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Anathem
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Neal Stephenson's house-brick size novels are always constructed in meticulous detail, and 'Anathem' is no exception. Unfortunately, his painstaking (laborious?) attention to detail can, for some, make his novels impenetrable, but if you enjoyed Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle, then you will almost certainly like 'Anathem' too. If you are new to Stephenson, then I wouldn't start here - he seems to be becoming increasingly less accessible. Go back at least as far as Cryptonomicon and begin there.

In addition to his usual information-overload, 'Anathem' sees Stephenson add yet another layer of confusion. Set in the far future, in a parallel world, much of the language used by the novel's characters, has been invented by the author. These new words are logical and consistent, deriving from Greek and Latin, but they take a little while to bed in, and I found 'Anathem's' opening fragmented and hard to follow. But like subtitles to a good film, I soon stopped noticing, and became wholly immersed in this magnificent novel.

The novel's central character is Erasmas, a member of intellectual brethren, cut off from normal secular society. The brothers (and sisters) remain exiled from the real world, for one, ten, a hundred or even a thousand years depending how committed they are to their calling. As the novel opens, Erasmas is about to complete the first decade of his seclusion. Considering much of the early parts of the novel revolve around the philosophical discussions between members of this cloistered community, 'Anathem' is surprisingly readable. With great vigour, Stephenson takes on maths, physics, astronomy and quantum mechanics, and I found these chapters fascinating. The richness of the author's prose makes potentially dry subjects alive and thought provoking.

The flip-side to this, is that once the action hots up, Stephenson's need to explain everything in the minutest detail, dissipates the drama. Set pieces that should be exciting, become fragmented by long digressions and observations. 'Anathem' rarely builds up a head of steam, and offers little relief from the hi-concept science, but this is a small gripe when set against the magnificence and scope of the novel as a whole.

As 'Anathem' approached its conclusion, I felt it was close to being the best novel I have ever read. Unfortunately, the ending is somewhat baffling, and unsatisfactory - Stephenson had so many balls in the air, it was inevitable that he would drop some. The closer I came to the novel's end, the more sure I was that it would disappoint. There are so many strands to the story, it would have been impossible for the author to tie off all his ideas in a pleasing fashion. Much like a quantum physics experiment, whilst I was reading there were still an infinite number of possibilities, but on completing the book they all collapsed to a single outcome. 'Anathem' is one of those books that you don't ever want to finish.

So not quite the best book I've ever read, but at last I have found the book I would take with me, in the unlikely event that I find myself on 'Desert Island Discs.' Huge in scope, with an entertaining storyline, and plenty of brain-food too, I can't think of a better novel to read should I ever be marooned. With Stephenson devoting so many pages to the idea of multiple universes, I can live out my solitary existence happy in the knowledge that somewhere, in some other narrative, my luckier self was safe and sound, enjoying 'Anathem' in the comfort of his own home...
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97 of 102 people found the following review helpful
on 12 October 2008
Anathem was a complete surprise to me. I had deliberately avoided reading anything about the book before I bought it, willing to trust the author to come up with another excellent novel comparable to Snow Crash, The Diamond Age or Cryptonomicon.

After reading the first 50 or 60 pages, I was wondering if I'd wasted my money. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. The many invented words peppered throughout the text didn't help either - you can immediately decipher many of them from context they're used in, but it is annoying to do it as often as Anathem requires.

However, I kept going, and by the time I'd gotten through the first 100 pages or so I found myself quite enjoying it. After another couple of hundred pages I was reluctant to put it down, and eventually ended up reading the last third of the book in a single session.

What I would say is that once you become familiar with the dialect used by the characters and get past the relatively slow opening chapters, Anathem becomes a far more engaging and interesting book. Sci-fi action sequences are interspersed with frequent philosophical or metaphysical discussions between various characters, which may of course not be to the liking of every reader, but I found it both interesting and entertaining.

Now that I've finished the book I am planning to wait a few weeks and then read it again, as I suspect that reading the opening chapters will be a far better experience the second time around.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Anathem starts in a world that feels like a medieval monastery, or should that be a university? It is a community ruled by a clock that is wound once a day. The story is told by Fraa Erasmus who is a member of the team of avouts who wind it. Rituals are at the core of this world but in the place of religion th there is the study of mathematics. As the story progresses you realise that within the one institution there are a number of schools of thought called maths. But this institution has been in continuous existence for over 3,000 years and exploits something called new matter that is very high technology.

The background can make getting to grips with Anathem hard work. I am lucky. I am a failed physicist who has studied a chunk of pure maths and has taken a course in the history of maths. I was hooked in a few pages. Others report that they had trouble getting started. If you are one of these then stick with Anathem and you will come to terms with the thinking. Once you are over this hump you too will find this to be a gripping read.

