Neal Stephenson – Anathem (Book Review)

Anathem cover

Neal Stephenson - Anathem

I gave up on Neal Stephenson sometime during his Baroque Cycle. That ponderous history tome took pages to explain some concepts, but other times assumed the audience was already familiar with the same things as Stephenson. After several years away, though, I’m very glad that I finally tried his novel Anathem. I can see how many readers would have issues with it similar to my problems with the Baroque Cycle, but I can also say that for the right people, this is a masterpiece.

Set in a world where scholarly types remain cloistered in systems that are half-convent and half-university, this features a complex and initially confusing culture. The book is filled with slightly awkward people who like nothing more than to learn and debate each other. (They even have a formal system of “Dialog” reminiscent of Socrates.) Much of the pleasure of the book, especially at the beginning, comes from geeky characters simply talking and going about their lives. This system is low-tech, but it’s still recognizably the place where our world’s computer programmers and philosophers would end up.

The religious and academic development of this world is very different from ours, but some ideas are familiar, with direct parallels for everything from the Holocaust to Occam’s Razor. Other concepts, such as Plato’s Theory of Forms, are twisted into something recognizable but different. There is a lot to learn, but the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar makes it go smoothly. In such a setting, the hints found in the wordplay (“anathem”, for example, being a ritual that is both “anthem” and “anathema”) are helpful rather than cloying.

The book doesn’t intentionally hold things back; Despite some of the complaints I’ve heard, it starts describing things right away, and sets up situations (such as the once-per-decade festival in which the sheltered characters can mix with civilians) that are designed to explain the system to outsiders. There is a lot to learn, though, and the bulky 900 pages is just barely enough for the novel to cover all of its material. If that scares you away, then this is not for you. However, if you enjoy genre fiction, at least part of that is probably the joy of understanding new worlds. Anathem is just an especially heady version of that experience. I think a large part of the reason that this worked for me where the Baroque Cycle failed is that Stephenson couldn’t make assumptions about which parts of this world I already knew. He (eventually) had to explain everything the reader was supposed to appreciate.

Stephenson’s flaws are still evident, but he has found a perfect vehicle for them. If the characters are sometimes simplistic, it helps that they are various types of nerds safe in a culture devoted to abstract learning. The multi-page lessons for the reader are easier to swallow in dialog format. And if obscure topics that come up in passing always become vital later on, at least the epic length of the story gives them a chance to develop naturally. Happily, at least one of Stephenson’s weak points has been addressed, as this is his first novel to feature a satisfying ending.

I can’t really say much about the plot. In my mind, avoiding spoilers means that I shouldn’t talk about the things that come up after the reader has put effort into the book, and in this case, that covers at least 80% of the story. Suffice to say that Anathem begins with a simple world seen through the eyes of youth, but quickly grows to encompass mysteries and political intrigue. It gets exciting, too: despite Stephenson’s reputation for long, dense books, he has a gift for page-turning adventure. The scope is way beyond what might be expected from the closed society of the early chapters, and by the end, the novel has developed themes even bolder than the fascinating culture it started with. The changes aren’t always welcome at the time, as I felt that I could have stayed immersed in the narrator’s initial boyhood innocence forever. But that, too, worked to the novel’s advantage, because I felt the same nostalgia he did as the situation became progressively stranger. Also, the alternate world isn’t just a clever gimmick. By the end of the story, its quirks have been justified, and it becomes clear that the differences from our reality were all in service to the story and Stephenson’s ideas.

The worst thing I can say about a novel is that only some people will consider it a work of genius. Rich and complex, taking full advantage of its 900-page length to make very foreign systems come alive, Stephenson has mixed his love of geek culture and appreciation for history into his first alternate world. It’s the sort that most writers would spend a lifetime trying to create.

Grade: A-


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