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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Neal Stephenson

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To purchase Anathem

Title: Anathem
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 935 pages
Availability: Anathem - US
Anathem - UK
Anathem - Canada
Anathem - India
Anathem - Deutschland
Il pellegrino and Il nuovo cielo - Italia
Anatema - España

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Our Assessment:

B : tries to do too much

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 20/10/2008 James Lovegrove
The Guardian . 27/9/2008 Christopher Brookmyre
The LA Times . 7/9/2008 Laura Miller
NY Post . 7/9/2008 Glenn Harlan Reynolds
The NY TImes Book Rev. . 19/10/2008 Dave Itzoff
Salon A- 11/9/2008 Andrew Leonard
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/9/2008 Michael Berry
The Telegraph A- 4/10/2008 Andrew McKie
TLS . 7/11/2008 Tom Shippey
Wall Street Journal . 9/9/2008 Paul Boutin
The Washington Post C- 7/9/2008 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Anathem belongs to the larger-than-you-might-think subgenre of religion-centric science fiction. Itís heavy stuff, but the weightiness is leavened by a knowing humour." - James Lovegrove, Financial Times

  • "Weighing in at 800 head-stretching pages, Anathem demands a near-avout level of commitment, but rewards those who enter its concent with bounteous gifts of wisdom, beauty and "upsight". The only catch to reading a novel as imposingly magnificent as this is that for the next few months, everything else seems small and obvious by comparison." - Christopher Brookmyre, The Guardian

  • "Whenever you feel you have a handle on the story, at the moment you settle in, thinking, "Now I see what this book is about," the novel is liable to pivot on some previously unnoticed axis and head in another direction entirely. Anathem is also a campus novel, a counterpoint to Stephenson's little-known debut, The Big U. (...) True, Erasmas is a bit callow (his cluelessness in romantic matters is one of the novel's running jokes), and his workmanlike first-person voice strips the customary brio out of Stephenson's prose. But what could be more literary than the metaphysical conclusions the novel wends its way to, which are that human imagination is a quantum device and the cosmos itself a kind of story ?" - Laura Miller, The Los Angeles Times

  • "All this could have been a very simple morality tale: Science good, repression of science bad. And, in the wake of things like Bill Joy's call for us to renounce some advanced technologies rather than risk social dislocation, such a morality tale might even have been useful. But Stephenson aims higher. Stephenson created this world and its inhabitants mostly so that he could explore a wide variety of philosophical and social ideas, with sources ranging from Pythagoras, Thales and Plato all the way to Godel and Danny Hillis." - Glenn Harlan Reynolds, New York Post

  • "It is an intricate Socratic puzzle, yet -- though you may wish to banish me or pour hemlock down my throat for saying this -- Iím not entirely sure itís a novel. (...) Too much of the book is dominated by lengthy dialectical debates, whose conclusions are hardly earth-shattering (if you are reading this review, I suspect you already know how to divide a rectangular cake into eight equal servings) and which do little to promote a readerís engagement with the characters of Anathem, any more than one cares about the interior lives of Pausanias or Eryximachus while reading The Symposium. Whatís worse, the bookís fixation on dialogue leads Erasmas (and Stephenson) to simply tell us what is happening or has happened in pivotal scenes, instead of allowing us to see the events for ourselves through descriptive action." - Dave Itzoff, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Anathem pulls off what most writers would never dare attempt -- it is simultaneously a page turner and a philosophical argument, an adventure novel and an extended existential meditation, a physics lesson, sermon and ripping good yarn. Anathem also resonates with social observations rooted in our time, right now, on earth (.....) The names have changed, but the geometry remains the same. If you are already a fan of Stephenson, you will not be disappointed -- you will be utterly engrossed. If you like a little dash of philosophy in your science fiction you will be delighted. If you wrote a dissertation on German idealism you will think you've died and gone to heaven. Can I hear an amen ? If you don't like philosophy, hate math and desire more character development than Kant in your fiction ... best to stay away." - Andrew Leonard, Salon

  • "It's almost impossible to not be impressed by Anathem; there's simply too much erudition, wit, craft and risk-taking on display to write this novel off as some kind of pretentious, badly edited prank. But many who tackle the book, including some longtime Stephenson fans, may find that it doesn't stimulate their reading pleasure centers the way they had hoped." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "I think this novel is wonderful. So I don't want to put you off. But let's be clear: there is plenty to put you off. There is a strong case for thinking this book utterly tiresome. Please, don't. You'll miss quite a lot if you do." - Andrew McKie, The Telegraph

