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Anathem 356

Max Tardiveau writes "I just finished reading Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Anathem. I was awaiting it with some anticipation because I absolutely loved Stephenson's best-known novels: Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon. One of Stephenson's non-fiction pieces, called In the beginning was the command line, simply wowed me when I read it. The man can write. A few years ago, I got really excited when I heard that he was writing a whole cycle of novels (the Baroque cycle). But I read the first book of the cycle — Quicksilver — and I was somewhat disappointed, so I skipped the rest of the cycle. I realize that many people enjoyed these novels, but I was hoping that Stephenson would get back his old style and inspiration. So, when Anathem was announced, I was full of anticipation — was this going to be the one? Would he find his mark again?" Keep reading for Max's impressions of Anathem
author Neal Stephenson
pages 935
publisher HarperCollins
rating 6
reviewer Max Tardiveau
ISBN 9780061474095
summary Action and philosophical exploration in an Earth-like future
The first impression of this book is its heft---at 935 pages in the hardback edition, you'll need strong arms, or a good support, just to read the thing. But otherwise, this is a sharply printed, well-bound book. The official retail price is $30, but you can find it for around $24, less if you buy it used.

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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  • by Lord Grey ( 463613 ) * on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:26PM (#25876081)
    ... I agree with Max's review. I'm almost halfway through Anathem and it's simply not compelling at this point. The made-up words that littered the first part of the story were amazingly painful to slog through, at least in the beginning. I either don't notice them so much now or their usage is toned down a little. They're still irritating, though.

    While I love Stephenson's earlier works, his later works are disappointing to me. If you could somehow plot a trend of his writing style, beginning with something like Snow Crash and continuing until the present, you'd find Anathem right on that trend line. If you've been reading his stuff all along, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Anathem is like the Baroque cycle, but more so.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jaysyn ( 203771 )

      I thought the Baroque Cycle was brilliant & showed how much the author's writing had matured between it & Snow Crash.

      I'm hoping I get this for Christmas & it isn't a disappointment.

      @ the Reviewer. Dune had a metric crapload of made up words too.

      • by farrellj ( 563 ) * on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:49PM (#25877147) Homepage Journal

        I found the first quarter of the book a little slow...but after that, I couldn't read it fast enough to keep up. I obsessed about the book and ended up getting the audio book as well so I could listen to it in the car to and from work!

        It is an epic book, and it is a memetic masterpiece, since many people are big fans of this book have slowly been infiltrating it's words into the english language...

        Don't overlook the Anathem WIKI at []

        And if you like the music, you can get it via Neal's site: []


        • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @07:28PM (#25879101) Homepage Journal

          I agree that it's a hell of a good book, but to be honest, it's extremely similar to Gene Wolfe's Litany of the Long Sun. I'm not sure whether Stephenson had read Wolfe's book and it stuck in his unconscious for a while before he wrote this one, or whether it's just zeitgeist, but the similarities are too many to not note:

          In Gene Wolfe's Litany of the Long Sun, Patera Silk, a young "cleric" from a science-based "religion" that has outlasted governments for generations, has to go forth into the world outside, and becomes an important chess piece on a global scale.
          In Stephenson's Anathem, Fraa Erasmus, a young "cleric" from a science-based "religion" that has outlasted governments for generations, has to go forth into the world outside, and become an important chess piece on a global scale.

          Fraa = Patera
          Suur = Matera
          Avout = Augur
          Arbre = Whorl
          Math = Manteion ... and so on.

          I do not think it's plagiarism, but the similarities are so great that I'm fairly certain that anyone who has read Wolfe's book can't help but think that this is a very close relative.

          And while Stephenson might be more popular these days, I still think Wolfe is the better writer. Perhaps they're not as engaging, but I find that his books stands up to re-reading more than Stephenson's novels.

          Anyhow, I recommend that people read both. They're very similar, yet different. Where Stephenson has more of a technical point of view, Wolfe appears to me to have a deeper psychological insight, and characters with more grit to them. Again, read both.

    • by guinsu ( 198732 )

      It's funny I actually have a different view because I was not a big fan of Snow Crash. I loved Cryptonomicon and liked the Baroque Cycle (yes it could have been trimmed a bit). Snow Crash seemed self indulgent to me, he also seemed to be pandering to his audience too much, his characters were how geeks saw themselves and how they should be in the world, not how their were. Whereas in Cryptonomicon geeks had a lot of power but it showed they were not the masters of their own destiny and superior to all th

      • by Jaysyn ( 203771 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:38PM (#25876269) Homepage Journal

        If you like sci-fi, you owe it to yourself to read The Diamond Age.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          If you like sci-fi, you owe it to yourself to read The Diamond Age.

