Top positive review
40 people found this helpful
on 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...