse neue Entwicklungen mit eingebracht hat. Vor allem der Überschneidung der naturwissenschaftlichen mit der geisteswissenschaftlichen, primär philosophischen, Anschauung und Interpretation wird viel Raum gewidmet. Wie wirken sich bewiesene Hypothesen auf das Konstrukt des Ichs, des Geistes, des Bewusstseins aus. Und wie werden die alten Thesen der Antike unter diesem Gesichtspunkt revitalisiert und in neue Technologien und Gesellschaftsmodelle implementiert?

Die parallele Entwicklung von Naturwissenschaften und Geisteswissenschaften und eine stete gegenseitig Beeinflussung und Inspiration durchziehen das Werk. In Form von Debatten und Monologen der Protagonisten sowie "praktischen Beispielen" im Laufe der Handlung.

Auch führt das Verständnis der Thesen zur Übertragung auf das Bewusstsein und die Wahrnehmung der Protagonisten. Optional ist auch eine Inkubation der Selbstwahrnehmung des Lesers. Denn durch einen Exkurs durch diverse Denkschulen offenbart sich gewiss der eine oder andere Selbstwahrnehmungsfehler des Leser. Wenn nicht, herzlichen Respekt. Gottmodus erreicht.

Resümierend betrachtet man nicht nur die eigene Epoche, sondern selbst die nähere und fernere Zukunft bis in einen Rahmen von mehreren Jahrtausenden wesentlich nüchterner und mit weniger Zukunftsoptimismus und einer utoptisch verklärten Linse. Eher lässt es einen demütig und objektiv, nüchtern und rational die Fehlbarkeit jeder noch so scheinbar einwandfreien Technologie, Idee, Weltanschauuung, Gesellschaftsmodell, usw betrachten. Und erkennen, wie klein, unbedeutend und auch in noch unabwägbaren Ausmaß falsch viele heutige Mantras sein dürften.

Wie von Stephenson selbst empfohlen, vervollkommnet ein paralleles Lesen der von ihm separat auf seiner Homepage zur Verfügung gestellten Fußnoten die Tiefe der Lektüre noch zusätzlich. Auch separat stellen diese Fußnoten eine kompakte Sammlung der wesentlichen Meilensteine der Entwicklung der Philosophie sowie geballte mentale Kraft auf kleinstem Raum dar. Wirklich schade, dass es den Konventionen des Unterhaltungsroman (mit Ausnahme der Satire) widerspricht, Fußnoten in Belletristik zu setzen. In diesem Fall hätten sie den Genuss des Lesens noch potenzieren können. Wenn schon nicht als physisch manifestierte Fußnoten, so zumindest im Ebook als optional ein- und ausblendbare Hyperlinks bei Schlagwörtern. Etwa zu der weiterführenden Literatur, Enzyklopädien und den zugrunde liegenden Philosophien der von Stephenson erschaffenen Denkschulen.
Profile Image for Drew.
196 reviews8 followers
February 25, 2009
EDIT: I was asked to spoiler-tag this review, and have done so, but I'm not really sure why the person who asked felt I should do so. I definitely don't give away the ending or even the middle in this review.

I discovered Neal Stephenson with "Cryptonomicon", which was published almost a decade ago now. It blew me away with its epic length, its fascinating, multi-layered plot, its occasional moments of unexpected, gut-busting hilarity, and its clear, incisive writing, which was often put to use in explaining complicated scientific concepts in easy-to-follow terms that any layman (including me) could easily understand. The combination of all of these factors made "Cryptonomicon" so enjoyable to me that I soon began to tell people that Neal Stephenson was my favorite author, an assertion only given further weight when I devoured his back catalog and found it all to be outstanding (particularly "Snow Crash"). A few years after "Cryptonomicon", Stephenson released the sprawling Baroque Cycle, a trilogy that served as a prequel to "Cryptonomicon" and stretched to nearly 3000 pages in combined length. If anything, I may have enjoyed this trilogy even more than "Cryptonomicon"; it was obvious that his writing style was maturing, that he was reining in his tendency to go off on tangents while still utilizing such tactics on occasion (much more judiciously now), and that his word choices were becoming even better, his writing style even more clear than it had been before. His widely discussed switch from composing on a word processor to writing longhand with a fountain pen no doubt had something to do with his occasional restraint, but also avoided damaging his propensity for the epic explorations that drew me in in the first place. Now, with "Anathem", Stephenson expands even further on the maturation process that was obvious in "The Baroque Cycle", as well as mixing the cyberpunk futurism of earlier works like "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age" with his more recent studies of science's past in "The Baroque Cycle".

