|summary||Action and philosophical exploration in an Earth-like future|
Anathem is set on a fictional planet called Arbre, which is very similar to Earth, in a fairly distant future. Much has happened, as we discover during the course of the story. World wars, revolutions, climate change, etc... During all these tribulations, religious orders have provided a certain amount of continuity, and have pursued theoretical scientific research. They still live like monks and nuns, even though there are occasional glimpses of highly advanced technology (materials, genetics, etc...).
In a monastery, ruled by an ancient Discipline, our hero is a young monk who is inquisitive, smart but not brilliant, and brave but not foolhardy. We see most of the action through his eyes.
Not much happens in the first 100 pages or so, which can be a bit trying, but soon we learn that mysterious events are in progress, and the narrative picks up the pace after that. I can't say much more without spoilers.
As usual with Stephenson, there are many neat ideas, and a few mind-twisters. The writing is usually clear, the action can be stimulating, the characters can be engaging. And yet...
It's not that Anathem isn't interesting. It's just that it feels ... self-indulgent. It's a 935-page novel that should be 600 pages or less. Perhaps Stephenson's fame and success make it difficult for editors to stand up to him. That would be his loss (and ours). A good editing job would have turned a good novel into one that is worthy of him.
Why do I say that?
First, the story is replete with made-up words that add very little to the story, the atmosphere, the narration, or anything at all. They just stand in the way. I'm not opposed to a judicious use of this device, but here it feels gratuitous and pointless and, yes, at times irritating.
I know it's not supposed to be Earth, but at least half of this gobbledygook could have been skipped without any detrimental effect. I'm afraid I have to invoke Munroe's Law, which states: "The probability of a book being good is inversely proportional to the number of made-up words it contains". In fact, XKCD had a strip about this specifically aimed at Anathem.
There is a lot of dialog and action that adds little or nothing to the narrative. One feels, at times, like Stephenson is filling time. This is where a good editor should step in and tighten things up. One senses that the entire book was published as delivered by the author, with no critical paring, no condensing. I'm sure I'm wrong about that, but the feeling is there nonetheless.
We meet a very large cast of characters, many of whom seem unnecessary. Names appear and disappear, and the reader is left to ponder why they were introduced at all. Is there some ulterior motive? Will they have some sort of meaning later in the book? But alas, most don't, and we feel like we have invested time and emotion in vain.
There are also a lot of uncompleted story lines and plot holes. Perhaps the novel is simply too ambitious, and tries to broach too many topics. Time and time again, Stephenson introduces an interesting concept, or an intriguing subplot, only to drop it without any follow-up. This is most unsatisfying.
This is a surprise, because I am under the impression that Stephenson's audience is in large part made of people like me — somewhat geeky, interested in science, and therefore prone to paying close attention to details of the story. In this respect, this book simply fails. The reader is left with so many open questions, so many unfinished lines of inquiry, that the whole thing feels unfinished, even rushed. The ending is bland and appallingly predictable, worthy of a Bruce Willis action movie--harsh words, I know, but I am not using them lightly.
I was expecting more intellectual stimulation, a significantly faster pace, and more storytelling rigor from Stephenson, and I have to admit to being disappointed. The book is certainly not without redeeming qualities, I was just expecting quite a bit more.
I would not recommend this book as an introduction to Stephenson. If you're a real fan, you'll probably read it no matter what, but otherwise you can safely skip it. If you've never read anything by Stephenson, then you owe it to yourself to read the three novels I mentioned at the beginning of this article. They are truly excellent. Anathem, sadly, is not cut of the same cloth.
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