          As a coincidence I finished The Diamond Age this morning. I also highly recommend it. It has some slow bits in which I wondered where the story was going, but all of them had redeeming purposes and I was not disappointed for long.

          However I'm a bit disappointed by this review of Anathem because it sounds suspiciously like I'd agree with it. I base this assertion largely on this passage:

          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.

          I'm exactly that sort of reader. I pay close attention to details and am interested in seeing them be developed. Snow

      • I just reread Snow Crash and Diamond Age. I found Cryptonomicon tedious in the extreme, because he kept on spending ten to twenty pages giving a history lesson that I didn't need (I studied this stuff in school, and the bits involving cryptography I've read much better accounts of), which distracted from the plot.

        I have to agree on Snow Crash. It does read a lot like wish-fulfilment fantasy, but it's fun if you don't take it too seriously. The characters in Diamond Age seem more real, and even when it g

      • by tsm_sf ( 545316 )
        He did pull a weird ending out on that one, it did sort of fall flat, I think that is one of his flaws as a writer.

        Thats the running joke about Stephenson. He can't decide how to end his books, so everything just blows up.
    • Well, to each his own. I found the first third perhaps a little slow going, but by the end I really just couldn't put it down. Once the plot proper starts going on full steam I found it very compelling.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Thirded. The books not an easy read, I'll give them that, but when did that become a requirement of sci-fi?

        I've read it several times now, and the social commentary is so multi-layered I keep getting more out of it, and the philosophy is interesting enough that I keep turning it over and over in my head.

        I'm glad he didn't feel the need to release a mass-market, dumbed-down action piece. Look at The Diamond Age, by far his most award winning novel: he wasn't afraid to throw down the intellectual beat down th

        • by Narpak ( 961733 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:34PM (#25876971)
          Forthed I guess.

          Found Anathem to be one of his best and deepest books so far. While I thoroughly enjoy Snow Crash and Diamond Age; Anathem, and the Baroque Cycle, is simply another type of fiction entirely. More like the Baroque Cycle,a series of novels (in his own words), than his other works.

          Where perhaps his earlier works where a bit more action oriented; Snow Crash being a good example of a story mainly oriented towards action. Interface and Diamond Age go slightly deeper, but in Cryptonomicon things changes dramatically. At that point the action begins to take a back seat to exploration of intellectual ideas and concepts (cryptography, computer science, astronomy, philosophy and others).

          Anathem becomes, in parts, almost like a primer for contemplation of time and long term thinking; interwoven with a story that I personally found quite interesting and enjoyable. Neal Stephenson knows how to write well, explain things in an understandable fashion, and craft believable characters; even those in minor roles.

          Having read Anathem once and looking back upon the story, and sometimes the way it was written, and keeping the ideas and concepts introduced in the book in mind; things become clearer that were perhaps a bit obfuscated before.

          All in all a very good read, but perhaps not for everyone.
    • I'm almost halfway through Anathem and it's simply not compelling at this point

      I'm 2.5 hours into the audio version. At some point, does something actually happen? So far it is a bit like listening to the most boring podcast imaginable with a little Croatian thrown in to make it bewildering.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by 0xdeadbeef ( 28836 )

      You and the reviewer are pretty dense. Most of the words are derived from English, Greek, or Latin, with many of them being jokes and puns. The whole point is to denote a sense of both otherness and familiarity, which is a central theme of the book.

      The characters aren't strictly human, they live isolated from their own kind (in increments of one, ten, a hundred, or a thousand years), they don't usually speak the same language as the majority of their world's population. Are you going to envision them with t

    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      The made-up words that littered the first part of the story were amazingly painful to slog through, at least in the beginning.

      Those "made-up" words are known as neologisms, and what makes them interesting is that they aren't made-up -- at least not completely. If you understand the word he's referring to with something like "fraa," "suur," or "saecular," and moreover you understand why he chose not to use the original word, then you have a better understanding of the world he's created. (It becomes even more interesting when the guy from Laterre shows up.)

  • by Normal_Deviate ( 807129 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:36PM (#25876237)
    Anathem is the classic slow starter. I almost gave up at first, but by the halfway mark it was on my all-time short list. Its great strength is the theme of intellectual elitism. Not the modern "liberal condescension" interpretation of that term, but rather the deeper idea that those willing to do what it takes to perceive reality are both rare and precious. If the book has a flaw, it is in promulgating the idea that intellectual elites are to be found in academic cloisters.
    • by gardyloo ( 512791 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:58PM (#25876537)

      If the book has a flaw, it is in promulgating the idea that intellectual elites are to be found in academic cloisters.

