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Anathem, the latest invention by the New York Times bestselling author of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, is a magnificent creation: a work of great scope, intelligence, and imagination that ushers readers into a recognizable—yet strangely inverted—world.

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.

Topics: Philosophical, Epic, Suspenseful, Mathematics, Alternate Universe, Aliens, Space, Physics, Politics, Cosmos, Language, Music, Conspiracy, and War

Published: HarperCollins on Oct 6, 2009
ISBN: 9780061982484
List price: $8.99
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This book was absolutely fascinatingread more
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I am going to cry wolf and say this is a bloody boring book. Long meandering one dimensional characters. Highly overrated. Sure the philosophical discussions are good but I'd rather read a philosophy book over this any day. Needed a great editor as well. So many needless details.read more
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I picked up the book several times to get over the first 50 pages. After I finally got into the story it was definitely worth it, although the story would easily have fitted in half of the pages. It's more an 'idea' novel which explores the consequences of polycosmos, a balance between religion life stretched over millenia and the real world where time is measured in days. Enough to ponder for a couple of weeks!If it's your first encounter with Neal Stephenson I would rather advice Snow Crash or The Diamond Age .. less bombastic, also with great ideas worked out and also a lot less pages :-)read more
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I loved this book and couldn't understand why none of my friends were talking about it. Most Stephenson novels can use some editing, but I was sorry t see this one end.read more
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Anathem reminds me greatly of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum - a very long novel, worth reading for some interesting ideas, pleasant characters, and reasonably exciting plot turns, but sorely in need of editing. The biggest flaw, to me, was that long sections of the book were spent pontificating at the reader (about ideas that have long been familiar to me - readers to whom these ideas are new might well enjoy the book more!) in the form of dialogues between characters, some of whom are really only founts for dialogue and not much substance. Readers should also be warned that the book uses its own vocabulary extensively (though there are times Stephenson forgets, which drive me crazy because I found the vocab unnecessary in the first place) without any initial explanation. This gets points for verisimilitude - if the characters really use that vocabulary, they're not going to bother to explain it in first-person narration - but loses points for being able to understand the book. I put it down three times before reading it, because I got so sick of trying to figure out what everything meant.I would only recommend it really if you like reading a lot about philosophical ideas and have the patience to bear with the vocab until you get enough contextual clues to figure things out. As much as the plot was clever and there are whole passages I'd recommend to anyone, the length and the amount of sections that were just philosophizing make me unable to recommend it to most readers - even fans of Stephenson's other work.read more
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Wow...so THIS is what Stephenson is capable of! The buy-in price is, if possible, even higher than his other novels, but the rewards are correspondingly greater. Anathem marks, if I'm not mistaken, Stephenson's first successful attempt to write some honest-to-God emotion, and for all the furor over the made-up words, it is much less bloated than any of his other recent works. I'll be very excited to see what Stephenson does next.read more
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A philosophical and scientific joyride that keeps you at the edge of the seat and you neurons spinning. A fantastic book.read more
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I really want to like Neal Stephenson. I start each new novel of his with a sense of anticipation hoping “this will be the one.” Anathem wasn’t.The concept of having knowledge cloistered away to protect the general population was interesting, but not new. It’s impossible to do a review of Anathem and not acknowledge its similarities to Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. In Anathem, knowledge is allowed to evolve to a high level but eventually it leads to the potential destruction of a planet (note “a” planet as this is a work of speculative fiction) so all scholarly or learned people are interred into a monastic setting (“reconstituted”) with limited tools and resources. Eventually, the secular world (“extramuros”) needs their assistance (because they have the ability to learn and advance knowledge) and must release them to solve some problem- and the cycle repeats itself- continually.Once again, this was 981 pages (932 if you discount the required glossary and “calca” or theoretical proofs) that I had to struggle to finish. The plot moved along quite well, but the frequent speed bump of launching into theoretical discussions that only PhDs in quantum theory could completely follow made completing the book a chore. Also, the book literally uses a language of its own. Use the glossary! Some words are similar to true English, for example, “aut” is an “act” or rite but others are “made up” but are integral to understanding the book and the reader needs to be clear on their meaning upfront.I do have to say that the characters in Anathem were richer and more well defined than other Stephenson works. Fraa Erasmus or “Raz” is a classic, archetypal hero. Put in situations not of his choosing, he often needs to make choices that place him in danger to save others. The reader can actually build up a relationship and feel something which hasn’t happened in his past novels.For me, this was the best of Stephenson’s works but I still can’t say that I like his writing. Maybe the next one?read more