"Anathem" takes place on a planet called Arbre, which is much like Earth as far as environment, but has a somewhat different history. It takes place in what seems at first like a monastery in a lot of fundamental ways, but soon reveals itself through details to be quite different. Rather than focusing on worship of any god, the inhabitants of this monastery--which is co-ed and does not require celibacy of its inhabitants--devote themselves to studying principles of science and mathematics. They engage quite often in what we here on Earth would call Socratic dialogues, and discuss and work with a lot of important principles that come from our own scientific past--although on Arbre, things like Platonic forms and the Pythagorean theorem are named after different philosophers.

Almost immediately after the book starts, Apert begins, which is a 10-day ceremony at the beginning of each year in which certain inhabitants of the cloisters all over the world (and there are many, though "Anathem" revolves around one in particular) are allowed to interact with the outside world. The main character in "Anathem" is Erasmas, who is a Decenarian, also known as a Tenner, meaning that the gates of his area of the cloister open only once every 10 years. This book takes place in the year 3790, and therefore, during Apert, Erasmas sees the outside world for the first time in 10 years. Other inhabitants of the cloister get out every year (the Unarians), still others only every hundred years (the Centenarians), and there is even a part of the cloister that sits atop a nearby rocky crag, where the inhabitants are Millenarians; in other words, their gates only open every thousand years. The first third or so of the book (aka 300 or so of its 900 pages) merely deals with the events that occur during and surrounding Apert. This portion of the book is very entertaining, and we learn a lot both about the mathic world (for this is what the cloisters are called in the world of "Anathem"--maths) and the world outside, which is the sort of technology-saturated world that one can imagine existing on Earth in another century or so of unchecked development. However, it's hard to tell where the overarching plot of the book is taking us. In fact, such a thing doesn't become clear until halfway through or thereabouts, and at that point, Stephenson leaves off the considerable world-building that he's done in the first half of the novel and begins a more straightforward adventure/problem-solving plot that takes us through the rest of the novel. I don't really want to reveal anything that this later plot entails, as I would feel bad spoiling the first half of the book even though there is much that comes after it. Suffice it to say that all of this is very enjoyable and quite picaresque at points (much like parts of the Baroque Cycle). Some may feel that the earlier, less plot-oriented sections of the book are too long and involved, but on the contrary, by the end of the book it becomes obvious that all of the setup that goes on towards the beginning is essential in order to make the reader completely understand what happens in the end.

By the end of "Anathem", I felt every bit as blown away as I had when finishing "Cryptonomicon", "Snow Crash", and the Baroque Cycle. Stephenson once again builds up an entire world that I end up spending weeks immersed in, and when it all ends, it's hard to let go. It does help that he seems to have fixed his previous problems with abrupt endings that plagued some of his earlier books--he supplies us with a dozen-page epilogue that ties up all the loose ends the main plot left hanging--but still, it's always tough separating from one of these epic novels. "Anathem" is without a doubt one of the best books I have or will read this year, and I'm sure I will go back and reread it multiple times in the years to come.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,524 reviews1,770 followers
Read
December 1, 2017
On the one hand this is a cross between a history of philosophy, a Jules Verne story, the films Independence Day and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with elements of Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, aspects of physics and mathematics that works as a lively, readable (well once or twice, it palls after that) and entertaining novel. The pacing of the novel is exponential which means that its average pace is slow and the first third e x t r e m e l y s l o w.