      OK, now you're just making up words, you elit... eli... overeduma... bastard. :)

    • by mblase ( 200735 )

      Anathem is the classic slow starter.

      No, Dune is the classic slow-starter. Anathem is the latest in a string.

      I think it's a best-seller thing, really -- whenever a writer becomes suddenly, unexpectedly popular, his books increase in words and in mass along a staggering curve. (Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and now Neal Stephenson.)

      I don't know if the editors are afraid to infringe on a popular writer's success, or if they're just trying to get as much money out of his fans as possible by selling us bigger books with the same content.

      If I had to

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Redfeather ( 1033680 )

        I wonder if anyone's put together a Fame-to-Wordcount algorithm? When I started writing, I could get through about two pages a day. Now, if I'm on my game, I can easily write 10k in a night and had my record set at nearly 20k - which amounts to about 15-25 pages.

        I imagine should I ever get published and suddenly have ALL my time free, I may begin to aim for the Rober J Sawyer law of 8 pages per day. However, when you're really in the groove, it's easy to get overextended. If your deadlines are roughly one b

  • by ahoehn ( 301327 ) <andrew AT hoe DOT hn> on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:39PM (#25876283) Homepage

    Unlike every other Stephenson novel - this one has a real conclusion!

    While I'm a big lover of Stephenson's work, I've felt like in his other novels the end is just hacked off without literary justification. This time, Stephenson provides us with a satisfying conclusion. It sort of blew my mind.

    As to the rest of the novel, I enjoyed it overall. But I felt like Stephenson did fall prey to the trap of letting his characters discusses theoretics overmuch at the expense of some narrative.

    Also, I'm not sure that forcing readers to learn so much invented vocabulary for the sake of his imaginary world was entirely worth it. Sure, there might not be a word in the English language that perfectly encapsulates the idea he was trying to communicate, but most writers are forced to overcome this obstacle every day, and do so without making up new words. It added a layer of complication to Anathem that was unnecessarily daunting.

    So, read the book if you're already into Stephenson, you'll probably love it. But - as the review said - you'd be better off falling in love with the man's writing somewhere else.

    • by Rayban ( 13436 ) *

      *minor spoiler warning*

      Yeah, I agree with this review. Neal Stephenson's endings tend to be either abrupt (cryptonomicon) or all-over-the-place crazy (snow crash/diamond age). This one had a bit of wrap-up at the end which was nice.

      The made-up words seem tougher at the beginning than anywhere else. I'm not sure if he just stopped using them or if the reader learns them over time.

      Overall I'd say it was one of his better works. This comes from someone who preferred Cryptonomicon over Snow Crash.

      • by gmuslera ( 3436 )
        Only read those 3 from him (cryptonomicon/snow crash/diamond age) and the "abrupt" description fits perfectly. You have a very long book, pretty good read all the way, but the whole conclusion and closing of everything that happened there is pretty close to the "the end" word, last 2 pages or so, like he figured "oh, i had so much fun writting this 500 page book that i didnt realized that i reached the page 499... lets finish this" and in the last page he puts the conclusion.

        If he finally puts a not-abrupt
    • by 7Prime ( 871679 )


      I completely agree. Cryptonomicon is one of my all-time favorite books followed by Zodiac and Snow Crash... and all three of them have absolutely horrendous endings. The way I see it, Neal isn't a big fan of plots. His enjoyment of writing comes from the concepts and descriptions themselves, and probably sees plot development practices as simply a utilitarian neccessity. Therefor, when he gets finished saying what needs to be said, he just cuts off. Unfortunately, this makes for unsatisfying c

    • by sootman ( 158191 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @08:11PM (#25879467) Homepage Journal

      Sure, there might not be a word in the English language that perfectly encapsulates the idea he was trying to communicate, but most writers are forced to overcome this obstacle every day, and do so without making up new words.

      Shit, at this point I'm just happy he's not making up letters.

  • Don't read Tolkien's less common stuff. By less common, I mean, haven't had a movie made out of it yet. I've been working on the tales from middle earth/unfinished stories boxed set... Woah, talk about a lot of propper names! Names for places, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc... Add to that the fact that one person may have 5 names over time (big characters like gandalf have more.) AND that he'll throw out a name, expecting that you know it, even though it may be the first/only time ever used, or you would h

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ahoehn ( 301327 )

      Don't read Tolkien's less common stuff. By less common, I mean, haven't had a movie made out of it yet.

      There's a reason that his popular stuff is popular, and his obscure stuff is obscure.

      Tolkien found a good balance between the background paraphernalia that gave his world depth and narrative in The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit. Much of his less popular stuff doesn't find that balance, which makes it fine for us more obsessive nerd types, and not much fun for the average reader.

