Review: Anathem

Once A Month Book Club

Welcome to the third month of the Once A Month Book Club! This month we have been reading fantasy stories, which are those “featuring magic paranormal magic and terrible monsters”. Wow, wonder if J.K Rowling used that as a checklist?

Don’t forget to check out the links at the bottom of the page to find more interesting reads from this month’s participants 🙂

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Imagine yourself in a cloister. It is medeival in appearance and awesome in scale, having developed over the last 4000 years. Outside the walls, civilizations rise and fall, cities advance and wane, and cultures precipitate and deal with one environmental catastrophe after another. Inside the walls, life is simple, consisting of chores, growing food, cooking, and long periods of reading philosophy and doing geometric proofs. You have three possessions: a robe, a cord to tie it with, and a sphere made of an indestructible super-elastic material that can be expanded and contracted to any size between a pea and a car with a wave of the fingers. Welcome to the mathic world of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

Don’t read the description or reviews on Amazon. They have given it all away!

This may be the longest book I have ever finished. 960 pages. A fictional world with a glossary and three appendices. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed it. It is a mark of how much I enjoyed it that I managed to finish it in three days (it helped that I was too sick to move for two of those.) I just feel that it should come with a caveat. This is a mathematical/philosophical sci-fi action adventure. It frequently digresses into deep discussion of the precise nature of the world, drawing upon both quantum mechanics and arcane schools of philosophy. You can’t skip over those parts; they are integral to the plot. I have a graduate degree in physics and have spent a significant fraction of the last 15 years reading increasingly obscure bits of philosophy, and I still had trouble following this book at points. It was a great follow up to my last finished book, “The Lost Art of Reading,” because it challenged me to maintain my attention for long periods of time, at levels of detail that exceed my normal interest. It pushed the limits of my visualization ability with its descriptions of the mathic structures; the symmetry is important, there is iconography in the mathematical choices. It means something. Phew. Glad all those years of studying math beyond my ability have finally paid off!

Let us be very clear who the good guys are, here. They’re the ones behind the walls. It is not so much that the characters outside the walls are the ‘bad guys.’ It is just that, as members of the secular world, they are so foreign to the worldview inhabited by the narrator (who has been cloistered since the age of 9) that they are superficially drawn. There are many, many characters in this book, and it is (as I said) sweeping in scope, but the back story is introduced skilfully, as needed, well integrated into the plot. There is a whole vocabulary and history that is necessary to understanding, but you don’t need it all at once, and the author has kindly provided us with both a historic timeline (at the beginning) and a glossary (at the end.)

The thing is, though, I can’t say very much about what goes on without giving away far too much. To sum up: The book is not particularly character-driven. There is a lot of description. There is a lot of thinking. There is a LOT of plot. (Amazon didn’t really give it ALL away, but it would make the first 300 pages sort of anticlimactic, so don’t read it! Don’t read the dust jacket either!) If you like your speculative fiction hard, you have the time to devote, and you’re up for a ripping yarn, I can highly recommend it.

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Amandab has been reading about what life would be like in Post Apocolyptic Melbourne in the Stormbringer series by Kerry Greenwood, and now her brain is hurting from the information overload.

Leechbabe has been enjoying politics, intrigue, epic battles and a little bit of bondage whilst reading Kushiel’s Legacy by Jacqueline Carey.

And joining in for the first time, Seonaid has locked herself up for 3 days for the mathematical/philosophical sci-fi action adventure of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

12 responses to “Review: Anathem”

  1. Right, so I should clear the decks of other books I’m reading before trying this one. Thanks for the heads up.

    • On the plus side, there are no numbers. It’s basically all geometry, which I have observed to be more accessible for many people. Let me know if you make it (if you were to write another review, for example, we could add a link up in here.)

  2. It sounds very interesting, but I’m a little worried that in putting it down I am going to lose the thread a little.

    I love how in fantasy we are able to explore things in ways that we may not do otherwise and make ourselves look at things perhaps with a little more focus. And philosophy cropped up quite a bit in what I have been reading, although, my books were aimed at young adults.

    Thanks for joining the link up 🙂

    • I think I would have had trouble with this one if I had read it with my normal approach. Generally I am going back and forth among several books, but this one really required that sustained attention. I also have three kids, so the fact that I was holed up in my bedroom for 36 hours helped a lot. 🙂

  3. Anathem is the best recent book I’ve read (ie, recently published as well as recently read), by a mile.

    A very worthwhile book, for anybody who thinks that they might enjoy the concept.