Book Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Note: I’m trying out some hReview microformat magic, so pardon if I have a bit more metadata here than I normally would.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Reviewed by Rick Osborne
Jan 6, 2009

Rating: 4.5/5

I tried to avoid this book. I did. I had read the reviews and saw the length and put forth an effort to not be drawn into it. I told myself that because it was non-Earth sci-fi I should be able to avoid it. After slogging through all three volumes of The Baroque Cycle, I didn’t think I was ready yet to start another Stephenson epic.

But, darn it, I really enjoy reading Neal Stephenson.

Before I headed out for the holiday break I loaded up all 32 hours of the audiobook version of Anathem onto my laptop and iPod. It took about a week of afternoons and late nights to get through, but I have to say that it was worth it. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Before you consider diving into this book, do yourself a favor and watch the videos of Neal Stephenson reading an excerpt from the book. No, really. Those few minutes could save you hours of frustrated reading if it isn’t your kind of book.

Of course, the first thing that has to be said about this book is about its language. To be frank, there are almost as many made-up words in this book as there are non-made-up words. But! It’s not as bad as it sounds. We’re not talking about swords-and-horses fantasy with high magic and completely off-the-wall names. We’re not even talking about Tolkien-esque Middle Earth or Elvish words.

Stephenson has done something far more insidious and subtle: he’s taken the Latin and Greek roots and syllables and remixed them. Think of it like Star Trek technobabble for dummies. I’d estimate that more than ¾ of the made-up words will make perfect sense in your head before you even realize that they are invented words. By the time you are more than a chapter in, or about 30 minutes in the audiobook, you’re completely used to it.

Why has he done this? What’s with all of the made-up words? Well, it has to do with the second thing that has to be said about the book.

If you remember a good deal of your Philosophy, Ethics, and other Gen-Ed courses from college, you’re going to find much of the book to be familiar. What Stephenson is doing with the book is nothing less than a novel-length rhetorical exploration and proof for Platonic idealism.

Problem being, as soon as you put it like that most people’s eyes begin to glaze over and they start glancing at their watches.

To eliminate the please drill a spike into my brain factor, Stephenson throws away any specific language that might remind you how dull those college courses were. You won’t find a single mention of Plato or any other real-world philosophers. You won’t find any of the names for the theories or arguments, such as Occam’s Razor. Instead, Stephenson distills and recreates the arguments using a whole new history, legion of big-named historical figures, and titles for the theories. In this way, you’re tricked into re-learning many of them, and thus nowhere near as bored as you were in college. But at the same time, you’ll recognize much of what you’ve forgotten.

Having said all of that, one thing should shine through: the book is more than 95% talking heads. In fact, this is going to push me so far as to say this: no one should read this book, but everyone should listen to it. Get the audiobook version. Really. The material is far more palatable in auditory form.

As for plot, I have to admit that I enjoyed the plot from The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon more, and at times in Anathem the plot wears thin or is put on hold so that the talking heads can babble. Characterization is also a bit thin. The protagonist’s macguffin girlfriend is especially unrealized. The main characters in the other two books are far better realized.

Even with all of that, it’s still a good book! The second primary theme of the book is a running thought experiment relating to ultra-long-term thinking, as in the Long Now Foundation: How do you preserve human culture, ideas, and progress over the course of ten thousand years and countless wars, ecological events, and technologies? If you are passingly familiar with some of the Long Now concepts it’ll help and you’ll feel more comfortable, but they aren’t absolutely necessary.

Long review short: it’s a good book. I’d recommend it for just about any geek. It’s thought-provoking and interesting. But, really, get the audio version.