Anathem

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US hardcover, 1st edition.

Anathem is a speculative fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, published on 2008-09-09.

The book takes place in a distant future where a series of wars have brought about a major schism between scientists and the rest of the world. Scientists, blamed for creating nuclear bombs and other catastrophic devices, are now forced to live in austere convents without access to any technology and are forbidden from speaking to engineers. The engineers can continue to build new technological devices for the masses, but, without access to scientists, they never make any significant advances. The story follows Erasmus, a young scientist who has spent the last 10 years cut off from the general public. Unusual changes begin to occur in his convent, and his mentor is kicked out, causing Erasmus and his friends to reason he must have been studying forbidden information. They decide to figure out what he was doing and stumble upon an event that threatened the entire world.

Personal

Having already become a fan of Stephenson's work, I bought this book knowing nothing about it, however, it remained unread for several years while I got through my existing reading list. Once I started, I very quickly became turned off by all the jargon, but the nerd in me still found the world to be fascinating, so I stuck with it. I finished the audio book read by Oliver Wyman on 2022-04-04.

Status

I own a US first edition hardcover of this book. I've read the audio book.

Review

— This section contains spoilers! —

Good

  • The "dialogues" that the characters frequently get into where they nitpick, use analogies, and cite previous scholars reminds me very much of the enjoyable dialogues I've had with my erudite friends. I especially liked when the Avout had to talk to a Saecular person about religion, and found all their arguments to be dismally shallow. It reminds me so much of when religious people try to convert me with especially weak arguments.
  • There is something rather romantic about the idea of having a church of knowledge where adherents spend all of their time learning meaningful wisdom and thinking up new ideas without being hassled by pop culture. But, just like how I imagine it would work in real life, in the story, it devolves into dogma.
  • Stephenson is very good at writing detailed and believable characters, and this book was no exception.
  • There are a lot of tense action scenes, especially when they reach in space.
  • I love how slang terms like "crap" and "bulshytt" have become technical jargon.
  • The world-burner is a pretty scary threat.
  • The late reveal, that some of the aliens are actually Earthlings, and Arbre is an alien world, is a nice idea.
  • The Millennials, being able to control which conscious they embody through the multiverse, is a very interesting idea. I also like how Stephenson controls their ability to do so in order to prevent the power from getting abused.

Bad

  • Because there is so much unknown backstory and technical jargon, the characters are constantly using indirect exposition in their dialogue. A little sprinkled in organically is great, but the amount Stephenson had to use for the reader to make sense of the world, is a constant reminder that it's artificial.
  • Like with most of Stephenson's novels, this one could use a lot of paring down. Even if it were 200 pages fewer, I don't think we would miss much. For example, the long journey across the North Pole was pretty dull.
  • The book is a bro-fest. Nearly every character is male, and none of the females are intrinsic to the plot. Ala serves almost as a reward.
  • The idea of rogue spam bots was neat, but introduced far too late to be of any consequence. Same with the Everything Killers surreptitiously placed in the people who boarded the Icosahedron. It is hinted that the Saecular Power might give the order to detonate them, but it never comes up.
  • Erasmus says "anyway," too many times.
  • Neal Stephenson really should have hired a voice actor to read the dictionaries entries in the audiobook for him.

Ugly

  • The massive amount of new words you have to learn to understand what's going on in the book is very off-putting. There are even many "new" words that are just replacements for words with acceptable analogs like "movie" and "mobile phone." And, even if you are already familiar with the jargon of religion and cathedrals, it won't help because many of those words have been replaced as well. I get that the book is set in a very different time and place and is told from the perspective of convent members who aren't supposed to know much about secular terms, but most of it feels like obfuscation for its own sake. For the first ten chapters or so, I kept debating if I should give up on the book. Luckily, the story became interesting enough to keep my attention so I kept at it and slowly absorbed the terms.

Media

Covers

Videos

Unlicensed movie trailer.

Quotes

  • "An old market had stood there until I'd been about six years old, when the authorities had renamed it the Olde Market, destroyed it, and built a new market devoted to selling T-shirts and other objects with pictures of the old market. Meanwhile, the people who had operated the little stalls in the old market had gone elsewhere and set up a thing on the edge of town that was now called the New Market even though it was actually the old market."
  • "People re-invented the wheel all the time. There was nothing shameful in it. If the rest of us oohed and aahed and said, 'Gosh, a wheel, no one's ever thought of that before,' just to make that person feel good, nothing would ever get done."
  • "Technically, of course, he was right. Socially, he was annoying us."
  • "They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right."
  • "It is inherent in the mentality of extramuros bulshytt-talkers that they are more prone than anyone else to taking offense (or pretending to) when their bulshytt is pointed out to them. This places the mathic observer in a nearly impossible position. One is forced either to use this 'offensive' word and be deemed a disagreeable person and as such excluded from polite discourse, or to say the same thing in a different way, which means becoming a purveyor of bulshytt oneself and thereby lending strength to what one is trying to attack. The latter quality probably explains the uncanny stability and resiliency of bulshytt."
  • "...the evolution of our minds from bits of inanimate matter was more beautiful and more extraordinary than any of the miracles cataloged down through the ages by the religions of our world."

Links

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