I really enjoyed this book. It takes two long running science fiction themes and twists them together in a novel way. It also shows that the study of maths is something vibrant and interesting. There is even one good piece of geometry that will help the reader to understand the nature of a squareroot and another that answers the question why do I need six co-ordinates to describe an object's position in space.

Give Anathem a go. The chances are that you will enjoy Anathem as much as I did.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
If you like your books to double up as a door stopper, then this 928 page monster fits the bill. I would recommend you read it first though!

The book is based on an alternate world where most of the scientists, philosophers and mathematicians live in monk-like isolation from the rest of the population. This circumstance has lasted for thousands of years. These people have an extreme sense of their own history and refer to events that happened thousands of years ago as if it were yesterday. The author emphasises this by frequent reference to an ancient 'dictionary' of terms, ostensibly to help the reader, but has the intended effect of suggesting a deeply complex civilisation.

He also invents many words for the technology in this world 'jeejah' (mobile / tablet) but you can easily guess the actual equivalent word in English.

That is the easy bit. Stephenson then adds spice by using many well known philosophical threads to differentiate between each 'sect'. The story includes lots of discourse between the various sects and characters, who put forth arguments to prove their point of view. It will help if you are on at least on nodding terms with modern philosophy; it doesn't matter of course, but the dialogues will make more sense.

But this is still not enough for the author, he adds the consequence of quantum mechanics in the form of the 'many-worlds' theory to the story. Indeed this is the backbone of the whole book.

The story itself flows along easily from page to page and you always feel you want to get to the next bit. The main protagonist is 'Fraa' (Brother) Erasmas who narrates his story. He has his own modest talents but his companions are always superior in some way - Lio the fighter, Jesry the polymath, Ana the organiser, Jad the wise and so on. This helps endear you to the character as he suffers one calamaity after another but remains the lynchpin of the story throughout.

If you like to immerse yourself in a complex, imaginary world with an enthralling story, then you are in for a treat.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The opening to this book is an odd way of doing things. Stephenson overwhelms the reader with neologisms and ceremonial details that could be off-putting. It's worth fighting your way through though because after 50 or so pages, the talk of auts, apert, theorics and itas, dies into the background and the real story begins.

Erasmas is part of a concent, a place that holds scientists and mathematicians known as the avout in perfect isolation from the Saecular world, until Apert, when the two worlds can intermingle. The intermingling does not always go well but ends after ten days allowing the avout to go back to their reputedly better world. But something else is happening, there's a rogue star in the sky that may represent the need for a massive paradigm shift in how the universe is seen and soon Erasmas has to leave the concent, perhaps forever, in order to save his world.

Along the way ideas are discussed that you'll probably recognise if you've read any Plato, Kant or Philip K. Dick. If you already have an interest in the nature of reality you probably won't find anything new, but that's okay, because Erasmas is a fine protagonist to travel with and there are enough ambiguities and incidental ideas to keep you interested. As ever with Stephenson the kitchen sink is in there, too, but he does it all with a light touch and a sense of humour that allows you to get comfortable.

At the end is where it all goes a little wonky. I can't give away too much but there is an application of thought experiment to reality that undercuts the story rather than illustrating its points. I think it was an effort to create a bigger pay-off, but in the end it feels a tad too mystical in the face of all that has gone before. Had it been brought in a little earlier in the narrative it might have felt less forced.

Despite this flaw, I still think it a fine book, but those new to Stephenson should try his earlier works first.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2012
I was disappointed with this. At first I enjoyed the description of life in the Concent and the slow reveal about the way the mathic life worked. And there are plenty of amusing references to how things are in our own world - the 'slines' who wear shapeless sportswear and eat junk-food made me chuckle.

I really enjoyed the first half-or-so of the book, but for me things went downhill once our heroes arrived at the convox and got bogged-down in philosophical debates. I'd been able to tolerate the philosophy/science stuff up until then, but this just got too much. And then when they got launched into space the story started going into minute technical details on things I didn't really care about. The space bit wasn't very good and I finally lost interest.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
.. this book gets started a lot more quickly than it does in our universe.

I'm an unashamed Stephenson fan, but he tried my patience at the start of this book, and you can see from other reviewers that this is a common experience.

I did get to the point where I was thinking 'ok Neal, where is this going' but I had faith, and that faith was rewarded. The slow part at the start is exposition that I feel is ultimately necessary and a part of his literary creation. He describes a world with some similarities and many differences to our own; the exposition serves as backdrop and 'control' for the reader (and main character) on a journey through adventures and concepts that are startlingly at odds with what went before. In the end this made sense to me, like the chaotic writing in the London part of Gravity's Rainbow made sense as a representation of how the city was for people. In the end, there is a point to having an alternate world to compare with, too. Not just 'I made this stuff up for a laugh'.

