6 January 2009

Neal Stephenson's Anathem : A review

Neal Stephenson writes his own brand of Science Fiction, or maybe he writes his own brand of historical fiction. Anathem, however, is firmly SF but with the emphasis on knowledge rather than adventure.

Anathem is set on another planet, presumably therefore in the future, but maybe not. The narrator is growing up in a cloister which focuses not on prayer but on maths. A peek outside the cloister shows a world much like ours, down to the eskies which people sit on to watch the proceedings. Within the cloister intrigues are happening. At first this just seems to be the normal jostlings for power and knowledge, but soon it becomes apparent that something big is happening in the world outside and that the help of the mathic world is needed to deal with it. What that big thing is I won't reveal here, partly because of spoilers and partly because it involves those ideas I was too impatient to read properly.

What I enjoyed about Anathem was getting back into the nerd heaven that Neal Stephenson provided so beautifully in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque cycle. In this world, people love knowledge and are not afraid to explain it or learn it. These characters are concerned with real ideas and they don't obsess over trivia like which media characters they like best. In the mathic world the characters have been shielded from multi-media and have no idea of fictional heroes anyway.

One aspect of this nerd heaven is that the characters behave reasonably, talking to each other rather than willfully misunderstanding each other. This lack of unnecessary conflict is fortunate in the early chapters anyway because with so much information to absorb about Anathem's world, that the conflict would just cause an overload. We notice that the plot moves along nicely anyway.

A kind of annoyance that Anathem shares with the Baroque cycle is the constant descriptions of the world that don't seem relevant to the story. Then, about the time you start to skip over them, something happens within them. A bomb goes off. In the Baroque cycle it was a little bomb, in Anathem it was a number of very big bombs. Because the characters are quite naturally reacting to this, you have to go back and re-read the descriptive bits after all.

Despite being nerd heaven, there are a couple of majorly physical adventures within the story. Just because these characters use their brains doesn't mean they're stupid. Or clumsy.

Along with the adventures there is love, sadness and humour, all the ingredients for a page turner.

On the whole, I didn't enjoy Anathem as much as I did the Baroque cycle, or Cryptonomicon, the payoff in terms of acquiring knowledge about history being much easier than following theories on parallel universes. I'm expecting to enjoy it much more when I re-read it, whenever that may be.


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