On the other hand if science-fiction can be read not as speculation but as a reflection of the author's views on the present then this is a disturbing book. The sense of a strict division between faith and reason that one can see in some writing from the contemporary USA has been made into a world wide and absolute tri-partite division that stretches back over millennia - take that C.P. Snow. This isn't just a local phenomena but the basic fact of human existence that has led to the world population living in strictly segregated, and as a result, mutually contemptuous castes.

At their best the 'baseline', ie everyday people, population are rugged individualists and self taught free-thinkers while typically they are simplistic consumers of cheeseburgs prone to hold tightly to their faiths. While the mathematical and philosophical elite naturally are the heroes of his story. Swinging out from their ivory towers to demonstrate their mastery of the extremes of human capability; in the intellect, in martial arts and intuition cultivated through meditative practises.

What we have is something like H.G. Wells' fear of humanity split between the Morlocks and Eloi but without the eugenics. The division though for Stephenson is not social class (which obviously doesn't exist in the contemporary USA, perish the thought) but a vaguer sense of human excellence, a natural aristocracy versus the untermenschen who form the bulk of the population, who have breakfast at casinos and enjoy films with lots of explosions.

By the middle section of the novel events are mixing these different worlds and it was possible while reading to imagine them coming together for mutual enrichment. However in an interesting move Stephenson clamps down on that possibility in his conclusion. Not only will the two worlds remain separated with the elite population living, again, behind walls in fortresses of learning but now for the first time they will perpetuate the division through breeding. The influence of Mr Wells lives on.

I noticed that there is marked similarities between the ideas in this book on human consciousness and in Philiip Pullman's series His Dark Materials which was published earlier. Perhaps both were inspired by a common source, however in comparison this novel suffers from an absence of armoured polar bears and it is fundamentally more pessimistic.
Profile Image for Lori.
651 reviews68 followers
October 27, 2008
I may end up giving this 5 stars, depending on how it stays with me. I loved it, but it should be noted Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. THis book is a lot less verbose than his last trilogy and even Cryptomonicon. But it's also a slower, harder read - there's hard science in here, and not just science but quantum physics, the hardest of all!

The story takes place on a planet in a different cosmos. The society here has a long, involved history with many different words to learn that are crucial for the story. There IS a glossary, so that's not a problem, but some of the words take awhile to remember in full and they are important so I found myself rechecking the glossary quite a bit. It's ironic how the words are important since there are 2 important groups of scientists, or maths as called here - one semantic and the other syntactical.

Already you can see there's alot more going on here than just the story. And what a story it is! At no point does it disappoint. As usual with Stephenson, the characters are so likable, even the annoying ones. There's no hate here. I suppose that's what I like about this author - his main character is always a well-meaning, cheerful, intelligent, equanimous kind of person, surrounded by a great supportive cast.



Well, I can't stop pondering this so it's most definitely 5 stars.
Profile Image for Stuart.
700 reviews259 followers
February 15, 2017
Anathem: This book could be anathema to some readers…
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
At one point do you admit defeat and give up on a book? Especially one that you really WANT to like, by an author whose work you respect, and has been lauded by critics and readers alike. I’ve put off tacking Anathem for many years because: 1) it’s a massive door-stopper about an order of monks millennia in the future devoted to philosophy, science, and mathematic theorems; 2) it’s got an entirely new lexicon of neologisms invented to describe this alternate world; 3) most of the readers I respect have found it challenging but rewarding; 4) will I lose all my SF street cred if I admit to not liking this?