    • by moderatorrater ( 1095745 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:56PM (#25876517)
      It depends on the goal of making up the words/names. Tolkien created an entire world with actual languages, not just made up ones. He tends to use the made up word when he's presenting something as coming from that culture, the same way that we would pronounce something with a quasi-french pronunciation if that's where we got the word; in this way he distinguishes the item and gives it more background. He was also presenting it as a historical piece, as middle earth being the same earth that we're on right now, only a long time ago. For those reasons, it's less grating to have him make up words. However, that tendency still puts people off of his books and it's hard to fault them for it.

      For other books, where they make up new names for periods of time, like "cycle" instead of "day" or make up a new word that replaces "hour", there's no reason to do so. If an author makes up a word, let's say "klek", and then defines it as "60 minutes", they've lost a lot of credibility with me and made it so that I'll almost certainly never recommend that book to anyone else again.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by daigu ( 111684 )

        I generally agree with your statement regarding making up words. Typically, it is a sign of sloppy cliche thinking and someone trying to dress it up in semantics.

        But I think you have to recognize that depicting a believable future sub-culture in a novel that you want to stand the test of time - that's a special case. You need to use language that won't become dated over time - eliminating the possibility of using current jargon. You also cannot use standard English because it misses conveying how difference

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by STrinity ( 723872 )
      I have to disagree, my droog. Proctolexicogenesis is doubleplusungood. Any muggle author or holodeck scenarist worth his quatloos should be able to make do with the words that exist in plain frakking English.
  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:39PM (#25876289)
    I, too, was hoping for something out of Stephenson more like his older books. I loved Snow Crash, and Diamond Age. I felt Cryptonomicon to be somewhat self-indulgent of the the author in the sense mentioned by the reviewer.

    Yes, some of Stephenson's books were, IMHO, outstanding. Snow Crash was great. I even thought his first novel, "The Big U", was hilarious (apparently unlike many others... it did not sell well or get good reviews).

    After reading this, I doubt very much that I will bother reading Anathem.

    But after Cryptonomicon, I was reluctant to dive into the Baroque Cycle books. Too much prose, for too little effect. Stephenson would do well to return to the more terse writing of his earlier years.
  • or an eBook reader. I picked up the Sony PRS-505 last month and read several books using it. Love it. I can carry a metric ton of books in one hand. Anathem may be next.
  • 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.

    Woah, there's an ending??

    Okay, I say that in jest, I've only read Snow Crash and quit reading Quicksilver.

  • by mofag ( 709856 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:43PM (#25876335)

    To me its clearly Stephenson's best book and the only one he has written that hasn't fallen apart towards the end. His prose is so much more mature in this. Its such a pleasure to read a book which expects so much of its readers. His humour in the book plays across an enormous range of questions and schisms in philosophy, language an physics and I found myself giggling whilst amazed at his audacity in expecting so much from his audience. Yes it is self-indulgent but only so much as it indulges his target audience. If you found it boring and you didn't find it extremely funny throughout then I guess he was expecting a little too much of you or you were under-estimating him. Seriously, this book puts the rest of his work to shame. Please try re-reading it. Everything else he has written is practice in order to get it right for Anathem.


    • by orin ( 113079 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:03PM (#25876595)
      I cannot help but agree with your assessment of the book. One doesn't have to go far to guess which side of the concent walls the reviewer would live on. Go back to watching your Die Hard speelies reviewer!
    • by Rayban ( 13436 ) *

      Cryptonomicon is the book that falls apart the least near the end, IMHO. It might be because the ending is abrupt. :)

      This one started to unravel a bit in the last few chapters, but held itself together overall.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I definitely think his style is maturing, and I completely agree with the statement about the ending. Either he ended it in media res or it wound down in a particularly boring fashion...Neither is fully satisfying.

      Anathem built slowly, something I think was required for the vast amount of world building he had to pull off, and then he took all that he'd built and blitzed it for 400 pages of crazy.

      It's the first real piece of old-school intellectual sci-fi I've read in a while that didn't feel shallow or con

    • by gknoy ( 899301 )

      If you found it boring and you didn't find it extremely funny throughout then I guess he was expecting a little too much of you or you were under-estimating him.

      How is this different from saying, "It's not book/art/painting was bad, you're just too dumb/uncultured to understand it"? Doesn't that seem like an empty argument?