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Brilliant.Interacting Many-Worlds, Platonic idealism, Hilbert's mathematical formalism, some complicated orbital maneuvering, irritatingly detailed descriptions of clockwork and sudden tangential flights into vague philosophical subjects. Most interesting novel."read more
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Brilliant complex story. Curious combination of monks and science as a religion.read more
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Absolutely loved it! How could you not with quotes like this:"Linguistics got me into this excellent mess - only physics will get me out." and "Our opponent has a starship crammed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor."Any fan of Neal Stephenson will eat it up, as will any fan of smart lit with Philosophy, history, religion/theology, and mathematics in it. Enjoyread more
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Anathem defies all explanation. It is a masterpiece that enthralls you while you are reading and keeps you up at night as you ponder the philosophies discussed. The melding of science, fiction, and human nature is seamless and unrivaled. Definitely one of the best books I have ever read!read more
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Wow. I read most of this while on planes and cardio machines, mostly due to the weight of the book. The book is the story of Fraa Erasmas, Raz to his friends. He's an avout of a math where he's been secluded for just shy of 10 years. The gates open for 10 days and he can visit the area of the city in which he grew up, find some relatives, and decide if he wants to stay in the math. Then he's pulled into world changing events, chasing another fraa who's been Thrown Back, learning more about Orolo's ideas and trying to survive in the outside world as upheavals shake things up, sometimes literally. It's a dense book, and took a while to get into, but it's totally worth it. It covers a lot of momentous events but personalises them using Raz and his friends to give us a view into the world of Arbre. As usual with Stephenson, there's a lot to learn and digest as you read, but he explains things clearly and you need everything by the time you get to the end.read more
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Anathem comes off as something of a regression for Neal Stephenson, and I found it had more in common with earlier works like Zodiac, Snow Crash, and The Diamond Age instead of his more recent works. Writing in first-person, we are spared tracking disparate plot lines and he manages to restrain the digressions a bit.The world-building in Anathem is equal to any of Stephenson's other works, and I especially enjoyed his inversion of the relationship between the "saecular" and "avout", in which he imbues rational, atheistic scholars with all of the trappings we association with religion. I was worried that vocabulary would prove overwhelming during the first hundred pages, but I quickly adapted to all the terminology. This is clearly an example of Stephenson's prose skills rising to the task.Anathem is not my favorite Stephenson novel, but it delivers much of what I have come to expect from him. There are lots of ideas in this novel to digest, so I don't expect every reader will find it enjoyable. His older works, mentioned above, may be a better point-of-entry for the neophyte.read more
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It takes a while to become immersed in the book, as the characters use many words of their own language. However, once you become used to this, the pace gets faster and faster, and it develops into a real page turner. It is full of fascinating ideas and philosophies, and is a very satisfying read.read more
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I enjoyed this book immensely. It took me about 50 pages to feel comfortable with the terminology. I found myself flipping to the glossary in the back many times early on (I actually enjoyed that), but soon the strange terminology became second nature and I just fell into the story.There are wonderful philosophies and scientific ideas addressed in this book, entwined in a grand historical framework with engaging characters and a cool adventure story to boot. It takes about 200-300 pages before it switches gears and the adventure begins, but from the first page this book had my utmost attention and interest. At times, I found myself in awe at the scope of his writing. He can challenge you so deeply with complex ideas, but he balances it so well, maintaining a coherent and excellent storyline. It also is really funny at times, I found myself laughing out loud, something I didn't expect. This was my first Neal Stephenson novel, but it will definitely not be my last.read more
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It's very good. It was hard to dive into, because of all the nomenclature. But once I got past the initial vocabulary hump, I enjoyed it immensely. It's thought-provoking, and in-depth, and just highly satisfying overall.