I decided that the audiobook format might be the best way for me to take on this behemoth. It features four different narrators (Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, William Dufris, and Neal Stephenson doing glossary definitions at the start of each chapter), and the characters are given distinct voices and personalities. They do their best to create the young, pedantic and nerdy voices of the young avouts. It’s not their fault if the majority of the dialogue seem to be caricatures of academic esoterica. In any case, the story itself is so enamored with world-building and discussions of obscure invented philosophies and the history of same that the plot is stifled to death under the weight of details Stephenson piles on.

I’m very willing to grant authors a lot of leeway to build a world as detailed and dense and complex as our own world, and I think Stephenson has probably achieved this. However, I found that no matter how many pages I listened to, whether on the train, at the gym, walking the dog, etc. I just couldn’t really get myself to care about these monks and their interminable debates.

I gave this book over 300 pages to get me hooked, and it failed to do so. That is not meant as a criticism of the book’s length. I was completely enthralled by Stephenson’s Crytonomicon, a massive story that ranges between the setting up a data haven and hunting for Nazi gold in the present (well, at the time of writing) and a fascinating story of the mathematitians cracking the Nazi Enigma Code back in WWII. That book had me engaged with Bobby Shaftoe, Larry Waterhouse, Amy Shaftoe, Randy Waterhouse, Alan Turing, even a cameo from Ronald Reagan! I couldn’t stop laughing at so many scenes that still leap to mind, and I was sad when the story ended. So no, length is not the issue.

The invented language of Anathem is also not really a sticking point for me. It was quite fascinating how Stephenson coined all of these terms and integrated them into a seamless whole, complete with their historical development and etymology. If you like language and how it evolves, you will like this aspect. I read through the glossary a few times to get comfortable, and got to like the sound of these alien terms.

What just killed me is the absolutely turgid pace of the “plot” if we generously chose to call it that. I mean, basically nothing has happened in over 300 pages except for the ritual week of Apert, when the consent (monastery) opens its doors to the extramuros (outside world) for one week. An entire book, even something as dense and brilliant as China Mieville’s Embassytown, could be completed at this point. And yet I found that nothing had been attained besides some veiled intrigue about some anomalous astronomical sightings, and many of the main characters are mysteriously expelled from the consent into the outside world, which I take it will begin their quest for answers. Too late, I’m afraid.

I kept telling myself that if I just stayed with the story it would start to click. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other books I’d rather be reading. And when you look to see that there are still 20+ hours remaining and you are dreading it, you know you’re in trouble. And when you just decide to stop and pick up another book and an intense feeling of relief floods your mind, then you know the truth. Time to move on.

I’m now batting .500 with Neal Stephenson, who I still consider one of my favorite writers thanks to Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. However, The Diamond Age and Anathem didn’t do it for me (though I may take up Anathem again someday), and I expect that Reamde is even more self-indulgent though at least it’s set in the present and centers on MMORGs and espionage. That goes double and triple for his Baroque Cycle, which sounds very much like a dive off the deep end into all of Stephenson’s favorite quirky interests in history, politics, philosophy, etc. At this point, I may not get to his upcoming book Seveneves for some time. But I haven’t given up, we just need some distance.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews2,889 followers
March 7, 2016
I’m amazed this was a bestseller – not because it’s bad but because it’s so difficult. “A brilliant playful tour of the terrain where logic, mathematics, philosophy and quantum physics intersects, a novel melding wordplay and mathematical theory with a gripping human adventure,” says the blurb and the only part of that assessment I’d take issue with is the “gripping” part!

