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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem - Neal Stephenson

I've read some incredible science fiction this year. The Sparrow. The Algebraist. And now Anathem. This genre still has the capacity to surprise me, to captivate me, to inspire me - and I value that more and more the older I get. I need it more.

I wouldn't have picked up any of these books - wouldn't have known about them - if not for GoodReads. With all the sturm und drang erupting of late, I don't want to lose sight of how much I value this community. The last time I tried Stephenson, having attempted Cryptonomicon a year or two before I joined GR, I gave up after a few hundred pages. I found it outrageously long and boring, and something about the style bothered me; it struck me as pretentious. I wrote Stephenson off, and wouldn't have picked up another of his books if Kemper's review of Anathem hadn't crossed my path some seven or eight years later.

So I picked it up. And within 30 pages, I was getting that fluttery feeling of the stomach common in moments of creative inspiration and promising first dates: oh, wow, this might be going somewhere! I was crossing my fingers and cautiously comparing it to A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Book of the New Sun. Could this book possibly keep it up for another 900 pages? Would any of the complex ideas and events it was carefully setting into motion pay off in the end?

Oh, yes. Far beyond my expectations. The mindfuck at the end of this novel was both staggeringly unexpected and fully foreshadowed from the very first chapter. It hit me like an asteroid. Whoooa.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anathem is a lot of things, but one of them is a coming-of-age tale. Young Fraa Erasmas is an avout - one of the cloistered community of fraas and suurs who devote their lives to science and math. Avout are raised in the concents since early childhood, and while they are not expected to remain celibate and are for the most part atheists, their way of life is otherwise similar to that of monks and nuns in our world - they live and dress simply, follow rigid routines and rituals, are kept isolated from the outside world, and devote their lives to knowledge. Erasmas is a teen as the story begins, just about to choose an order and a life path, and settle down with his first girlfriend.

That's when a mysterious object is discovered in the night sky, streaking across the stars, sinister enough to send the whole world into chaos. Institutions that have stood for millennia begin to crumble, and Erasmas's life will never be the same.

I loved this book, fully and wholeheartedly. But even aside from its actual quality, I was predisposed to like it for a number of reasons.

For one, I always sort of wanted to be a nun, in the same way I always sort of wanted to be a bank robber. Which is to say, certain accoutrements of the lifestyle really appealed to me, but I knew I didn't have the disposition to actually pull it off. And besides, there was the whole God thing. So Stephenson's intensive worldbuilding of life inside the godless concents fascinated me. I wanted to know everything about the way the fraas and suurs lived - from their hymns and rites to what they ate and where they slept. The architecture of the Mynster, the lives of the revered saunts, the roles and responsibilities of the various Wardens. I would so dearly love to live in this world, and Stephenson allowed me to, for a little while.

I'm also a math nerd, so his frequent tangents off into obscure mathematical proofs and theories were unfailingly interesting. They were long, and self-indulgent, and not overly dumbed down for general audiences - at least, it didn't seem that way as someone who is now several years out of her most recent math class. If they weren't so thought-provoking and oddly relevant, these treatises might have annoyed me. But I dug them.

And the language! I have a soft spot for internally-consistent invented languages with ties to Latin or Greek or English (a niche interest, I know). But the dialect is so well done here - the terminology evocative and strange but akin enough to familiar cognates that I could sink into it relatively smoothly and just have fun with it.

These three factors are dividing lines - I know many people who can't stand meticulous worldbuilding, or math, or linguistic fuckery. But for aficionados, this book is a treat.

But all of it would be pointless without interesting characters and a solid story to hang it on. And here Anathem impressed me, too. Even the Stephenson books I'd liked (Snow Crash and The Diamond Age) had been relatively weak in terms of plotting and characters. But here, I loved Erasmas, his friends, his mentors, his family, and his enemies. Everyone was fleshed out and fully human. I loved the strong, badass female characters, Cord and Ala; and the asperger-ish Fraa Barb has this special little place in my heart all his own.

And the story, for all its massive exposition, its frequent tangents into minutiae, its strange terminology, its multiple threads and splitting timelines - the story is fantastic. I don't always love the Hero's Journey, the young-boy-leaves-home-battles-foes-and-finds-himself trope, but it's so excellently, epically done here. From arctic wastes to sacred ruins to outer fucking space, the scope is immense, the narrative is thrilling, and the climax... well, like I said above, it comes from everywhere and nowhere, and it works. It just... it works.


September 2, 2013