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4.0 out of 5 stars
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4.0 out of 5 stars
Anathem
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VINE VOICEon 18 November 2009
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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on 3 May 2014
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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on 17 June 2017
In depth example of what it takes for a new timeline to be added to a civilization's history.
Covers intellectual upheaval as well as physical.
Available for reference are existing timelines, a dictionary, and sample tutorials.
Plenty to think about, including whether non-earth words (eg, praxis = technology) were a distraction.
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on 28 June 2017
As described and prompt delivery. Excellent!
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on 23 July 2017
not a sci-fi fan and it seemed very very very long book
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on 28 April 2014
Arguably a slow start. Neal always puts a lot of effort in setting the backdrop and building the characters, but from about halfway through really takes off. What you might think you've been reading about is no guide to the outcome...
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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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#1 HALL OF FAMEon 12 October 2011
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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on 28 December 2010
This is not the kind of Stephenson writing one might have expected from the author of Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and the System of the World -- all of which I love. Stephenson here shows, as is appropriate for his setting, a much more sedate manner. In fact, he paints such a convincing picture of the monastic life of theoreticians (in, e.g., math, physics, computer science, other sciences) that the entire book can also be viewed as a dissertation on social engineering and the uneasy compromises between everyday man and the scientists and thinkers whose discoveries and theories have shaped modern civilization. Stephenson depicts a world where universities have been morphed into "concents", non-religious cloistered establishments where people spend their entire lives learning and conducting theoretical research -- a state of affairs created by a society that is in both awe and fear of science. He goes on to describe how such a setup works and what its limitations are, yet how science remains our society's only answer to the challenges brought to us by the universe.

If this seems like dour and serious material, well, there are two answers: (i) yes, it is; and (ii) never fear, Stephenson addresses all of these themes in a suitably indirect way by telling us a really good story. Since the main characters come from the cloister ("fraas" and "suurs," i.e., a version of brothers and sisters as found in our western world's religious convents), the scope of human interaction is necessarily more limited than in the boisterous System of World, yet what happens when our main characters must leave the cloister on summons from the planetary government is all the more interesting, as each of our fraas and suurs has a fresh perspective on everything that happens outside the "concent".

Stephenson is getting better and better -- he was always good with characters, but, as a real computer scientist, he started out (in novels like Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon) with something of a chip on his shoulder, not entirely sure whether he should write a novel or a textbook. It is an essential part of the charm of Stephenson's writing that he refuses to divorce his storytelling from the scholarship that supports it, but the style in which he does it has improved enormously: in Anathem, we get plenty of lessons, but they are delivered as part of the story and never feel like parenthetical notes. The tone is perfect throughout -- the first-person narrative from one particular fraa never waivers in identity, yet reflects the character's maturing through the story, both in emotional terms and in his understanding of society and the role of scholarship/science within it.

Anathem may be the best novel that Stephenson has written so far. It is, at heart, about the place and role of education and research in society; but it is also about clocks that have been kept running for 6'000 years, infinite variations of one universe, putting drugs in supermarket foods to keep people happy, generational spaceships propelled by detonating nuclear bombs behind a pushplate, adolescent crushes and adult love, travelling over the north pole in a gargantuan sledge train, a "concent" of martial-arts scholars, and much other great storytelling material.

A fantastic book!
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VINE VOICEon 26 December 2008
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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