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Bookends: Anathem is a fine and detailed piece for world creation, but a difficult read December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Anathem is a fine and detailed piece for world creation, but a difficult read

By Dan Davidson

August 7, 2013

– 908 words –

 

AnathemAnathem

By Neal Stephenson

Harper

982 pages

$10.99

 

This week I present that odd thing, a cautionary review. Anathem is an impressive book. It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2009 and the fellow who actually won that award, Neil Gaiman (for The Graveyard Book) was heard to say that he thought Stephenson should have taken the prize.

At that time I had not read the book, since it was not one of the eBooks provided as part of the World Science Fiction Convention delegates’ package. It was a while before it came out in paperback. I picked it up and put it on my list of things to read, but I had some priority items there, so my son got hold of this before I did – and quit after about 110 pages.

His problem with the book was the same one that I’d had with Stephenson’s earlier Cryptonomicon, and it kept me from trying the book for a while, but I did finally bite the bullet at the beginning of this summer. I have just recently completed the novel and I’m glad I did, but I took various time-outs and read a dozen other books while working on this.

And it was work.

Stephenson has constructed another world here, one with a 6000 year timeline (found in the first 6 pages), a 20 page glossary (which you will spend a lot of time looking up invented words in) and 25 pages of supplementary chapters dealing with geometry and spatial puzzles.

It’s a tour de force of world building, and sometimes the amount of description and exposition gets in the way of the story.

The narrator is a socially naïve young man named Erasmus (sometimes called Raz) who is a member of something like a medieval monastery, called a concent. It has male (Fraa) and female (Suur) members and is devoted to the study of theoretical science, most of which takes the form of thought experiments. The internal structure of the concent is divided into units called maths, which relate not only to the amount of time an avout has spent there, but also to his or her age and level of knowledge.

The world is rigidly divided between life in the concents and life in what is called the Saecular world, the world that actually contains all the technology we would be familiar with (only under different names).

Concent life is not exactly anti-religious, but that type of devotion and study is reserved for science or theorics, as they call it. Some of the words and concepts you need to know to follow the story are embedded in the text as dictionary definitions just before you will need them. For others there is the glossary.

The amount of detailed description of places and customs is daunting, and both helps and hinders the sense of getting involved in the story. On the one hand you are forced to immerse yourself in the unfamiliar, but on the other you keep getting pulled out by the your realization that Stephenson must have created outlines, drawing and maps in order to keep track of everything he is writing about. Your sense of the amount of work that went into writing this book almost gets in its own way.

Hundreds of pages into the novel it becomes clear that something is going on that will upset the balance of this world. It appears that the planet, called Arbre, by the way, is being orbited by a spaceship, and that the saecular power which governs the world has need of the talents of those in the concents to determine what to do about it. Raz and others are “evoked”, sent out into the world to work on this problem.

It turns out to be quite a problem. The beings in the ship are not only from another solar system, but also from other planes of reality, and their quest for access to what they think of as higher planes could involve the destruction of much of Arbre if some understanding between them and its inhabitants cannot be reached. They have travelled through what we might think of as different dimensions, and have picked up new travellers along the way, so that there are people from four previous visitations on the ship.

The ship itself is as detailed and different as every other place we visit in the book, and there are quite a few of those. To get there, Erasmus and his companions undertake what must be one of the most unconventional rocket launches and space walks ever described, and the events that follow apparently take place in more than one timeline and in different ways.

The book is uneven. Much of it is slow paced, with a lot of talking heads, dialogue and obscure debate. Then there are periods of intense action, even jump cuts past some things that I would have expected Stephenson to go into detail about. In particular, the events that follow what seemed to be a climax on page 873 will leave you gasping.

Summing up then, I appreciate Anathem as an incredibly detailed piece of world building, and I am glad to have read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for most people. It requires both patience and stamina to get to the end.

 

-30-

 

 

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