Thorin McGee's Reviews > Anathem

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
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Aug 30, 2008

really liked it

Many stories end with the action heroes saving the day thanks to some world’s-last-only-hope-McGuffin-weapon that the world’s best scientists had been working round the clock throughout the story, albeit completely unbeknownst to the reader. This book shows you those scientists. And you quickly realize that what they’re working on, the ideas they’re debating and developing, are a lot more exciting and important than whatever Mr. and Mrs. Action Hero are up to. And frankly, they’re more fun to read about, the wizards of Stephenson’s recognizably futuristic world.

The book is very, very smart. This is the first thing I’ve read by Neal Stephenson, and now I know what I’ve been missing. He’s a modern-day science fiction writer in the metascience tradition of Aasimov and Bradbury. He’s not afraid of introducing readers to some huge ideas—you’ll come away with a better understanding of quantum mechanics, guaranteed—and incorporating them into an epic plot with characters who understand and use them.

Most of the conflict in Anathem takes place in conversations. But one of the more subtle tricks in writing is that conflict is conflict, whether it’s fought with words or nuclear bombs. If you write it well and provide some stakes, readers can be just a wrapped up in a televised debate that will decide a course of action—and therefore the fate of the world—as they are in a fight scene. More so, perhaps, because in your life, when has a punch mattered more than an interview or argument? (psst: The answer is never. The real question is, have you come to realize it?) Stephenson understands this and uses it well, which keeps Anathem very exciting. It’s riddles, revelations and ideas. And yes, there’s plenty of action in the end, but after so much intellectual combat it’s a little disappointing.

The other thing Anathem is is long, but not unrewardingly so because it’s the kind of book that another author might have done as three separate books. The first part takes place in a cloistered, academic “conscent” (think of a monastery/university campus that only lets its professors out every 10, 100 or even 1,000 years). The second part is a slow trip across half the “saecular” globe. Then you’re back in a math, and then in space. It’s one of those books that covers so much ground that many of your old questions become irrelevant as new twists are revealed, only to come up again later when you’d forgotten about them, which is rewarding as a reader. It’s seldom slow, although the 900-ish page book probably would have been better and just as complete if it shed about 200 pages.

So 4 stars. It’s a bit indulgent and there are some parts I found ended a little too conveniently happy, but I really liked Anathem. It made me think, made me remember why it’s good to be smart, to have real debates about things that matter more than sports, and to read things that give you new ideas that are worth some work to understand. Plus, how many books come with a CD of original music from an alien world and 25 pages of geometry lessons? (OK, you have to be a nerd to appreciate that last part… But any reader can appreciate the author wise enough to pull it out of his story and sequester the math course in an appendix.)
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