I liked the breadth of the story -- it feels somewhat epic. A wonderful read, all in all.read more
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I have to say, the dressed up philosophical thought experiments eventually wore on me, but this book had the big ideas, interesting characters, and humor that I needed to leaven the more difficult conundrums that are somewhat central to the book's plot.read more
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A fantastically realized blending of neo-Platonism, metaphysics, and quantum mechanics/physics. Along the way we get the standard alien-invasion story with so many twists that it's almost a new plot line. This is my first Stephenson book, and I will definitely be seeking more.read more
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Anathem is a bit of a slog, bridging the the cognitive gap between non-fiction textbook and fiction adventure story. Still, the implications of the world that Stephenson has built, the society described, and the nature of the danger it faces is intriguing. It look long enough to get to the actual conflict, that I hesitate to even mention it for fear of spoiling.read more
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Great idea, terrible execution.This book starts with a great premise...a society where educated “avout” are cloistered away for varying lengths of time. However, Stephenson never figures out how to make that a key part of the story. How does their sequestration change them? After having read the book and contemplating on the plot and outcome, I have yet to figure out why he chose to set the story in this particular made-up world. It almost feels as though he intended to write a story about the world and a separate story about the multiple cosmos theory…then decided to merge them, with a disappointing result. Likewise, the plot is interesting, but Stephenson takes a straightforward story and stretches it out into an almost unreadable mash-up of action interspersed with Socratic dialogues. I actually loved the theoretical discussions. However, the attempt at “action” is terrible. There are several scenes (race across the arctic and voyage into space) that are bogged down by so much unnecessary detail that the pace of the book slows to the point of unreadability. Furthermore, there are many scenes that do little (if anything) to advance the plot, yet are described in methodical, arcane detail. Lastly, most of the pivotal plot points, where some actual detail would have been nice, are skipped and described after the fact, leaving one to guess exactly how they happened.In summary, this book lacks any semblance of editing, but brings out some interesting theories in a unique world setting. Read at your own risk and be prepared to be variously bored, intrigued and confused. Don’t get me wrong, the ideas presented are interesting. However, the method in which they are presented is confusing and less than satisfying.read more
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I could have tagged this book with almost every one in the list. It's just shy of 1000 pages and densely packed with ideas, most of them at least moderately interesting. I'm not sure it's a book I could recommend to everyone - it's not exactly fast-moving, and some days I realize that my reading speed makes some books engaging that would be plain boring at a more sane pace, but it's overall a fascinating work and I'll be chewing over bits of it for a long, long time.read more
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The uniqueness of a world in which science and math become a sort of secular religion has an irresistible appeal. It becomes a warm blanket it becomes a warm blanket that is ripped away when that world is disturbed. The story is interesting but wouldn't be nearly so without the layers of philosophical speculation on top. My only major critique is that the world outside the math was too flat in comparison to the rich monastic life.read more
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Neal Stephenson’s Anathem combines an adventure tale with a narrative exploration of metaphysics. In some ways the marriage is of convenience, making more palatable the dry arguments of ontology and epistemology. But it’s more than that. Stephenson selects the rarified set of circumstances under which ontology and careful consideration of multidimensionality are of immediate practical interest: when “strangers come to town from four different cosmi at once.” [656] Anathem’s setting, the planet Arbre, is an analogue of Earth. Not only is the physical environment similar, the inhabitants effectively are humans who made slightly different choices at major historical crossroads. Nominally alien yet always recognizable are major schools of philosophy, religion, technological and political watersheds in the planet’s social history, and so on. (Stephenson’s names for these are sly and amusing, different enough to preserve the alien culture, familiar enough to draw comparison to our history.) Arbre is a laboratory for imagining counterfactuals, casting into sharp relief patterns and developments occurring on Earth but so familiar as to be glanced over. This is the “marriage of convenience” between setting / plot and theme. Thematically, Stephenson could have written the same book set on Earth … but plot-wise, it’s clever that he doesn’t. Readers would have a host of other expectations and perspectives had he done so, and I think it’s deliberate that the reader not have those until perhaps the end.For all that, the plot is fun but the metaphysics are the meat of the book. The mathematics and logic behind imagined parallel universes is fascinating, fleshing out the abstractions of ontological realism. Key example: "Complex [Protism] can have any number of boxes and arrows [depicting the flow of information / reality from one cosmos to another], as long as the arrows never go round in a circle." [374] There are a great many "narrative dumps" in which characters go into painstaking detail regarding history, math, or culture (whether Arbrean or as an abstract argument, i.e. equally Arbrean or Terran). I expect this device is tedious for many even though Stephenson's setting takes these into nominal account, as the characters are variously from isolated monasteries and the outside culture, and need a lot of discussion to understand one another. I relished these expositions, though the plot always held my interest. Anathem bears re-reading: as a thought experiment to quiz understanding during a metaphysics course, and for the sheer entertainment.read more
