This is not a review, but I’d recommend reading…

Posted by Peter Hall - December 8th 2008 @ 12:12 am

ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson.

I’m making a conscious effort to divert the flow of strict science fiction from the likes of this site until a time in which it makes more sense.  There are, however, times in which I can’t bite my tounge.  ANATHEM is one such case.

I actually began a review of it before running in to a dilemma: What is the proper protocol regarding book reviews?  At what length into a work does spoiler territory begin?  The written word, unlike those dangfangled motionized pictographs, knows no trailers and as such expectations are tempered.  Accordingly it is tough for me to talk about ANATHEM, which pushes 900 pages without the glossary.  Stephenson’s story is sooo far reaching that I don’t feel comfortable even hinting at the novel’s trajectory.  Of course, some plot must be disclosed…

ANATHEM is written from the perspective of Fraa Erasmas, an individual of an indeterminate time line belonging to a world close to, but not quite Earth.  He is a Decenarian living in one of many maths spread around the world, which is to say that Erasmas lives inside a giant clock designed to keep time forever.  The concent is isolated from the rest of the world by a series of gates which open depending on the mathic order.  Erasmas, being a Decenarian, is free to interact with the outside world every ten years.

As the book begins, our inexperienced protag is on the verge of his first Apert, at which point he will break from his ten year long isolation spent theorizing about a host of scientific principles and see what has become of the saecular lands beyond the walls.

Neal Stephenson is one of my most revered writers because of his conceptual visions and true gift behind the page, but even I can admit that often times his stories lose coherence by book’s end.  Not ANATHEM.  It begins and ends with a distinct journey in mind that Stephenson never lets the reader doubt.  It’s a sweeping adventure, to say the least.  Yet what I like most about ANATHEM isn’t its stories or sense of humor, but its existence as an epic thought experiment.

What would a world be like in which all the scientists, theorists and philosophers have been rounded up and forced to live in segregation, their only exposure to contemporary society being at prescribed intervals?  What would be the views of those inside and outside the gates?  What happens when a third party is introduced?  It’s a great premise tailored to a person like me who loves to read theoretical arguments about consciousness, multiverses and simple human perception.

Which is also where my one – and largest – warning comes in.  If you are not a fan of science fiction, you will not enjoy ANATHEM one bit.  This sucka is dense.  I could be wrong, but I believe this is Stephenson’s thickest novel to date.  And I don’t mean that purely in terms of measurement.  ANATHEM has not merely a twenty page glossary, but lengthy reference examples as well.  Jump 300 pages in, you’d have no clue as to what silliness was being discussed.  Start from the beginning, you’ll have the context of the funky vocab drilled into your head.  So, if you’re not a fan of often being left in the dark until the writer wants to explain something distinctly, pretend I never mentioned Neal Stephenson.

For the remainder, I give it a strong recommendation.  Yes, it is dauntingly long, but it’s strong.  If you can make it past the first 70 pages, the rest of the pages will turn themselves.  Stephenson tackles some of my favorite topics, which I’ll not disclose for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say his world view, fiction it be, illuminates fresh angles on some classic sci-fi musings.  Huge sections of the novel are written like the best conversation ever between drunken nerds shooting the shit over all manner of possibilities explaining our place in the universe.  In typical Stephenson fashion, though, these conversations take on the richest logic one can purchase combined with a tremendous wit.

If you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson, I don’t need to sell you on ANATHEM.  You’re probably lifting your copy right now like a dumbbell.  If, however, you’ve never experienced the prose of the genius who once wrote a cyber punk novel about Hiro Protagonist, a futuristic pizza delivery boy for the mafia getting involved in an ancient Babylonian conspiracy to bring the world to its knees, ANATHEM may be more of a leap of faith than you’re rightfully willing to take.  In which case I recommend you go pick up the ever prescient SNOW CRASH right now.  Once you’re done I won’t even have to mention his latest.  You’ll already be deep in the mystery.

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  1. December 8th, 2008 | 12:06 pm | #1

    “ANATHEM is written from the perspective of Fraa Erasmas, an individual of an indeterminate time line belonging to a world close to, but not quite Earth. He is a Decenarian living in one of many maths spread around the world, which is to say that Erasmas lives inside a giant clock designed to keep time forever. The concent is isolated from the rest of the world by a series of gates which open depending on the mathic order. Erasmas, being a Decenarian, is free to interact with the outside world every ten years.”

    Can’t wait for Uwe Boll to make a movie out of it.

  2. December 8th, 2008 | 1:49 pm | #2

    Never read his stuff, but this sure makes me want to. I love a good concept story, be it on film or in a book, and this seems to qualify. Might start with Snow Crash, as you suggest, but it’s been awhile since I’ve read some good fiction.

  3. December 8th, 2008 | 2:35 pm | #3

    Chris, Snow Crash is very, very out there, very funny and tech heavy, which is why I love it so much. It was written in 1992 and called so much about tech culture yet to come (much of it as satire). He conceived a type of Second Life that was well ahead of its time, as well as a program that reportedly was the influence for Google Earth. Stephenson’s flare for writing is in full bloom, but be warned that the fantastical word inventions/homogenization can be a bit of a stumbler at first.

    If you’ve got a long commute or job where you can listen, I’d recommend the audiobook. Either way, it’s great stuff.

    For the record, I think Anathem is better than Snow Crash. So if you’re looking for the better story, go with the former. The latter introduced me to a whole genre I’d been neglecting, so it holds a special place in my heart. Plus, it just pokes so much fun at the world:

    “When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), high-speed pizza delivery.”

  4. December 8th, 2008 | 2:42 pm | #4

    Oh, and of course, one of my favorite passages from Snow Crash that shows the fun Stephenson has with his characterizations:

    “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

    Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.”

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