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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
ISBN: 9780061982484
List price: $8.99
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Stephenson has done it again, only better. The narrative here is less convoluted, with fewer characters to keep track of than The Baroque Cycle or Cryptonomicon. Instead his enormous gift for meticulously detailed invention is focused on the creation, not just of a world, but of an entire cosmology. One of the many, many things to love about this book is its unashamed and accessible celebration of intellect, knowledge and enquiry - everything from quantum physics to molecular biology to advanced geometry forms part of the warp and weft of the tale. It's more than a story set in an alternate reality - it's a novel of ideas about the meaning of reality itself and about how understanding transfers and transmutes between peoples and times. A feast for the enquiring mind.more
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.more
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.more
There is a style of book that drops you in in the middle and expects you to sink or swim. This is not that book no matter how lost you feel at the beginning with the invented vocabulary (there is a glossary at the end though I think you will find that, other than proper nouns, learning the vocabulary from context clues and the in-text definitions is rewarding). It is also rewarding to pick up the book with as little information as possible, but knowing that you may want some information to decide if this is your type of book, consider the following:

-It is told from the perspective of a monk (avout in book-vocabulary) and is very heavily infused with philosophy, thought experiments, dialogs (think Plato), and slow-living. There is physical action, but it is between hundred page stretches of slower-paced maneuvering.

-If it happens to you like it happened to me, there will come a point 850 pages in where you will realize something that seems like a plot hole so large you could throw this book through it and you will want to. Keep reading. Not only is it not a plot hole, but it is neatly tied up into the story. I can't tell you anything more.

-The last 50 pages are slower than anything you have read so far, but the last page makes it worth it.more
Read all 112 reviews

Reviews

Stephenson has done it again, only better. The narrative here is less convoluted, with fewer characters to keep track of than The Baroque Cycle or Cryptonomicon. Instead his enormous gift for meticulously detailed invention is focused on the creation, not just of a world, but of an entire cosmology. One of the many, many things to love about this book is its unashamed and accessible celebration of intellect, knowledge and enquiry - everything from quantum physics to molecular biology to advanced geometry forms part of the warp and weft of the tale. It's more than a story set in an alternate reality - it's a novel of ideas about the meaning of reality itself and about how understanding transfers and transmutes between peoples and times. A feast for the enquiring mind.more
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.more
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.more
There is a style of book that drops you in in the middle and expects you to sink or swim. This is not that book no matter how lost you feel at the beginning with the invented vocabulary (there is a glossary at the end though I think you will find that, other than proper nouns, learning the vocabulary from context clues and the in-text definitions is rewarding). It is also rewarding to pick up the book with as little information as possible, but knowing that you may want some information to decide if this is your type of book, consider the following:

-It is told from the perspective of a monk (avout in book-vocabulary) and is very heavily infused with philosophy, thought experiments, dialogs (think Plato), and slow-living. There is physical action, but it is between hundred page stretches of slower-paced maneuvering.

-If it happens to you like it happened to me, there will come a point 850 pages in where you will realize something that seems like a plot hole so large you could throw this book through it and you will want to. Keep reading. Not only is it not a plot hole, but it is neatly tied up into the story. I can't tell you anything more.

-The last 50 pages are slower than anything you have read so far, but the last page makes it worth it.more
Wonderfully inventive, intriguing and educational. Sometimes I felt the technical details were overdone, but I think that's because I'm not enough of a nerd to appreciate them.more
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.)more
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