ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson [Review]


To me, the sign of a good book is that you want to read it again after you finish it. The sign of a great book is not only that you want to read it again, but you can pick up that book at any time and any place in the story and start reading. Anathem is one a few books that fall in this category. Neal Stephenson’s story weighs in at just under 1000 pages (32 hours for the audiobook), yet does a wonderful job in creating good characters and an engaging story that tackles a wide variety of topics (from environmental to metaphysical to linguistics).

The story takes place on an Earth-like planet named Arbre and you can infer from the story and the timeline provided by the author in the introduction that it takes place in the future. The world population is essentially split into two groups; the avout, men and women who study math and sciences while living in compounds called maths or concents (similar to a convent, but in an ivy league college setting), and the saeculars, which don’t appear to care much about math or science and take technology for granted. The story focuses on Erasmus, an avout who lives in the Concent of St. Edhard. He enjoys his life in the math with his friends (a great collection of characters that represent the strong, the smart, the brave), when a world event arises which leads him to undertake wild adventures inside and outside the mathic world.

I really enjoyed reading Anathem, and continue to do so after multiple readings and listenings of the audiobook. While the storyline is great science fiction writing, there are also great action sequences and touching moments. I especially enjoyed how well the characters were written and developed, their actions and dialogues remained true to their roles in the story. To me it was important because it would have been an easy cop out to make some of the main characters smarter, cooler or more mature than one would have expected in real life. The science presented in the book is very well thought out and gives the reader enough evidence to believe the main plot point (or at least suspend their disbelief).

While I gave Anathem five stars, it’s important to note that there are some issues with the book. Stephenson’s books tend to be slow for the first fifth or so of the story, and Anathem is no different. Many people who have read it find it a struggle for 200 pages and then it picks up significantly. I also felt this way the first time I listened to the audiobook, but found that to not be as much an issue in subsequent readings, probably because I know that the plot picks up later on. I would also warn you that the Stephenson created language that is spoken and referred to throughout the book (anathem, concent, avout and saecular are part of it) can be a little distracting and confusing at first. The print version of the novel contains a glossary section, but the audiobook doesn’t provide you with these references, yet most of the terms can be discerned based on the context in which it is presented. Lastly, the book does delve into some hard core science and mathematics, some of which I had to go and look up on the web to make sure I was understanding it right. If you are not a big fan of science you may find yourself a little lost at times, but you can use wikipedia or anathem wiki to help guide you.

I would recommend Anathem to any science fiction fan who enjoys stories based more on the science than the fantasy side of the genre. People who enjoy alternative history narratives may also find it interesting, with the caveat about the heavy science content. It is age appropriate for adults and mature young adult readers, mainly because of the length of the book and the complexity of the story line. It is a great audiobook listen, especially if you have a commute. The audiobook is excellent and is narrated by Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, William Dufris and Neal Stephenson himself.

There is also a trailer that helped tease the book in 2008. It does a good job of giving you a flavor of what the book is about and provides you excellent imagery for when you read the book.

These are some of my favorite quotes from Anathem, though I do warn you that the last one has a slight spoiler to the main storyline:

Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways. Fraa Orolo

Fine. After the picnic I’ll go north. Though I do not understand what that means. Erasmus
Then keep going north until you understand it, Fraa Jad said.

Feel like a stroll while we await massive retaliation? Fraa Lio

Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor. Erasmus to his half-sister Cord

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars | Publisher: William Morrow | Pages: 960 | Source: Purchased | Buy on Amazon

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  • David

    Jose, what a great review. I am in no uncertain terms and Mathematics and Science geek so I think this is one I will definately be picking up. I have come to a halt on other books over the past few weeks and need something new to pick up so perfect timing!

    5/5 for the review, very detailed.

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