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Review: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

This review will be free of major spoilers, and is based on a pre-release review copy.

I finished Anathem the other night, staying up far later than I’d planned. It is That Good. The fact that I stuck around for 900+ pages says a lot.

I haven’t read a lot of Neal Stephenson’s other books – Snow Crash was something I mostly enjoyed, but it lost me in the mythology and such. I tried reading Cryptonomicon back when it was first released, but for reasons I can’t remember I never made it past the first 50 pages. I’m told that the man has problems writing endings, that most of his books really don’t have them. Well, Anathem does. And a good one at that.

What is Anathem about? That’s an extremely difficult question to answer concisely. The best I can do is to say that it’s about epistemology, which really doesn’t tell you anything. The book focuses on a group of monks on another planet. But monks isn’t quite the right word – they’re not religious at all. They call themselves ‘avout’ instead. The avout have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, largely in matters of the study of consciousness, reality, and other philosophic topics. Avout are segregated into four groups – unarians, decenarians, cenarians, and millenarians. They wall themselves off from the outside world, allowing almost no contact, for different periods of time. One year, ten years, 100 years, and 1000 years respectively. This has been going on for about 4000 years. Civilization ebbs and flows around them as the centuries pass, sometimes sci-fi futuristic and others post-apocalyptic. It’s a fascinating concept. And there’s some definite shades of Harry Potter in both the setting and the story elements inside the concent (the Arbrean word for monastery). The concent serves as a sort of university in this society, but they no longer deal with technology any more than absolutely necessary (for reasons made clear in the book).

I can’t really say much more about the plot than that, without major major spoilers. There is an external threat, and the avout must use their unique expertise to combat it. I guess that’s suitably generic. Anathem covers a lot of ground, and I saw almost none of it coming.

Because this is the planet Arbre, not Earth, they don’t have our history or cultural references. As a result it takes a hundred pages or so to really figure out what’s going on. Stephenson makes extensive use of a fictional vocabulary he created for the book, so much so that it requires a glossary in the back. I had to make near constant use of it for a while, but eventually found myself becoming more and more immersed in the world of Arbre. By the halfway point I didn’t need the glossary at all, and was starting to think in those terms. Truly immersive. That’s the biggest achievement of Anathem, I think – the masterful worldbuilding.

By creating a cast of characters who have devoted their lives to studying knowledge and philosophizing, this book sidesteps my biggest problem with Snow Crash. The extended lectures/treatises in that book completely pulled me out of the story and turned it into a slog. But here they appear as dialog between characters, conversations they have as part of the life of an avout. And the discussions themselves serve to shed light on the characters’ inner workings, so even the duller ones don’t seem like a waste of time. But very few are dull at all; I found most to be downright fascinating. When the book gets officially released, there will be a website with extensive annotations, detailing which of our Earth-based philosopher’s ideas informed Stephenson’s creation of their Arbrean counterparts. I can’t wait.

There is so much more I want to say about this book, but can’t for the sake of not spoiling major plot elements. Read it. Get through the first 100 pages, you’ll be immersed and hooked. I’m planning on re-reading a number of sections of it, and that’s not something I ever do with books.

Oh, and the book comes with its own soundtrack. The included CD is full of the pseudo-Gregorian chants the avout use in Anathem.

I’m off to register some domains based on the book’s glossary 🙂

Anathem will be released on September 9th, 2008.