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...
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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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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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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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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Just... ridiculous. The best novel I've read in ten years, with a cover cruelly designed to keep serious readers at bay. There is nothing here that the reader might expect. It is, on one level, a space opera with the scope (and ending) of a Shakespearian comedy. It is also a Boys Own adventure,written in the style of a contemporary novel for young adults. Don't be misled by the reviews which claim that it is a tough read - it isn't. The narrator is Erasmus, a likeable lummox of a 19 year old who is honestly trying to understand the world around him. It is also one of the few fantasy novels that exists in a post-Gormanghast world, rather than lurking in Tolkein's shadow. Not that it is a fantasy novel, but rather a novel of ideas of astounding power and intellectual insight. It has ideas in common with Hesse's 'Glass Bead Game.' Stephenson loves to play with the history of science, but here he has rewritten it. He has rewritten it, not because that's the sort of mixed-up kooky thing that spec-fic authors do, but because the structure demands it. The alt-history is there for a reason; as is the alt-philosophy, alt-physics and alt-maths. Stephenson rewrites Pythagoras, which takes nerve. He rewrites everything, as it happens. He rewrites narratology, too. It is also, here and there, laugh aloud funny. I read it on the train, and snorted through my nose. Some of the one-star reviews claim that this is a book for people who think they are clever. And they are right, up to a point, which is to say, it is a novel for people who are clever. Sorry about that. Perhaps the one star reviewers should lock their clever people away for a thousand years, and only get them out when they need them. There is nothing, nothing, in contemporary literary fiction that comes close to the imaginative power and soaring ambition of this remarkable novel.