  • "Stephensonís motive, then, must be at least partly evangelical, but it is a consciously elitist form of evangelism. Does his immensely detailed and even laboured historico-philosophical approach succeed? On the one hand, the seriousness, the multilayered texture of hint and allusion, the quantity of data imparted and demanded, all these make most mainstream literature (and most science fiction too) look marginal, introverted, or at best ill-informed. On the other, one cannot help feeling that Stephensonís ideal reader -- the sort who will go and look things up on the website, and then follow the references -- cannot exist in very large numbers." - Tom Shippey, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The 937-page novel isn't a cautionary tale; it's an escapist fantasy for readers who miss the joys of studious immersion in math, science and philosophy. (...) He adapts a standard sci-fi plot as an excuse for lengthy ruminations on big-think topics of philosophy and cosmology. By explaining highbrow concepts about the nature of consciousness and the universe entirely within his alternate universe, he's able to cast them as new and interesting ideas. (...) The third act, in which Erasmus and friends suit up to save the world, is a throwback to classic sci-fi. It feels like literary red meat and comes as something of a relief after so much cerebration. But the lasting satisfaction of Anathem derives not from the action but from Mr. Stephenson's wry contempt for today's just-Google-it mindset. His prose is dense, but his worldview contagious." - Paul Boutin, Wall Street Journal

  • "Oh, Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved ? Enjoyed ? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago -- much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull. That's an awful thing to say about a novel as formidable as Anathem, but there's no getting around it. The made-up language is rebarbative (though often clever), the plot moves with elephantine slowness, and much is confusing (the process of decipherment actually drives the book, as characters and the reader Try to Figure Things Out), and every so often we just stop for a long info-dump or debate about cosmology, philosophy, semantics or similar glitzy arcana. For the most part, Stephenson's prose lacks any particular grace or beauty (at least to my ear), and while he can be mildly satirical at times, these precious moments are few. On the other hand, the descriptions -- of buildings, machines, events -- seem to go on for millennia. Sex is referred to, but never actually seen. Alas, there's worse." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Neal Stphenson begins his Acknowledgments:

