Review: Anathem

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


To start, I have far less to say than this book has to say about itself.

Though I first picked it up in July, and didn’t finish it until a concentrated burst this afternoon, as the library simply wouldn’t let me keep it anymore, it’s a quick read. I only picked it up after I heard about another of the author’s books, [b:Reamde|10552338|Reamde|Neal Stephenson||15458989], from my friend’s dad while on vacation. Apparently every guy in the family had been reading and enjoying it, but the library only had Anathem. My friend hasn’t been enjoying that one, so my choice is just as well.

Not being much a reader of speculative fiction (I suppose the only genre I know to put this in, it’s not like anything I’ve ever read)the wildly different worldbuilding might have put me off, but I found the narrative voice strangely charming.

And really, that describes much of the book for me—fun and enthralling, bordering on silly. You know, I didn’t read any other reviews before either checking out this book or writing my review, so I don’t know what other readers will make of my response. Succinctly: it’s the familiar Campbell-ian hero’s journey only set somewhere else and with lots of exposition. Specifically, it’s about less a character and more a personality to walk the reader through the world without having to worry about a complex or unfamiliar plot. It tracks almost too perfectly.

I did enjoy the worldbuilding though, which saved it. I think the way I arranged in my head, to keep everything straight and not rely too heavily on the glossary right from the start went something like this: Eramus (Sp??) is a member of an academically-themed monkhood, on a planet much like our own, or at least ours in a parallel universe, if civilization had diverged technologically four hundred years ago and from there where it would be in another three thousand years all before it turned out to be the plot in-text. Sort of. Then, of course, he’s almost immediately outside the convent—sorry, concent—because that’s how this kind of plot goes. He meets up with his sister, or rather, ‘sib’, and while all the theoretical discussions are interesting, at least to me, I wonder how much of this is just a send up of, well, modern everything. That would be a really interesting discussion if I were smart enough to try it, and remembered enough of the work. I really have too much else to get to to try and get through this behemoth, however. Maybe I’ll get back to it, I have plenty of notes. After meeting his sib, Raz gets into trouble and has to stay home—at least until he has to leave again—there are so many more theoretical arguments to be made about the outside world! And anyway, we have to get to the sort of aliens somehow.

So the only reason I question whether or not this is a satire of modern culture, or rather, exactly how much of is, is because as I said, most of it is worldbuilding. There is lots and lots of worldbuilding with lots of theoretical math-ish type conversations. I couldn’t say whether it’s real math, because math isn’t my thing. Also, math is a term in the novel for a subset of the concent.

There are many random terms in the novel, really, that’s half the worldbuilding. He chooses what words to use carefully: I didn’t think there were too many, though most significant nouns were of unconventional usage. At least there were no apostrophes. It’s a bit pulpy, which is fun, and sometimes techno-babbly, which I’m not sure is the term as it’s been used, but sounds right. I wish I could tell how much of the concent was supposed to be satire, because I’m not sure of Stephenson’s point with the concent idea. The ideas and concepts are simplistic—but then again, it’s only a thousand pages, and long as that is for fiction, it’s hardly enough to start with reality. Of course, he’s not engaging with many tricky human quirks except in the most general sense…like I said, we’re led through the world by a personality, less a character. No one is particularly deep or complex, but suit their purposes.

I’ve barely even started with what I want to say…I’m not even sure what that is. I’ll have to give myself some time to format a proper argument or at least some cohesion. Let me think on it, look out for a proper review after I’ve had a chance to cogitate.

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