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Anathem is an interesting book, a ponderous book, a boring book and also a great book. All these things at different times that it becomes difficult to place the book with one review and one rating.To be sure, Stephenson does something with Anathem that most authors either cannot do or cannot get away with doing. He rambles and extends chapters continually. While he does this however, it can often be to great benefit to a reader wishing to come across a different way of looking at whatever theme Stephenson is trying to mention. At odd times the rambling can come across as pointless and arbitrary - likely Stephenson saw a point to it but it was lost in translation along the way.Unlike most reviewers I have noticed, I enjoyed the first one-third of Anathem the most. It was intelligent, slow-paced and basically developed what the reader was immersed with. To me, it was amazing. The mid-section of the novel was also good but took quite a different style than the first sections. It was faster paced with more going on and with some eventual "action" sequences that were almost non-existant in the first third. The last third of the book was a letdown to me. The novel became even more fast-paced with yet again more changes to the novel's style and I felt Stephenson was trying to rush a conclusion a bit.Overall, I can definitely understand how many readers would not enjoy this book. It's a book for people who want a slower paced, more thought-based novel with an imaginative setting and lots of various themes being touched. At times incredibly slow, it was still overall a decent novel, I only wish that the artful quality that the book began with could have continued through the later chapters.read more
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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.)read more
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Oh wow. This was cool.
Basically what you have here is a sort of alternate universe where they have these monasteries that are scientific instead of religious. And with lady and gentleman scientists both. And they sort of cloister themselves off for different periods of time, like 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000 years, so the outside society is constantly changing while the monasteries more or less stay the same.

It also is about different philosophical/mathematical/scientific ideas that people in our world have thought of already, and explains them to you in an understandable way. I know this sounds annoying, but it isn't.

What I love about Neal Stephenson's writing:
--it makes you feel smart and teaches you things at the same time
--even though the story is very involved, you always know exactly where you are and what is happening to whom
--he is willing to spend a whole paragraph describing a vast collection of folding chairs and tables, just for the hell of it
--he's kind of a goof
--he can write a book that is 935 pages, and on page 500 or so you are already sad because it will eventually have to end.

What I don't love:
--he has this idea that only women can possibly understand interpersonal relationships, and men are clueless oafs. I don't believe this is true.
--a 935-page book is freaking HEAVY.read more
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This novel has Stephenson's usual wry humor and deep thoughts, but I thought that the poorly-handled plot detracted from what may otherwise have been another great book in the vein of CRYPTONOMICON or THE BAROQUE CYCLE. Instead of being glad when the plot side of things finally got moving, I ended up being frustrated by the pacing (too much time spent on rehashing things that were already explained, too much time spent on going on and on about maneuvering in space, too much time spent on not very evocative descriptions of the spacecraft) and some of the false buildups that ended up going nowhere. I also wasn't at all fond of the cheesy epilogue ending to the book. Overall, I think I would have been happier if Stephenson had either stuck with the philosophical debates (which were really interesting) or, better yet, not fumbled what could have been a good plot. If you're already a big fan of Neal's work then maybe you should take a crack at this one (since obviously opinions will differ), but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.read more
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I gave up over 500 pages into this book. It wasn't that I didn't like it, I just didn't like it enough to keep putting aside books I was more eager to read. The story progresses so slowly and I got really tired of being lectured on philosophy and mathematics. I like an intellectual challenge, but need to be amused throughout and this did not cut it. When I realized that I could easily live without knowing how things turn out, I gave up.read more
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I want to like this book more than I did. Stephenson is a fountain of great ideas, but he's been in need of fierce editing ever since he "went big" with the Baroque Cycle. I'm not one to complain about lengthy didactic passages in fiction; Heinlein did them just fine in his sci-fi, and Eco (to whose "Name of the Rose" this book owes a lot) writes them much better than he writes "real" dialogue. Anathem has major pacing problems, though, which is a shame, because Stephenson hasn't been this witty and inventive in years.read more
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This book was absolutely fascinating
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I am going to cry wolf and say this is a bloody boring book. Long meandering one dimensional characters. Highly overrated. Sure the philosophical discussions are good but I'd rather read a philosophy book over this any day. Needed a great editor as well. So many needless details.