I don’t really do (or get) science fiction and often this felt like reading a novel in a language I had only studied for six months. Things were constantly going over my head. I was wearied by the abundance of exposition. Pages and pages of it while the plot is put on hold. So many characters too were little more than talking heads. In fact there’s no character development to speak of in the novel; merely an assembly line teenage romance. Stephenson has an amazing visual imagination (not unfortunately coupled with much of an emotional imagination) - perhaps too much so for my liking because it often led to very lengthy descriptions of physical objects that I was still unable to visualise three pages later! The main characters were like high school kids with consequent juvenile humour and emotion. There’s a good twist at the heart of the book but I found it essentially rather soulless and bereft of insights into human nature.
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
1,959 reviews2,675 followers
September 30, 2022
4.0 stars
This was such a fantastic science fiction novel. Despite the length, I flew through the book. I've seen other reviewers criticize that the plot takes a long time to kick in, but honestly the early sections were my favourite parts. Normally I prefer shorter books, but I really enjoyed Neal Stephenson's musing on so many topics. Finally, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding, where so much of the science fiction is hidden beneath the surface of the story.
Profile Image for Olivia.
689 reviews114 followers
March 19, 2018
Anathem isn't an easy book, and it's not a quick read. Anathem, however, is very rewarding. A book I will definitely read a second time in a few years and then hopefully a third time, several years later. Neal Stephenson is obviously bursting with knowledge, and I had to look up the meaning of unknown words more than once. Cheers for expanding my vocabulary.

The plot of Anathem takes place on a different planet than ours and Stephenson invented quite a few words to go with it. As a non native speaker I got to play the beloved 'made up word or English word I do not yet know' game. Thankfully the Kindle comes with a dictionary and Anathem comes with an extensive glossary.

After about seventy pages, I felt more comfortable with the language, and the book started to flow. The world building is fantastic, the social commentary funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

I recommend this to people who love alternative worlds, physics, philosophy and science. And by love, I mean really love.
Profile Image for Chris Berko.
464 reviews109 followers
August 25, 2022
One of the best books I’ve ever read. Definitely in my top five. It was one of the most challenging books but in the most entertaining way. Stephenson knocks it out the park with Anathem.
Profile Image for SAM.
246 reviews5 followers
December 9, 2019
I’m only three into Neal Stephenson’s back catalog and i already have this apprehension before starting one of his books of ‘will i understand what the hell he’s talking about!’. For the first 150 odd pages of Anathem this was semi-true; as a reader of fantasy i can adapt to made up worlds pretty easily but a made up dictionary with silly sounding words did take a while to adjust to and unless you have a decent amount of patience you could quite easily laugh this book off after 50 pages. Fortunately i knew what i was getting into and persisted beyond page 250 when the story finally starts to take shape.

250 pages of complicated back story may seem both daunting and boring but it never felt so. Every page was a history lesson of a world similar to ours with an added touch of science fiction. It’s heavy on religion, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and many other topics i’d never consider reading up on. The core plot is pretty simple: a possible alien space craft is spotted in the sky which demands further investigation. But this isn’t Independence Day with its approach of attack/kill now and ask questions never; this is more ‘lets discuss where the aliens may have come from, why they’re here and what this tells us about the universe’. It’s an alien invasion handled by academics rather than the military.

I didn’t give 5/5 because he’s overly descriptive in some places, usually on machinery and gadgets, and i did find myself losing concentration due to the tedious intricacy he sometimes wanders into. This is was the main reason i couldn’t get through Seveneves but thankfully these occurrences are rare in Anathem.

If you’re into philosophy and religious theory this book will make you very happy.
Profile Image for Jack Tripper.
384 reviews215 followers
January 1, 2016
My first time reading Anathem was one of the most engrossing reading experiences I've ever had, in any genre. As a long-time Stepehenson fan, one could say I'm slightly biased. But, considering that I've now read this three times since it's been out, even though it's a 900+ page monstrosity, should tell you something. And I'm not one who normally rereads books.

First off, I should mention that it definitely helps to have even a slight interest in the 'big questions,' such as the nature of reality, life, etc. If you do, this novel has some amazing concepts, interweaved throughout a great story about Erasmus, a young student/scientist living in a cloistered sanctuary for hundreds of scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, etc, on a planet called Arbre, which is similar in a lot of ways to Earth, but more advanced. These scientists are kept separate from the rest of society, with no real possessions or technology to work with, only free to leave every ten years for ten days (some sects can only leave once every 100 or 1000 years). But all that is about to change when a major threat to the planet is discovered and their help is needed in the regular world, changing their lives forever.

