Anathem by Neal Stephenson


Publishers don’t call the literary genre of science fiction “science fiction” anymore. It’s now called “speculative fiction.” And if you go into a bookshop, instead of a science fiction section there’s a “Science Fiction and Fantasy” section. That means that instead of books about mind-eating aliens, there are books about elves, wizards and facking unicorns. You have to look really, really hard to find anything that doesn’t involve a dark, storm-lashed castle.

Worse still, the sci-fi books that ARE being offered are endless Star Trek or Star Wars franchise crap titles that get churned out by contract writers. It’s not uncommon to find only a handful of “true” sci-fi writers – like Stephen Baxter or Iain M. Banks – on a bookstore’s shelves these days.

And things will likely get worse now that Neal Stephenson has gone over to the fantastical darkside with his latest book, Anathem. It’s a shame that Stephenson has gone down this path, as he wrote some cracking science fiction, starting with Snow Crash and more recently with Diamond Age.

More recently, he penned Cryptonomicon, a non-sci-fi but brilliantly imagined, rollicking treasure hunting code-cracking adventure that’s beautiful, enlightening, astonishing and hilarious; a Gravity’s Rainbow for the twenty-first century, as one critic described it. From there he penned The Baroque Cycle, a prequel to Cryptonomicon spread over three books. It too, was a cracking read but perhaps the brilliance was just a little too diluted over the several thousand pages that it took to spin the yarn.

Anyway, on to Anathem, which you need to be sick to enjoy. I was down and out with flu when I started reading it and being stuck in bed with a fever was the perfect opportunity to chew through a hundred or so pages at a time, which you really need to do, given that this fucker is 900 pages long.

The book is set in an alternate universe on an Earth-like planet called Arbre where the planet’s scientists live monastic existences in castles (argh) totally cut off from the rest of society. Here they toil away on scientific conundrums with nothing more than chalk and blackboard, having forsaken the use of computers and other tech devices.

The boffins (known as avout) in these cloistered enclaves are permitted into the outside world every so often. Some avout mingle with the outside world every year, some every 10 years and some only every 1,000 years. While Stephenson paints a richly detailed picture of the inhabitants within this imagined world and their 4,000 year history, it’s just too freakin’ long. At times, the author seems obsessed with minutiae and he spends several hundred pages describing the various rituals and comings-and-goings of the avout before the plot even gets going.

The plot concerns a mysterious spaceship that enters orbit around Arbre, thereby forcing the characters go on various quests (argh) to save the planet. Impressively, Stephenson manages to wrap detailed philosophical musings about a multi-dimensional universe and the brain as a quantum device into the story. He’s a smart guy and his writings on such topics make great reading. But really, the book’s in need of an editor who knows the job.

Length isn’t the only problem with this book. Stephenson has also used a whole bunch of made-up nouns to describe things in the alternate reality of Arbre. Cellphones are “jeejahs”, cameras are “speely captors”, cars are “mobes” and so on. I find this sort of search-and-replace conceit really tedious and annoying but what makes it worse is that the author hasn’t bothered to replace dialogue that includes Earthly words like “cool” and “wow”, which kind of makes the imagined world of Arbre seem a little half-baked.

For existing Stephenson fans, the above grumbles won’t matter too much, but newcomers to Stephenson’s work would be better advised to tackle Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon first.


One Response to Anathem by Neal Stephenson

  1. blyth spirit says:

    I had to put Crypto … sorry can’t spell the rest, and refuse the cut and paste – down to get on with my crappy life, but now my life is not so crappy – in fact its freeking great – i have put crypto back on the pile of books to read
    Good to see I won’t be wasting my time

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