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I picked up the book several times to get over the first 50 pages. After I finally got into the story it was definitely worth it, although the story would easily have fitted in half of the pages. It's more an 'idea' novel which explores the consequences of polycosmos, a balance between religion life stretched over millenia and the real world where time is measured in days. Enough to ponder for a couple of weeks!If it's your first encounter with Neal Stephenson I would rather advice Snow Crash or The Diamond Age .. less bombastic, also with great ideas worked out and also a lot less pages :-)
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I loved this book and couldn't understand why none of my friends were talking about it. Most Stephenson novels can use some editing, but I was sorry t see this one end.
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Anathem reminds me greatly of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum - a very long novel, worth reading for some interesting ideas, pleasant characters, and reasonably exciting plot turns, but sorely in need of editing. The biggest flaw, to me, was that long sections of the book were spent pontificating at the reader (about ideas that have long been familiar to me - readers to whom these ideas are new might well enjoy the book more!) in the form of dialogues between characters, some of whom are really only founts for dialogue and not much substance. Readers should also be warned that the book uses its own vocabulary extensively (though there are times Stephenson forgets, which drive me crazy because I found the vocab unnecessary in the first place) without any initial explanation. This gets points for verisimilitude - if the characters really use that vocabulary, they're not going to bother to explain it in first-person narration - but loses points for being able to understand the book. I put it down three times before reading it, because I got so sick of trying to figure out what everything meant.I would only recommend it really if you like reading a lot about philosophical ideas and have the patience to bear with the vocab until you get enough contextual clues to figure things out. As much as the plot was clever and there are whole passages I'd recommend to anyone, the length and the amount of sections that were just philosophizing make me unable to recommend it to most readers - even fans of Stephenson's other work.
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Wow...so THIS is what Stephenson is capable of! The buy-in price is, if possible, even higher than his other novels, but the rewards are correspondingly greater. Anathem marks, if I'm not mistaken, Stephenson's first successful attempt to write some honest-to-God emotion, and for all the furor over the made-up words, it is much less bloated than any of his other recent works. I'll be very excited to see what Stephenson does next.
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A philosophical and scientific joyride that keeps you at the edge of the seat and you neurons spinning. A fantastic book.
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I really want to like Neal Stephenson. I start each new novel of his with a sense of anticipation hoping “this will be the one.” Anathem wasn’t.The concept of having knowledge cloistered away to protect the general population was interesting, but not new. It’s impossible to do a review of Anathem and not acknowledge its similarities to Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. In Anathem, knowledge is allowed to evolve to a high level but eventually it leads to the potential destruction of a planet (note “a” planet as this is a work of speculative fiction) so all scholarly or learned people are interred into a monastic setting (“reconstituted”) with limited tools and resources. Eventually, the secular world (“extramuros”) needs their assistance (because they have the ability to learn and advance knowledge) and must release them to solve some problem- and the cycle repeats itself- continually.Once again, this was 981 pages (932 if you discount the required glossary and “calca” or theoretical proofs) that I had to struggle to finish. The plot moved along quite well, but the frequent speed bump of launching into theoretical discussions that only PhDs in quantum theory could completely follow made completing the book a chore. Also, the book literally uses a language of its own. Use the glossary! Some words are similar to true English, for example, “aut” is an “act” or rite but others are “made up” but are integral to understanding the book and the reader needs to be clear on their meaning upfront.I do have to say that the characters in Anathem were richer and more well defined than other Stephenson works. Fraa Erasmus or “Raz” is a classic, archetypal hero. Put in situations not of his choosing, he often needs to make choices that place him in danger to save others. The reader can actually build up a relationship and feel something which hasn’t happened in his past novels.For me, this was the best of Stephenson’s works but I still can’t say that I like his writing. Maybe the next one?
