“Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

Anathem coverI’ve had several false starts with Anathem; I found the beginning pretty hard to get into. There is a lot of new terminology, and it seemed a bit dense. However, once I finally got going, I couldn’t stop reading.

Anathem is set on the planet Arbre, in the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Concents are similar to monasteries, but are staffed by people called avout who are dedicated to research. We follow Fraa Erasmus, a young avout as he prepares to see the outside world for the first time in ten years. As this is happening, people around him have started acting mysterious, and he’s a pretty curious fellow. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but he goes on a pretty epic journey, emotionally, philosophically and physically. The book is plotted tightly and has a very apt ending.

I’m not sure how much my academic background helped me understand this book – I was familiar with a lot of the concepts. The philosophical arguments (or “Dialog”), the rhetoric and the explorations of the nature of the universe/consciousness were pretty breathtaking.

The worldbuilding was extensive – we learned a lot about the history, geography and culture of Arbre, and how it differed across the world. I loved the detailed history of the various chapters and concents within the mathic world (the avouts), with sound philosophical backing. It was an extremely immersive experience to read about them. I much preferred the orderly world of Anathem‘s avout to the more gritty worlds portrayed in Neal Stephenson’s other novels (Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash.)

The characters were well-rounded, and a lot of fun and the relationships between them extremely touching. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew Fraa Erasmus’ friends almost as well as he did. It’s always extremely satisfying when a book can balance a consistent and reasonable story with actual heart, and Anathem did a great job, especially considering it deals so much with ideas and debate. It would have been really easy for the book to come off as cold, academic and dry, but it never even comes close.

I’ve failed my book challenge miserably, since I’ve acquired a lot of books (and read a bunch of those) since making that post. However, I’m still keeping track of it, for consistency’s sake. Anathem is the largest book on the list, so I’m pretty happy with finishing it.

This is book 15 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

2 thoughts on ““Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

  1. Pingback: Books I plan to read soon. « Kriti Godey

  2. Carol

    Okay I won’t give up – I’m on page 30 and having a difficult time with it – mostly because I’m annoyed, thinking the author is trying a bit too hard to be clever.

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