It’s been quite some time since Stephenson’s ambitious Baroque Cycle hit the shelves, but, based on his latest offering, it seems that Stephenson spent that time doing boatloads of research for his second most ambitious title to date (the ~2700 page Baroque Cycle has to take the cake on that one), Anathem. While it seems that his work is definitely well-researched and that he has a very clear unerstanding of what points he’s trying to convey, I think that Stephenson fails at the more important task of keeping the reader interested and conveying the complex-yet-interesting plots from the get-go that he is normally so capable of.
It’s not that Anathem is bad or anything, it’s more that The Baroque Cycle seems to have spoiled Stephenson a bit by making him think that he can spend as much time goofing off with intellectual tangents as he did in the previous, epic-sized novel. To a certain degree, it’s all relevant to the plot and some of it is downright integral, as the reader needs to come up to speed with the crazy, outlandish philosophical points that Stephenson is trying to convey within the narrative. I can imagine trying to read this book like any pre-Cryptonomicon Stephenson book and being totally flabbergasted by the points he makes in Anathem being laid out within the twenty (if that) pages allotted, but these Socratic dialogs he presents can seem a bit useless to engineering types, such as myself, who find theoretical philosophy to be a little bit impractical.
Let me take a step back and explain this a bit better. Anathem is a book about a planet that is much like ours. It has developed, philosophically, along similar lines, but culturally it is quite different. In this world, Arbre, there was a division way back in history that split up the intellectual/philosophical elite from the rest of the world. The intellectuals are part of the Mathic world, a world consisting of hyper-isolated monks, to draw an Earth connection, while the rest is part of the Saecular world. This isn’t to say that smart or dumb people inhabit one or the other or even that the maths are religious and the outside world is not, there are both in both, it’s just that most of the interesting theoretical work is being done by the maths (and they tend to be athiest) instead of the outside world…except for the detail that all outside technology is mostly forbidden from the mathic world. Each person only has a robe, a rope to tie it with, and a sphere, all technologically advanced so as to change shape and property, but nothing more technological. Even so, they have a vast telescope and develop serious theoretical advances based solely on their devotion to such advanced intellectual thought.
Here’s where it starts to get a little annoying, even if it is basically the whole point of the book. You see, instead of using Earth-terms for stuff, there is a whole series of terms that are native to Arbre that are used instead. For example: we have “Gardan’s Steelyard” instead of “Occam’s Razer.” While it doesn’t really take too long to get all of these intricacies sorted out and the book does provide a useful glossary in the back, its still a little bit distracting and annoying. This is just personal preference for me though, and I did start to soften up to it once I got further in the book, I got used to the parallel terms, and it started to get more interesting.
Which leads kind of nicely into the next problem: the pacing. Yes, we need to establish the characters. Yes, we need to take it slow at the start so that you can get used to this brand new world (in fact, as a reader, you have to take it slowly, flipping back and forth from glossary to text trying to understand Erasmus’ narrative), but we’re talking around 400 pages just to get the faintest scraps of knowledge about what is truly going on. In an 900 page book, you have the liberty to take it slow, so to speak, and it’s generally not Stephenson’s style to tip his hand early (if my memory serves me right, Golgotha didn’t even become a factor in Cryptonomicon until 3/4 of the way into the novel), but the daily life of an avout just wasn’t as interesting as, say, the emotional development of Randy Waterhouse.
I don’t want you to think that I hate Anathem or even that I didn’t enjoy it. Once I started to become familiar with the terminology that Stephenson was using in this new world, things began to get much better. The story got compelling and interesting very fast, with the exception of all the theoretical discourse that serves to slow down the novel a bit, but ultimately prepare you for the stunning events which will be impenetrable to anyone who wasn’t a professional philosopher had he not slowly ushered you into understanding. The characters are great, but not as memorable as the Shaftoes, Eliza, Hiro Protagonist, YT, or the Waterhouses. As mentioned before, the plot, once it gets going, is amazingly cool, filled with some neat head-scratchers and only one poly-cosmic plot hole that I don’t think was fully resolved (or maybe it was and I have to re-read it). There are some neat little bonuses in the narrative too for anyone who understands just a wee bit of French (or has the Romance language know-how to recognize the origins of some words) that I thoroughly enjoyed and quite a bit of philosophical exploration for those who love a little bit of that.
Anathem is a bit of a mixed bag. The more I think and write about it after having read it, the fonder I am of it and the things it did. Clearly, Stephenson wanted to try something new, that much is clear. The entire book cohesively fits together with his themes as well as the purpose for his parallel world-structure, but I can also see it as being impenetrable to those who do not already give Stephenson some credit. If you’re not willing to read up at least four to five hundred pages to even start to get why you’ve been doing this the whole time, you’re not going to like Anathem, the payoff is just not as immediate as with Cryptonomicon (I can’t compare any other books, like Snow Crash, because their shorter length necessitates different pacing). There’s also a good chance that, unless you love this sort of thing, you’ll feel like this XKCD comic at least until you get the hang of the new vocabulary. Trust me though, there is a definite payoff and it’s quite good once you get there, it just takes a little work.
My recommendation: If you love Stephenson, you should still consider that you have to get through about half the narrative to get to the action. If you can manage that, it’s a must read. Non-Stephenson fans: think about what I just said above and realize that Stepehnson writes intellectual prose. If you don’t like a little philosophy, mathematics, and physics served up with your novels, you won’t like this book. Anyone who does though, will be treated to a book with an incredibly engaging and cool story that returns huge dividends based on the time you put into it.
If you’ve read and liked this book, you should, without a doubt, read Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, two of Stephenson’s best works. Move on to The Baroque Cyle if you didn’t mind the density and pacing of Anathem.