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Brilliant.Interacting Many-Worlds, Platonic idealism, Hilbert's mathematical formalism, some complicated orbital maneuvering, irritatingly detailed descriptions of clockwork and sudden tangential flights into vague philosophical subjects. Most interesting novel."
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Brilliant complex story. Curious combination of monks and science as a religion.
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Absolutely loved it! How could you not with quotes like this:"Linguistics got me into this excellent mess - only physics will get me out." and "Our opponent has a starship crammed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor."Any fan of Neal Stephenson will eat it up, as will any fan of smart lit with Philosophy, history, religion/theology, and mathematics in it. Enjoy
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Anathem defies all explanation. It is a masterpiece that enthralls you while you are reading and keeps you up at night as you ponder the philosophies discussed. The melding of science, fiction, and human nature is seamless and unrivaled. Definitely one of the best books I have ever read!
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Wow. I read most of this while on planes and cardio machines, mostly due to the weight of the book. The book is the story of Fraa Erasmas, Raz to his friends. He's an avout of a math where he's been secluded for just shy of 10 years. The gates open for 10 days and he can visit the area of the city in which he grew up, find some relatives, and decide if he wants to stay in the math. Then he's pulled into world changing events, chasing another fraa who's been Thrown Back, learning more about Orolo's ideas and trying to survive in the outside world as upheavals shake things up, sometimes literally. It's a dense book, and took a while to get into, but it's totally worth it. It covers a lot of momentous events but personalises them using Raz and his friends to give us a view into the world of Arbre. As usual with Stephenson, there's a lot to learn and digest as you read, but he explains things clearly and you need everything by the time you get to the end.
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Anathem comes off as something of a regression for Neal Stephenson, and I found it had more in common with earlier works like Zodiac, Snow Crash, and The Diamond Age instead of his more recent works. Writing in first-person, we are spared tracking disparate plot lines and he manages to restrain the digressions a bit.The world-building in Anathem is equal to any of Stephenson's other works, and I especially enjoyed his inversion of the relationship between the "saecular" and "avout", in which he imbues rational, atheistic scholars with all of the trappings we association with religion. I was worried that vocabulary would prove overwhelming during the first hundred pages, but I quickly adapted to all the terminology. This is clearly an example of Stephenson's prose skills rising to the task.Anathem is not my favorite Stephenson novel, but it delivers much of what I have come to expect from him. There are lots of ideas in this novel to digest, so I don't expect every reader will find it enjoyable. His older works, mentioned above, may be a better point-of-entry for the neophyte.
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It takes a while to become immersed in the book, as the characters use many words of their own language. However, once you become used to this, the pace gets faster and faster, and it develops into a real page turner. It is full of fascinating ideas and philosophies, and is a very satisfying read.
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I enjoyed this book immensely. It took me about 50 pages to feel comfortable with the terminology. I found myself flipping to the glossary in the back many times early on (I actually enjoyed that), but soon the strange terminology became second nature and I just fell into the story.There are wonderful philosophies and scientific ideas addressed in this book, entwined in a grand historical framework with engaging characters and a cool adventure story to boot. It takes about 200-300 pages before it switches gears and the adventure begins, but from the first page this book had my utmost attention and interest. At times, I found myself in awe at the scope of his writing. He can challenge you so deeply with complex ideas, but he balances it so well, maintaining a coherent and excellent storyline. It also is really funny at times, I found myself laughing out loud, something I didn't expect. This was my first Neal Stephenson novel, but it will definitely not be my last.
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It's very good. It was hard to dive into, because of all the nomenclature. But once I got past the initial vocabulary hump, I enjoyed it immensely. It's thought-provoking, and in-depth, and just highly satisfying overall.

I liked the breadth of the story -- it feels somewhat epic. A wonderful read, all in all.
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I have to say, the dressed up philosophical thought experiments eventually wore on me, but this book had the big ideas, interesting characters, and humor that I needed to leaven the more difficult conundrums that are somewhat central to the book's plot.