Narrated in the first-person by Erasmus, Anthem is a breathtaking feat of worldbuilding and story. The first 100-150 pages can be a bit of a slog, as you're introduced to quite a few new words and concepts, and have to constantly go back and forth between the narrative and the glossary. After that the story grabs hold and never really lets go, at least for me. I found this to be much more of a page-tuner than Stephenson's other 21st century novels, with less bloat. The discursions are somewhat held in check here, and always related to the story in some way, even if it doesn't seem so at times.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of philosophical concepts discussed, but much of it is between two or more characters, called 'dialogs,' in which the conversation is almost like a battle, with one gaining the upper hand, the other losing. This makes these sections fun, almost like action scenes, rather than a chore. There's plenty of real action as well, and an adventure that spans the globe, and beyond (it's hard, but I'm REALLY trying not to give anything away), with some of the best characters of Stephenson's career. Oh, and it actually has an entirely satisfying ending, which is quite refreshing, and somewhat unique as far as Stephenson is concerned.

Anyone looking for an epic sf adventure with some great characters and far-out concepts, not to mention a world that's fully realized and richly detailed, owes it to themselves to read this. It's a novel that demands constant attention while reading, but it's one I will never forget, and I'll most likely read it again and again in the future. It transports me to another world in a way that few have ever done, to the point where at times I'd forget I'm reading, I'm so immersed in the world of Arbre. I don't know if there's higher praise than that for fans of great worldbuilding in sci-fi or fantasy.

5 Stars
Profile Image for Corey.
Author 12 books152 followers
September 14, 2008
Some novelists pander to their audience. Others challenge them. Neal Stephenson might be determined to make his audience feel stupid, in the nicest possible way.

The American novelist has long been considered one of the great madmen of science fiction, a towering intellect who synthesizes technical mumbo-jumbo and a Monty-Pythonesque capacity for silliness into daunting tomes as entertaining as they are impenetrable. Stephenson mashes up genres with the flair of Thomas Pynchon and the intellect of William Gibson, and the release of each new Stephenson epic is an event in sci-fi circles.

Now, after flirting with historical fiction in his Baroque Trilogy, Stephenson has returned to his roots with a vengeance. Not only is Anathem a sprawling exercise in world-building and philosophical ramblings, it is his fifth novel in a row to weigh in at nearly 1000 pages.

Set on the fictional yet oddly recognizable planet of Arbre, Anathem concerns itself with the goings-on of a ‘math’, a sort of monastery where, instead of concerning themselves with all things theological, the monks (or the ‘avout’) are more akin to scientists, clad in robes and seeking deep scientific and philosophical truths. The narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is a Decenarian, an avout who establishes contact with the world outside the math’s walls only once every ten years.

Once outside, events are set in motion through the observance of strange lights in the sky. Erasmus is sent beyond the walls (or “extramuros”) to find Fraa Orolo, a fellow avout who may hold a key to the purpose of the lights, but who had been subject to an anathem, an excommunication whereby the avout has been “ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered.”

Like Frank Herbert’s seminal work Dune, a large part of mastering Anathem’s dense narrative is coming to grips with its new set of words and definitions, aided through a handy glossary. Past that, the great challenge (and arguably the fun) of Anathem is wading through literally hundreds of pages of quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and enough philosophy to pummel the reader’s brain into tapioca.

One’s reaction to Anathem is likely going to correspond to one’s tolerance for sentences such as “Following the Reconstitution, he was made patron Saunt of the Syntactic Faculty of the Concent of Saunt Muncoster.” Many will find it gibberish; many others will appreciate Stephenson’s refusal to make things easy.

