Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review:: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Title: Anathem
Author: Neal Stephenson
Format: eBook
Rating: ★★★★☆

Neal Stephenson doesn't pull any punches with Anathem. The worldbuilding is more intricate than you normally see in a standalone novel, the science is well research, and the attention to detail is astounding. Best of all, this novel is more than the sum of its parts; he manages to take all of this and combine it with a compelling plot and characters to provide the reader with more substance than you'd expect, even from nearly 1,000 pages.

Anathem is the kind of novel that starts off with a small scope; it follows the tale of Fraa Erasmus, basically a brother in a convent. However, before long his world is opened wide and everyone's life and worldview change from the events taking place. This setup is a mite predictable, but it's the way that Stephenson executes it that makes all the difference.

The novel is set on Earth-not-Earth, Arbre, and there are definitely some key differences between the two. However, rather than just taking a single divergence point, Stephenson works out some serious worldbuilding, using Earth history and philosophy as a starting point, but allowing for organic growth in different ways.

Convents (concents on Arbre) are full of philosopher scientists known as theors who separate themselves from the world in order to study. The protagonist is a Tenner, so he only has access to the world at large for ten days every ten years. There are different maths in the concent which celebrate Apert (being able to leave) once a year, once a century, and once a millennium. There is the Discipline they follow, which has changed over time to make the rest of the world a bit less scared of their abilities, but also to keep them from being distracted.

What struck me so much about Anathem is the amount of linguistical work that Stephenson did to separate Arbre from Earth. All of the derivation and work seems plausible, just as the philosophy and science dialogues feel plausible. Obviously I'm neither a linguist nor a theoretical scientist, but I do try to keep myself basically educated. Not once was I thrown out of Anathem because I felt like something was wrong or just silly. Quite the opposite, really. I was consistently happy with how well details were kept.

The characters are also extremely well put together. Only one (rather short-lived on-screen) character seemed not to be fully fleshed out and be more of a caricature. Folks we'd meet for just a few minutes felt like they had full lives beyond their utility in the story.

The plot is a first Contact story of a world that's developed different, and yet so similar, ways of interacting with science, philosophy, and religion. The book is a bildungsroman, having the protagonist truly grow up in extraordinary circumstances. The book didn't feel like much of a morality tale. It didn't feel like a dystopia or a chiding. It felt like a Narrative that needed to be told, simply for the sake of being a wonderful story.

Its length is quite cumbersome; the book is almost 1,000 pages. But honestly, I feel like every page was merited. The pacing felt right, slow when it needed to be slow, and jumbled and fast when that worked better. The book starts off with an Author's Note intended to help folks who aren't used to intricate immersive worldbuilding at the beginning, and I really appreciate that Stephenson marked that if you are used to and like those kinds of tales to skip it. I definitely feel that my experience with Anathem was better for not having read the Author's Note until finishing the book.

Another thing I really liked about it was how at the beginning of each subsection of the parts of the book, important cultural terms were defined using excerpts from an Orth dictionary. Sometimes, but not always, they were important to the scenes at hand, but they always gave a sense of richness to what was going on.

And that's exactly what Anathem is: rich. Definitely recommend.

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