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A fantastically realized blending of neo-Platonism, metaphysics, and quantum mechanics/physics. Along the way we get the standard alien-invasion story with so many twists that it's almost a new plot line. This is my first Stephenson book, and I will definitely be seeking more.
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Anathem is a bit of a slog, bridging the the cognitive gap between non-fiction textbook and fiction adventure story. Still, the implications of the world that Stephenson has built, the society described, and the nature of the danger it faces is intriguing. It look long enough to get to the actual conflict, that I hesitate to even mention it for fear of spoiling.
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Great idea, terrible execution.This book starts with a great premise...a society where educated “avout” are cloistered away for varying lengths of time. However, Stephenson never figures out how to make that a key part of the story. How does their sequestration change them? After having read the book and contemplating on the plot and outcome, I have yet to figure out why he chose to set the story in this particular made-up world. It almost feels as though he intended to write a story about the world and a separate story about the multiple cosmos theory…then decided to merge them, with a disappointing result. Likewise, the plot is interesting, but Stephenson takes a straightforward story and stretches it out into an almost unreadable mash-up of action interspersed with Socratic dialogues. I actually loved the theoretical discussions. However, the attempt at “action” is terrible. There are several scenes (race across the arctic and voyage into space) that are bogged down by so much unnecessary detail that the pace of the book slows to the point of unreadability. Furthermore, there are many scenes that do little (if anything) to advance the plot, yet are described in methodical, arcane detail. Lastly, most of the pivotal plot points, where some actual detail would have been nice, are skipped and described after the fact, leaving one to guess exactly how they happened.In summary, this book lacks any semblance of editing, but brings out some interesting theories in a unique world setting. Read at your own risk and be prepared to be variously bored, intrigued and confused. Don’t get me wrong, the ideas presented are interesting. However, the method in which they are presented is confusing and less than satisfying.
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I could have tagged this book with almost every one in the list. It's just shy of 1000 pages and densely packed with ideas, most of them at least moderately interesting. I'm not sure it's a book I could recommend to everyone - it's not exactly fast-moving, and some days I realize that my reading speed makes some books engaging that would be plain boring at a more sane pace, but it's overall a fascinating work and I'll be chewing over bits of it for a long, long time.
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The uniqueness of a world in which science and math become a sort of secular religion has an irresistible appeal. It becomes a warm blanket it becomes a warm blanket that is ripped away when that world is disturbed. The story is interesting but wouldn't be nearly so without the layers of philosophical speculation on top. My only major critique is that the world outside the math was too flat in comparison to the rich monastic life.
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Neal Stephenson’s Anathem combines an adventure tale with a narrative exploration of metaphysics. In some ways the marriage is of convenience, making more palatable the dry arguments of ontology and epistemology. But it’s more than that. Stephenson selects the rarified set of circumstances under which ontology and careful consideration of multidimensionality are of immediate practical interest: when “strangers come to town from four different cosmi at once.” [656] Anathem’s setting, the planet Arbre, is an analogue of Earth. Not only is the physical environment similar, the inhabitants effectively are humans who made slightly different choices at major historical crossroads. Nominally alien yet always recognizable are major schools of philosophy, religion, technological and political watersheds in the planet’s social history, and so on. (Stephenson’s names for these are sly and amusing, different enough to preserve the alien culture, familiar enough to draw comparison to our history.) Arbre is a laboratory for imagining counterfactuals, casting into sharp relief patterns and developments occurring on Earth but so familiar as to be glanced over. This is the “marriage of convenience” between setting / plot and theme. Thematically, Stephenson could have written the same book set on Earth … but plot-wise, it’s clever that he doesn’t. Readers would have a host of other expectations and perspectives had he done so, and I think it’s deliberate that the reader not have those until perhaps the end.For all that, the plot is fun but the metaphysics are the meat of the book. The mathematics and logic behind imagined parallel universes is fascinating, fleshing out the abstractions of ontological realism. Key example: "Complex [Protism] can have any number of boxes and arrows [depicting the flow of information / reality from one cosmos to another], as long as the arrows never go round in a circle." [374] There are a great many "narrative dumps" in which characters go into painstaking detail regarding history, math, or culture (whether Arbrean or as an abstract argument, i.e. equally Arbrean or Terran). I expect this device is tedious for many even though Stephenson's setting takes these into nominal account, as the characters are variously from isolated monasteries and the outside culture, and need a lot of discussion to understand one another. I relished these expositions, though the plot always held my interest. Anathem bears re-reading: as a thought experiment to quiz understanding during a metaphysics course, and for the sheer entertainment.
