bookrev: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

I devoured Cryptonomicon and the million page (!) Baroque Cycle by Mr. Stephenson. Anathem by Neal StephensonThus I found the length and complexity of his latest, Anathem, enjoyable and challenging;  my only LARGE complaint concerning Anathem is that I wished it was longer than its 950+ pages, so that the ending could have been less forced and more satisfying.

As with these other tomes, Anathem not only tells a story, but mixes in page long thoughts or dialogs on particular subjects as different as the many worlds theory and quantum mechanics (in Anathem), the clink of a chain on a bicycle, hacking into someone’s system by intercepting the waves broadcast from their monitor, the intricacies of eating Cap’n Crunch (all from Cryptonomicon) or the discoveries of Newton, alchemy and the modern financial system (The Baroque Cycle). Some readers may believe these take away from the story, as one has difficulty believing that even people stuck in a secluded environment such as the “avout” in this novel have been would talk in this type of detail and dialog. Stephenson must have decided this was getting “too much” for some readers, as he removes three ‘dialogs’ from the main novel and puts them at the end as “calcas” (i.e., educational mathematical and philosophical proofs as educational dialogs); all are enjoyable, and should be read as part of the main course of the novel where they are referred to.

Like most of Stepheson’s novels, Anathem intertwines multiple threads with a complex plotline. Though there are many minor themes, there are only two major ones explored here: what would happen if the intellectuals (who want to pursue mathematical or philisophical theory) were separated from the rest of the world for hundreds and thousands of years, with rules imposed based on history; and can individuals with long periods of solitude and practice influence their environment and even the cosmi (e.g., many world theory) or multiple cosmi they choose to inhabit. Unlike the other novels and series mentioned above, this story is told from one point of view, that of Fraa Eramus of the cocent Eduhar.

This plotline (sans spoilers) breaks the book down into four sections:

  • Fraa Eramus matures in the cocent (the isolated place with the avout study without outside influence or knowledge of outside events). He has a clock winding team (Arisbault, Jesry, Lio, whom each have a certain speciality and persononality),  goes “extramuros (outside the cocent) for the Apert celebration (which happens every ten year), and re-united with his sister Cord. He experiences many once in a millineum events, including witnessing his mentor Orolo and he new lover/liaison Ala Thrown Out (i.e., ejected from the cocent for violating some rule);
  • Fraa Eramus is himself thrown out and pursues his mentor, Orolo, though he is supposed to go to a worldwide conference of many avout (to a Convox, which is a Saecular (non-avout) calling of the avout to a meeting to help in some possible calamity) who were thrown out for a purpose; his sibling Cord assists him, along with an Ita (which is a gent who works with technology, which the avout are supposed to have nothing to do with) and several others. He catches up with Orolo and learns more about the calamity plagueing the world and what Orolo and the avout might have historically and in the future to do with it;
  • Fraa Eramus gets to the worldwide conference, finds some more old friends and helps sort out possible solutions to this worldwide calamity;
  • Fraa Eramus attempts to save the world.

Pretty simple and straightforward for a 935 page missive. But the ending is somewhat forced, as mentioned above; there are many possible thoughts and explanations for what happened at the end (many harking back to the many worlds theory and the possibility that some of the avout who have long years practice (the Thousanders)  can plot things out far in advance) but the final conflict occurs and is over much too quickly for my taste.

With that minor caveat aside, this is certainly a recommended read not only for Stephenson fans of the past but for all readers who enjoy an intellectual stimulation whilst they are entertained.

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