I don't want to get all high-falutin though - if you liked the pirate story part of the Baroque Cycle like I did, the first part will test you a bit.

Like Stephenson's other works, this has some serious underpinnings, in this case really based around the collision of maths, philosophy and physics. Stephenson presents these topics in a coherent way with his story, without snapping the reader out of the world (well not too much, sometimes you stop to say 'ok what is the equivalent of this in my world').

I disagree that this book is some kind of exercise in snobbery because it tackles difficult subjects and it's a lengthy book. The theory parts are properly part of the story, not some stuck on exercise in showing off; you aren't required to have studied Godel or Husserl for 10 years to understand the story or the concepts.

The jargon issue is a red herring in my opinion - this is part of the flavour of the alternate world, well integrated, and not confusing. Not when there's a glossary and a ton of context to help you. But if you hated The Clockwork Orange for this reason, you won't like this book.

If you've never read any Stephenson, start with Cryptonomicon or The Diamond Age before this. That and the slow start cause me to give this 4 stars, not 5. And also no Jack Shaftoe or distant relative. But I still think it's an excellent book, and very thought provoking.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 22 June 2009
If you haven't read other Neal Stephenson books, whether you like this or not will depend on your definition of good sci-fi. If you're looking for lasers and warp drives, chances are you'll find this wordy, dull and unpleasantly mediaeval in tone (at least the first two thirds of it). If, like me, you want your sci-fi to challenge your assumptions about the real world by presenting you with a detailed alternative reality, then you'll enjoy it.

The best aspects:
- well thought-out large-scale, long-view alternative 'earth' history
- detailed and evocative picture of a kind of 'science monastery' system (you need to read it to see quite how amazing the realization of this is)
- fascinating overview of the history of science and philosophy, in accessible and often humorous chunks of dialogue
- pretty solid main narrative adventure and coming of age story that keeps you going till the end

The worst aspects:
- slightly cheesy teen romance moments (fortunately only sporadic as the plot separates the protagonists)
- a fairly major lurch into hard SF many-universe-space-adventure towards the end, which takes a bit of getting to grips with

All in all, if you're interested in the ideas and the alternative reality that's portrayed (and its implications for our reality), the weaknesses are easily forgiven. I've reread it a couple of times already and am still enjoying it.

For people who've read everything else Stephenson's written, I'd say this is one of the best. There's always a balance in his writing between elucidating ideas and getting on with telling the story, and I think he gets this right in Anathem and it reads more smoothly than some of the others. (I must confess after the first reading I've always skipped the sections on ancient Summeria in Snow Crash.) It combines the alternative social structures elements that work so well in SC and the Diamond Age with some of the broader sweep of ideas you get in the System of the World.
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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on 23 September 2008
I got the same feeling reading Anathem that I got reading Cryptonomicon - that is, after reading 100 pages, I was thrilled that there were 800 more. It's a ripping yarn peppered with mathematical, mechanical, and linguistic nuggets. There's a little odd vocabulary, but it doesn't take long to get used to, and it's fun to look up terms in the glossary, which is interesting in itself. If you are daunted by the fact that there's a glossary and few appendices, then don't bother. This isn't a book to be idly flicked through. But that's not to say it's difficult or tedious; it's driven by an intricate and enthralling plot, and I found myself completely immersed. Stephenson is a freak of a writer, and this book is wholly impressive.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 May 2014
ANATHEM is a serious piece of science fiction - a vast, dense novel full of philosophy, maths and quantum physics that develops a novel ontological theory from the work of multiple philosophers and scientists from Earth's past and somehow weaves it into a cracking sci-fi action adventure... eventually. The book starts off slowly, with the first 100 pages or so rich in detail and description, introducing us to Stephenson's world and defining concepts and terminology... but not a lot exactly happens. The slow start is deceptive though, as once the characters' normally stable reality gets disrupted, events gradually become more dramatic until the universe so carefully constructed at the start of the novel has been completely turned on its head.

ANATHEM is definitely a novel of ideas... long sections involve little more than characters discussing philosophy, maths and physics, and some familiarity with those subjects is probably necessary if the reader is going to get the most out of it. Although the ideas are usually explained in the novel, familiarity with the earth-bound thinkers and theories that are being referenced would probably help with appreciating what they are talking about. Plato's theory of forms and Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics are particularly key subjects.

ANATHEM is science fiction as it should be done - a well realised world which echoes but is not our own. It's not just an adventure story with spaceships (though it is that too), it's an exploration of ideas and concepts from across the spectrum of human intellectual endeavour, a book which challenges the reader to think. Neal Stephenson has done a commendable job taking a fairly hefty chunk of philosophy and science and converting it into a ripping yarn.
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