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Anathem is an interesting book, a ponderous book, a boring book and also a great book. All these things at different times that it becomes difficult to place the book with one review and one rating.To be sure, Stephenson does something with Anathem that most authors either cannot do or cannot get away with doing. He rambles and extends chapters continually. While he does this however, it can often be to great benefit to a reader wishing to come across a different way of looking at whatever theme Stephenson is trying to mention. At odd times the rambling can come across as pointless and arbitrary - likely Stephenson saw a point to it but it was lost in translation along the way.Unlike most reviewers I have noticed, I enjoyed the first one-third of Anathem the most. It was intelligent, slow-paced and basically developed what the reader was immersed with. To me, it was amazing. The mid-section of the novel was also good but took quite a different style than the first sections. It was faster paced with more going on and with some eventual "action" sequences that were almost non-existant in the first third. The last third of the book was a letdown to me. The novel became even more fast-paced with yet again more changes to the novel's style and I felt Stephenson was trying to rush a conclusion a bit.Overall, I can definitely understand how many readers would not enjoy this book. It's a book for people who want a slower paced, more thought-based novel with an imaginative setting and lots of various themes being touched. At times incredibly slow, it was still overall a decent novel, I only wish that the artful quality that the book began with could have continued through the later chapters.
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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.)
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Oh wow. This was cool.
Basically what you have here is a sort of alternate universe where they have these monasteries that are scientific instead of religious. And with lady and gentleman scientists both. And they sort of cloister themselves off for different periods of time, like 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000 years, so the outside society is constantly changing while the monasteries more or less stay the same.

It also is about different philosophical/mathematical/scientific ideas that people in our world have thought of already, and explains them to you in an understandable way. I know this sounds annoying, but it isn't.

What I love about Neal Stephenson's writing:
--it makes you feel smart and teaches you things at the same time
--even though the story is very involved, you always know exactly where you are and what is happening to whom
--he is willing to spend a whole paragraph describing a vast collection of folding chairs and tables, just for the hell of it
--he's kind of a goof
--he can write a book that is 935 pages, and on page 500 or so you are already sad because it will eventually have to end.

What I don't love:
--he has this idea that only women can possibly understand interpersonal relationships, and men are clueless oafs. I don't believe this is true.
--a 935-page book is freaking HEAVY.
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This novel has Stephenson's usual wry humor and deep thoughts, but I thought that the poorly-handled plot detracted from what may otherwise have been another great book in the vein of CRYPTONOMICON or THE BAROQUE CYCLE. Instead of being glad when the plot side of things finally got moving, I ended up being frustrated by the pacing (too much time spent on rehashing things that were already explained, too much time spent on going on and on about maneuvering in space, too much time spent on not very evocative descriptions of the spacecraft) and some of the false buildups that ended up going nowhere. I also wasn't at all fond of the cheesy epilogue ending to the book. Overall, I think I would have been happier if Stephenson had either stuck with the philosophical debates (which were really interesting) or, better yet, not fumbled what could have been a good plot. If you're already a big fan of Neal's work then maybe you should take a crack at this one (since obviously opinions will differ), but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.
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I gave up over 500 pages into this book. It wasn't that I didn't like it, I just didn't like it enough to keep putting aside books I was more eager to read. The story progresses so slowly and I got really tired of being lectured on philosophy and mathematics. I like an intellectual challenge, but need to be amused throughout and this did not cut it. When I realized that I could easily live without knowing how things turn out, I gave up.
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I want to like this book more than I did. Stephenson is a fountain of great ideas, but he's been in need of fierce editing ever since he "went big" with the Baroque Cycle. I'm not one to complain about lengthy didactic passages in fiction; Heinlein did them just fine in his sci-fi, and Eco (to whose "Name of the Rose" this book owes a lot) writes them much better than he writes "real" dialogue. Anathem has major pacing problems, though, which is a shame, because Stephenson hasn't been this witty and inventive in years.
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