As intriguing and entertaining as Anathem can be, however, it may serve better as a primer for Philosophy 101 than it does a novel. Unlike his previous works such as the magnificently complex Cryptonomicon, Anathem never fully establishes a successful balance between the science and the narrative.

Too often, the plot becomes bogged down in Stephenson’s exploration of philosophical ideas at the expense of clarity. While the attempt to co-mingle theorems with popular entertainment is admirable, Anathem never manages to connect with the reader on an emotional level.

While hardly a disappointment, Anathem ultimately reveals itself as Stephenson’s weakest effort in some time. There is far too much exemplary work on display to consider Anathem a failure, but coming from Stephenson, the fact that it’s not a resounding success is a surprise indeed.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,106 reviews1,803 followers
May 2, 2009
There is an amusing review here on Goodreads that mocks the language of Anathem. The reviewer has a point, there is a silliness to some of the common words that Stephenson decides should be changed to kind of nonsensical words, just to show that this is a world that is like ours but not ours. I feel a little sad for the reviewer that he stopped reading at about page 80 though. Those first hundred pages or a little less, of the book were kind of tough going with the language, but it gets easier and then the book gets a lot better.

If nothing had happened in the book I would have loved it. It would have gotten five stars. As a novel of ideas this was great. The concept of a monkish society that lives only for theory, feared but revered by the outside world with their bullshit language and mundane pursuits was great, kind of like Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game, but without the trippy kind of Eastern Religious undertones. Much of the history of the math (that would be Stephenson's word for the enclosure these monkish types live in) is the history of Western Intellectual thought, but with the names changed to fit this similar but different world from our own. Without at least some idea of a history of ideas this might not be satisfying to read, but then maybe those readers will enjoy the parts that I didn't.

Part of me felt it was a shame that Stephenson placed this novel in an alien world to ours. I thought it could have been interesting for him to use the actual historical figures and teach people things that they might not already know while reading the novel. Then I realized that his way gave him more freedom to tweak the truth, combine multiple people and theories into one when it suited him, and let him escape some know it all saying, but that isn't exactly right.

As long as the novel floated around in ideas and engaged in Socratic dialogs I was very very happy and felt a need to keep reading. Dare I say it was a page turner? A nerdish page turner? It was only when the action started that I got bored with the book. The parts of suspense, and of danger I found tiresome. I couldn't get myself excited about them (I won't say what I didn't like exactly since they will give away the story), and I wished that Stephenson could have found something else to do with this interesting world he created then what he ended up doing with it. Maybe I wanted this novel to be more Name of the Rose then going the route of a Hollywood summer blockbuster.

Fortunately, like in Cryptonomicon, the action comes towards the end, and can be forgotten in lieu of all the good cerebral things that came before it. I have a feeling most readers will welcome the parts I didn't like though, and I can't imagine he would sell nearly as well if he locked up his novels solely in the realm of history and theory, but when he does stay in that 'boring' land he really does an excellent job.
Profile Image for Mümin.
65 reviews38 followers
January 1, 2018
Öncelikle 3 uyarı:
1- Neal Stephenson sizi önce suya alıştıran bir eğitmenden ziyade havuza iteleyiveren dayınıza benziyor, o yüzden biraz su yutmaya hazır olun.
2- Bu kitap yoğun derecede felsefe-bilim göndermeleri ve teknolojik ayrıntılar içeriyor, eğer bunlardan hazzetmiyorsanız elinizdeki kitabı usulca bırakıp sizi mutlu edecek başka bir dünyaya yelken açın.
3- Kitabı okumadan önce idealizm ve materyalizm ekseninde dönen tartışmalara, gerçeğin doğasına dair tarih boyunca edilmiş laflara, öne sürülmüş fikirlere göz atmanız romandan alacağınız zevki arttıracaktır.

