Book: Anathem

I know I’m late to the party on this one (Anathem was published in 2008), but holy crap, you guys, this is a really good book.


Maybe I should specify: Anathem is a really good book, for the right people. I don’t want to sound condescending, because I really don’t mean to be: as long as you’re reading, I don’t really care what you’re reading, even if it’s Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey or some predictable romance novel. Personally, I like a lot of variety in what I read, because I read for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes I read biographies like Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, sometimes mystery novels like The Beekeeper’s Apprentice or Last Bus to Woodstock, sometimes listicle-esque mini-essay books like How Bad are Bananas? (that’s a really interesting one about the carbon footprints of everyday items and activities). Sometimes I read really dark and complex fantasy like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or A Game of Thrones, and sometimes I read light, sort of silly fantasy like Un Lun Dun or Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small books. Sometimes I read sort-of-hard sci-fi like Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, sometimes I read hilarious parodies in the sci-fi genre like John Scalzi’s Redshirts or Old Man’s War (the latter is more serious, but still very funny at times), and sometimes I read Star Trek knockoff novels and online fanfiction. I recommend everything I’ve mentioned above (except possibly the fanfiction).

Anathem is not really like any of those books. I guess the best genre classification would be sci-fi, but it’s probably best characterized as “another Neal Stephenson book” and followed up with this comic:Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I'm looking at you, Anathem.You definitely need to have some patience, and a willingness to flip from your place in the story to the glossary in the back, to get going in Anathem, but it’s good once you get over the hump. Hence the “good for the right people” stipulation earlier in the post. More so than in any of his other books, I was amazed by Stephenson’s inventiveness in creating the world of Anathem. If we are to use Neil Gaiman’s “stories come from asking a question” idea (from this excellent essay), I would guess that Anathem started with, “What if scientists were like cloistered medieval monks (called avout) who weren’t allowed regular contact with the outside world?” and ran off with the idea to create a treatise on Platonic epistemology disguised as a sci-fi novel.

I suppose the other “hump” to get over, when it comes to reading Anathem, is that, as in pretty much every other book he’s written, Stephenson has really got a bee in his bonnet when it comes to a particular idea, so the action occasionally grinds to a halt while the characters all talk about it. For Snow Crash, it was the nam-shub of Enki (read the book). In The Baroque Cycle, it was basically a history of the development of modern economics.  And in Anathem, the characters tend to set aside considerations like, “What should we be doing about [SPOILER]?” and “Is there any way to avoid the mood-altering drugs found in all the non-avout-created food?” in order to explain some amusingly-renamed concept of epistemology or mathematics. Personally, I kind of enjoyed these digressions, but some may find them tiresome.

Whatever else you can say about Anathem, I can guarantee that you’ll not find another book like it (Lorites be damned), so if you have the time for a 900-page romp through a world that, in many ways, seems not so very different from our own…I highly recommend it.

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