     Anathem is best read in somewhat the same spirit as John L. Casti's The Cambridge Quintet, which is to say that it is a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present.
       Prescriptions ('is best read' ...) at the beginning of a novel are always worrisome, and the nod to Casti's extremely poorly written work hardly inspires more confidence; in this case, it's also superfluous, as it is soon obvious that Anathem is such a 'fictional framework' for exploring certain ideas.
       Stephenson has imagined an entirely new world, called Arbre -- which bears a striking resemblance to Earth. A couple of thousand years earlier the planet had gone through a stage of development much like the world we inhabit has in recent centuries, a five-hundred-year-long period of technological progress called the Praxic Age (there's a convenient Chronology provided, noting the most significant Arbre-dates). This culminated in disaster: 'The Terrible Events'. Since then there has been a division between the Sæcular world, which is where people lead more or less everyday (and Earth-like) lives, and those committed to a 'mathic' life, 'avouts' who live in 'maths' and 'concents' (two or more 'maths' close together).
        The maths resemble cloisters, and living there is like being in a religious order: no technology is allowed, and avout have only three worldly possessions, a bolt (a fancy and flexible piece of cloth), sphere (which can change size and shape, and emit light), and chord. There is some communication between the Sæcular world and the maths, but it is generally strictly regulated and limited; for most of the avouts (and most regular folk) the only contact with the outside/inside world comes with Apert. Depending on the math, this happens anywhere from annually to once a millennium, as maths are divided into those with Unarians (a one-year cycle, making this a popular math among Sæcular folk, who spend one or a few years in these), Decenarians, Centenarians, and Millenarians.
       Anathem is narrated by Erasmas, who came to his math when he was eight and is now, ten years later, getting ready for his first Apert, allowing Stephenson to contrast the two kinds of lifestyles on Arbre.
       With no technology allowed in the maths, the avout basically do a lot of philosophising. They resemble religious orders, but god-belief isn't widespread (in fact, it's far more widespread in the Sæcular world); instead, it's much more like what we like to imagine the ancient Greek philosophers practised -- lots of talk and arguments. Meanwhile, the Sæcular world anno 3689 (in their reckoning) is technologically at a similar stage that Earth is presently, with 'jeejahs' (that "ubiquitous handheld device used by Sæculars, combining functions of mobile telephone, camera, network browser, etc."), a 'reticulum' (the Internet -- along with the problem of spam (simple 'crap', here)), and the like; technology has not, however, run rampant, and life is still very similar to Earth-life in the early 21st century.
       Stephenson has invented a language, of sorts, for Arbre -- actually, there are several, but the one Erasmas writes his account in amounts to English sprinkled with a few words that are used on Arbre. Cleverly (and/or irritatingly), many of theses words resemble English words or even take actual English words and give them a slightly new or different meaning: 'maths', 'avout', 'feral', etc., etc. This might seem more trouble than it is worth, or just a simple (or simplistic) means of creating a sense of 'otherness' that is, of course, obligatory in a work of 'science fiction', but Stephenson takes it a step further: not only does the language of the book mirror that we're familiar with, but so do the idea that are at issue (and constantly being discussed and deconstructed). There is 'theorics' (what we think of as math, logic, philosophy -- and what they practise in the maths) and 'praxis' (technology), for example.
       By giving many of these concepts new names and making his alter-world slightly different, Stephenson gives himself an excuse to re-introduce the concepts to readers; indeed, Anathem can be seen as an exercise to re-consider many of the major advances and issues in Western thought, dressed up in slightly different guise. That's a decent idea -- especially since the slightly off-kilter different perspective can make one see these things anew --, but tough to pull off in a work of fiction (witness Casti's failure with a much more closely circumscribed premise in The Cambridge Quintet), and stretches of Anathem do resemble Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World. But Stephenson also wants to be a storyteller and entertainer: he wants his book not to be a philosophical work, but rather an adventure story that happens to provide great insight into human thought-processes and fundamental philosophical ideas. That, of course, is an even taller order, and a tough mix.
       For stretches, Stephenson manages fairly well. Writing a novel of ideas of this sort is not easy, and Stephenson is more successful than most (perhaps that's also why he mentioned the Casti, setting the bar very low ...). However, it feels both a bit forced and very simple. Not helped by its very young narrator (not yet twenty, and with little experience of the outside world), much of Anathem reads like a young-adult novel. Indeed, its ideal audience would be teens for whom all this is novelty (i.e. who haven't really occupied themselves with the ideas tossed around here -- as anyone who has gone to even just a bad college (or even just stayed up until three in the morning discussing the meaning of life) has). Disappointingly, Stephenson sticks pretty much to the basics; understandably, too -- it's a long book, but given the intellectual territory he wants to cover, there's only so far he can go.
       Anathem requires a bit of a leap of faith on the part of the reader, who has to trust that this is all going somewhere: it starts off very slow, describing Erasmas' life in the math and then Apert and the interaction with the extramuros (outside, Sæcular) world, including his handy-with-tools sib, Cord (hmmm, wonder whether we'll run into her again later in the story ...). It takes a while to get used to Stephenson's terminology (though it is consistent, and has its uses -- and there's a Glossary provided), and it's hard at times not to think as one character puts it:
"Oh," he said, in a mild and polite tone of voice, "you are talking bulshytt."
       (Which isn't exactly what you think it is, but you do get the right idea.)
       So the set-up -- explaining how these philosophical orders work, and what the different schools of thought are, and everyday life -- takes a while. It comes as no surprise, however, that the action eventually moves extramuros -- i.e. into the real world. Just when Erasmas thinks he's back safely in his math for another decade, everything changes. There have been small hints of big things before, but suddenly their world is upended. And instead of whiling away his time in the math, Erasmas gets to embark on some rollicking adventures. (Stephenson's ambition only extends so far: a purely theoretical-intellectual thriller is decidedly beyond him.) Suddenly all those forbidden technological advances are available to him -- or at least available to those travelling with him, so they can help him out. And, of course, he is exposed to the ways of the (outside) world, while also (occasionally) trying to keep up the traditions of his order.
       Where is it all going ? The reader may well feel like Erasmas:
"Fine. After the picnic I'll go north. Though I do not understand what that means."
     "Then keep going north until you understand it," Fraa Jad said.
       Yes, there are lots of wise old men and cryptic sayings in the book (allowing the lightbulb in Erasmas' head to repeatedly go on as he suddenly gets it ...), and the reader keeps pushing north in the hopes of understanding. Or getting somewhere. Stephenson doesn't make it too frustrating a ride -- if anything, much of it is not (intellectualy) challenging enough -- and so one isn't left going around entirely in circles (or analemmas ...), but for the most part the action is fairly carefully dosed (and occasionally a bit forced, as when Erasmas is saved by what can only be described a gang of ninja-avouts).
       One of the main questions the book concerns itself with is describing the completely other-worldly: is it possible to have other realities, other universes completely different from that known on Arbre, and if so how would one communicate with beings from there, or exchange information -- a popular philosophical question. (Of course, Arbre is already such a world to earthling-readers .....) But Stephenson looks at the big picture, so the focus of the book is, to put it mildly, dispersed, and the reader has to wade through a great deal of material, not all of which is particularly engaging.
       The story does, however advance: "One is shunted into an altogether different Narrative", one characters notes, and that's part of what's being played here too, though Stephenson only briefly plays this out fully, to make it all a: "polycosmic chess game". Adventure, like philosophy, is also minutely observed, which can make it less adventurous; Stephenson heaps a great amount of detail on, and it has a way of getting in the way of the story. Anathem is one of those books that seems just the wrong length, feeling like it would have worked much better if tightly edited -- or expanded into a much larger work.
       As Erasmas complains:
     "I am fascinated," I insisted. "That's the problem. I am suffering from fascination burnout
       Burnout -- or at least a certain type of overload -- is certainly a potential problem here (though, alas, fascination isn't the best word to describe its root), as Stephenson keeps invention and new possibilities coming.
       Stephenson does do the idea-talk fairly well -- the dialogues are quite interesting, even when they rehash familiar ideas -- which helps obscure some of his weaknesses, such as his characters. There are some student-teacher relationships and some friendships, and Erasmas feels love and lust, but on the whole the book is devoid of any real emotion and populated by (colourful) cardboard cutouts. Extreme emotion is the best Stephenson can do with them to make them appear 'real', but for the most part they are either mouthpieces or representative types, and there is just too little to them.
       There is a lot to Anathem, but Stephenson doesn't seem to find the right balance between action- and intellectual-thriller -- and much too rarely manages to keep the novel on both tracks. It's certainly readable and occasionally (though not often enough) thought-provoking, but ultimately it can't justify its length.

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Anathem: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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© 2008-2012 the complete review

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