Anathem bizimkinden farklı bir dünyada, Arbre adlı bir gezegende geçiyor. Ancak burası farklı bir yer olsa da bayağı bizim dünyamızı andıran bir gezegen. Bizde nasıl ki din adamları dünyadan soyutlanmak için manastırlara ya da dergahlara çekilip dışarının etkilerinden uzak duruyorsa Arbre'da da bilim ve felsefeyle uğraşan zeki insanlar bir nevi manastır olan konsentlerde, kendi matik ortamlarında yaşıyorlar.

Anlatıcımız olan Fraa Erasmas da işte bu dış dünyadan uzak düşünce ortamında "saat kurmak"la görevli birisi. Saatin buradaki önemini, zaman kavramını enine boyuna tartışan romanı okudukça daha iyi anlıyoruz. Erasmas bir onlukçu. Yani on yıl bu manastır benzeri yapıda bilim ve felsefeyle uğraşıyor. On yılda bir de dışarıya çıkıyor. Sıradan insanların dünyasına. Bu tür ilginç kuralları ve bunların ardında yatan felsefeyi keşfetmek çok eğlenceliydi gerçekten.

Anathem, temelde şeylerin kendi başlarına bir anlamları olup olmadığı sorusu üzerine kurulu bir roman. Yani, bir masa benim zihnimden bağımsız olarak da bir anlam taşır mı? Fraa Erasmas bu noktada epey acemi bir genç olduğu için soru uzun süre havada kalıyor. Tartışmalara tanık oluyoruz ve deneylere. Sonra düğüm yavaşça çözülüyor. Kitaptan bir alıntıyla aktarmak gerekirse:

"...hani karman çorman geometrik bir şekle bakarsınız ve bu azıcık döndürülüp de bütün yüzeyleri ve tepe noktası birden aynı hizaya geldiğinde ne olduğunu anlarsınız ya, bütün o sesler de öyle birkaç ölçü içinde biraraya gelip saatimizin ışık kuyusunda çınlayan tek bir saf ton halini alıyor ve etraftaki her şeyi de bu sese uygun biçimde titreştiriyordu."

Anathem'de geometri önemli bir yer tutuyor. Geometrik kavramların zihinle olan bağlantısı da önemli. İletişime dair şu alıntıyı verelim kitaptan.

"Bizim beynimiz, karşılıklı çıkar için biraraya eklenmiş sinekler, yarasalar ve solucanlardır. Beynimizin bu parçaları sürekli olarak birbirleriyle konuşuyor. Andan ana algıladıkları şeyi paylaşımlı geometri diline çeviriyorlar. Beyin böyle bir şeydir. Bilinçli olmak böyle bir şeydir."

Çok farklı bir kitap bu, özgün bir evren yarattığını söylemeliyim. Gerçekten çok ilginç bir deneyimdi Anathem'i okumak. Müzikle astronominin birleştiği çok az roman vardır. Algının sınırlarını genişletme meselesinin başarılı bir biçimde ele alınması da cabası. Eğer bu kitap 1960'larda yazılmış olsaydı sırf bu özelliğinden dolayı bir efsaneye dönüşebilirdi. Tam o zamanların ruhuna uygun bir ana fikre sahip.

Gelelim olumsuz yanlara. Kitap, felsefe ve bilime dair fikirler ileri sürdüğü bölümlerde müthiş bir zevk verirken hikayenin akışı konusunda bazı sıkıntılara sahipti. Yer yer oldukça sıkıcı olduğu bölümler vardı. Bunun yanında, zaten yazar İngilizceden modifiye ederek uydurduğu birçok kavramı kullanırken bunların bir de Türkçeye çevrilmiş olması ve birazcık anlam yitiminin yaşanması kavram kargaşası ve başka sıkıntılar yaratmadı desem yalan olur. Ancak yine de bu denli zor bir eserin çevirisinin altından kalkmayı başaran çevirmeni kutluyorum.

Sonuç olarak "farklı" bir şeyler arayanlar Anathem'e bir şans verebilir.
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