Short Book Review: Anathem

It’s long. Really long. Nowadays, that’s par for the course for Neal Stephenson, whose books have tended towards the weighty since 1999’s *Cryptonomicon*. It’s interesting to see Stephenson’s progression: the technological fascination of *Snow Crash*, probably his most influential model, carried over into *Cryptonomicon*, which shared characters and some scientific elements with his subsequent three-part Baroque cycle (*Quicksilver*, *The Confusion*, and *The System of the World*), which began to veer into the philosophical. It’s the philosophical that’s front and center in *Anathem*, which takes place on the familiar-yet-alien world of Arbre. On Arbre, philosophers and scientists have largely been cordoned off from the “Saecular” existence of everyday people, leading to a “mathic” world that strongly resembles the religious in our own world. The plot of *Anathem* largely concerns itself with what happens when that equilibrium is disrupted from an outside source. In terms of action, the novel starts slowly, though it takes that much time to get grounded in Stephenson’s world. At first, I thought his constant re-branding of everyday objects and terms was merely, as Jason put it, wankery, but the more I progressed and got comfortable with the world he was creating, I began to realize how important this defamiliarization was. There’s a definite point to it in the plot, especially apparent towards the end of the book, but another facet of it is that Stephenson’s philosophical ideas are so *big* that it required the creation of this entirely separate foundation just to support them. I’d started the book thinking that perhaps Stephenson had finally jumped the shark, but upon finishing it I’ve concluded that he maintains his position as one of the most fascinating, versatile writers in speculative fiction.

Dan did you ever read Diamond Age? (I ask because there’s a bunch of links to all of these issues in that book–social upheaval, philosophy, technology(both old and rethinking stuff like books). Just curious if you had read it/had any thoughts.

That’s one of the few Stephenson novels I haven’t read, actually. I guess I should go back and fill in the gaps. Putting it on my list….

I will say it’s a weirdly shaped book…but in terms of tracking Stephenson’s interest in some of these themes, etc. I think you might be interested by it. (In part because the society there is broken into self contained communities, each one with a semi-bastardized version of a philosophy like Buddhaism or an updated attempt a recreating a historical mindset (there’s neo-Victorians who adopted the mindset of Victorians)
So yeah, if you are fan, it’s worth a read.