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Review: Neal Stephenson, “Anathem”

I feel like I should be awarded some kind of certificate for having completed Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Sure, it’s almost the same page count as Cryptonomicon, but it’s at least three times as dense, and a thousand times as dry.

It’s not entirely accurate to say that I enjoyed Anathem. This isn’t the sort of book you “enjoy” so much as “bow before.”

Every art form has a segment of items which are described by terms like “difficult” and “highly-respected.” Think of works of music which are both difficult and highly-respected. If you’re really into music, you don’t really “enjoy” these works. They resonate for you, you listen with awe, and revere them.

Everyone else – people like me – think they sound simply awful. We don’t really understand the appeal. We can’t, because in order to understand the appeal, you have to have this huge body of knowledge that we simply don’t possess. We stick to, you know, regular music.

Neal Stephenson Anathem review

I suspect that a lot of people, when confronted by Anathem, will decide to stick to, you know, regular books.

Anathem is not a regular book.

It is a book in which the plot is advanced by a ten-page chunk of physics/philosophy/mathematics exposition delivered as a conversation between several monks. In order to follow the plot of the book, you have to actually comprehend and digest the physics/philosophy/mathematics discussion at hand. Furthermore, you have to take into account not just what is being said, but who’s said it, and why.

This doesn’t just happen once or twice, or even “frequently.” This happens “most of the time.”

However, this doesn’t come off as clumsy or stilted, because it’s how the world works for the characters in the book. Anathem is a science fiction book, and the philosophical discussions are every bit as “realistic” and valid as when a barbarian fights a six-legged green tiger in an Edgar Rice Burroughs book. Mars has barbarians which fight six-legged green tigers, and Arbre has monks who study philosophy. (Like, a lot.)

At the same time Anathem is a (pick one):

A) Continuation
B) Reflection
C) Diffraction

of Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle.

At this point, I should stop and back up. It’s come to my attention that not all of you have read Cryptonomicon, and then the Baroque Cycle, and then gone back and re-read Cryptonomicon. If you have not done this, then you need to do so. Immediately. (Certainly before reading Anathem.)

Without spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that there are things in the Baroque Cycle which will completely revise your understanding of Cryptonomicon. But of course, you can’t really understand the Baroque Cycle without having read Cryptonomicon. So the correct reading order is:

1. Cryptonomicon
2. Quicksilver
3. The Confusion
4. The System of the World
5. Cryptonomicon

Well have I got news for you. Having come through the other end of Anathem, I can assure you that the ultimate correct reading order is:

1. Cryptonomicon
2. Quicksilver
3. The Confusion
4. The System of the World
5. Cryptonomicon
6. Anathem
7. Quicksilver
8. The Confusion
9. The System of the World
10. Cryptonomicon

I realize that this assignment represents approximately 10,000 pages of literature. That’s not my problem.

My problem is, what happens after Stephenson’s next book? Will he just keep writing incredible texts which somehow manage to revise the reader’s interpretation of everything Stephenson’s written before? Is there a future reality in which I spend my every waking minute re-reading Stephenson’s books, adding one new book to the end of the list at each circuit? Such that eventually he’s writing them faster than I can re-read his back catalog, and I fall hopelessly behind, and absent this reality beneath a cave-in of dusty, massive, hardback books?

I’m also starting to wonder if all the books listed above are actually, in a weird way, just an appendix to The Diamond Age. Having finished Anathem, I’m starting to think it’s entirely possible that everything after The Diamond Age has just been Stephenson’s attempt at writing a solid-state version of the Primer.

11 comments to Review: Neal Stephenson, “Anathem”

  • Awesome book review! You really grasped the subject matter and the linguistics by the short hairs. Now I may just have to read Anathem- just so I feel inferior, ya know?

  • jesry

    I don’t think that it is a continuation,
    nor a reflection, nor a diffraction. Instead, I think that it is the author’s voice that you are hearing, more and more loudly, as he gets to be a better and better author, and as he becomes more and more committed to the questions that he is asking.

    I reread the book almost immediately, and got more enjoyment out of it the second time. (It got a lot less dry, and while I was at it, I remembered how much I liked the world that he had created…)

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  • So it’s Stephenson at his best, then, is what you’re saying. I think he’s carving out a whole new genre that absolutely no-one else will ever horn in on, ’cause he’s got it tuned in. Can’t wait to read it, though I suppose I should re-read the other books first.
    Thanks for telling us what you thought!

  • Patti

    This is a good review! :) Nicely done.

    He’s amazing. Now I feel like I have to go back and re-read everything before I take on Anathem.

    I loved Baroque – not so much the reading of it, but that I could see the places where Cryptonomicon got him so excited he had to go further.

    Maybe I’ll go back to Snow Crash first.

  • Patti

    Great photo, too. :)

  • Thank you for the heads-up!
    I read Cryptonomicon 3 times running – got to the end, went back to the beginning. Enjoyed it more each time.
    Have only read the Baroque Cycle once, though. Looks like I’d better run through it again to catch up.
    Or maybe read Snow Crash again for a break…
    And on to Anathem!

  • Thanks, too hard, makes brain hurt. Will stick to Snow Crash.

  • Have not decided if this review is an inducement or a warning. I’ve always wanted to read his Baroque cycle, I just never seem to have time for a big book anymore. And this is like a very, very big book.

  • Great review! I read the Baroque cycle first, THEN Cryptonomicon and really enjoyed finding the connections between the two. I started to read Anathem during last weekend’s “family weekend” which of course was a mistake. No concentration possible! I’m looking forward to starting again.
    I just love Stephenson’s writing. What an amazing mind.

  • AHA!
    Now I understand why Anathem took forever!
    I read it FIRST!
    I wonder what THAT will do to my comprehension of Cryptonomicon (assuming I take up the challenge).