      • Uh, no? I have many reference books that are very good at what they do, but people who aren't interested in programming would hate them or not even have the need to read them at all.
  • by xorowo ( 733585 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:44PM (#25876353) Homepage Journal
    I am not going to defend the novel as a whole. While I found it a compelling introduction to a number of philosophical and scientific beliefs, it is clearly a book that will appeal to some and turn off others. That said, I find it hard to believe that he didn't find enough intellectual stimulation. Setting aside the vocabulary, I found the breadth and depth of content in this book very personally satisfying.

    The biggest issue, though, is this complaint that is levied about the language and the made-up words. If you have completed the book, please finish it before slamming the words themselves. You cannot understand the reason that he uses these words until you understand the larger message of the book. I felt for a long time that it added little, and while I got used to the words I wished that they weren't there. Then I read the last 20% of the book, and I got it. It made sense. You could still disagree with the approach, but at least you would be able to do so intelligently. The previous poster who wrote that he was halfway through the book and annoyed at the made-up words should finish the book first. If he is still annoyed, then fine. I wasn't at that point.

    It isn't a perfect book. Many people will find many faults. Personally, I felt that the last hundred pages felt rushed. I wanted more out of them. And I felt that the book changed from an intellectual discourse into a plot-driven made-for-the-big-screen story. But I still enjoyed it.

    And for the award for biggest geek family move of the year, I actually read the entire book out loud to my wife. She wanted to share the book with me, and she loved it more than I did. Go figure.

    • "The biggest issue, though, is this complaint that is levied about the language and the made-up words. If you have completed the book, please finish it before slamming the words themselves. You cannot understand the reason that he uses these words until you understand the larger message of the book."

      Agreed. Some novelists use made-up words to no good purpose and for no good reason. This is not one of those occasions.

      • Exactly.

        I thought he chose well, and used his words to excellent effect. He also tended to put a whopping dictionary definition at the beginning of each chapter where he first introduced the word, and had a fricking glossary if you were still confused. Far as I was concerned he bent over backwards, and some of the words he invented so cleverly capture a meaning not currently adequately described, I'd like to see them in the fricking dictionary.

        I don't know when people decided that they already knew enough w

  • by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:46PM (#25876391) Homepage Journal

    It's a 935-page novel that should be 600 pages or less.

    You do know who wrote the book, right? He can't type out the 10 commandments without 250 pages, an epilogue, and a vague feeling that it just wasn't quite long enough since the ending was unsatisfying.

    Calling his writing verbose is like saying Death Valley is tepid.

    • But he wasn't always that way. Snow Crash was sharp and fast-paced. Diamond Age had some slow parts but in general was pretty tight.

      • He has written sharp books, but there is no doubt that he has a penchant for details, minutiae even. This is the guy who required an entire, extra large Wired magazine edition to postulate the thesis "Laying fiber optic cable under the ocean is difficult, but it is also important. It has been done for a long time, and will continue to be done thanks to demand for Internet access."

        60 pages of text? Really? What could you possibly take away from that.

    • Compare to other geek favorites Stephen R Donaldson, Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. Unlike them, Stephenson finished an entire story in a single book. How terse of him! I have read everything Stephenson has published, and Anathem is my favorite (loved the Cycle and Snow Crash, not too fond of Cryptonomicon).
  • Cryptonomicon was bad, too. Didn't read the others. Sigh...
  • Completely Disagree (Score:5, Interesting)

    by immcintosh ( 1089551 ) <slashdot@ianmc[ ] ['int' in gap]> on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:50PM (#25876447) Homepage

    As far as I'm concerned, the reviewer's complaints really only apply to the first third of the book. Yeah, he made up a bunch of words, which was a bit off putting. Also, there was a very prolonged rising action where several hundred pages essentially just introduced the world; the actual plot proper didn't start until maybe page 200 or 300.

    And that's where all my complaints stopped. I found the actual plot thoroughly compelling. I found the world very interesting and all of the characters deep and quirky. Towards the end of the book I couldn't put it down. Once I got through all the introductory material, I thought this was one of the most entertaining books I've read in a good while, and I read a lot.

    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      Once I got through all the introductory material, I thought this was one of the most entertaining books I've read in a good while, and I read a lot.

      I absolutely agree, and I also read a lot. [] What's more, the light distaste I felt for Stephenson after Cryptonomicon had erupted into violent, almost physical loathing by the time I put down Quicksilver. And yet I thought Anathem was great.

  • Tonnes of respect for what he's done, but his stories aren't really that great at all. Even Snowcrash which I did enjoy always felt like a pooly told story to me. It had great moments but for the most part was just too unrealistically gratuitous.

    What people should really read is Vernor Vinge. Everything by him is excellent. Strong concepts, believable characters, Crisply written.

    • I've read 'em both, and I can't believe you would make the "Crisply Written" argument using Vinge as your example. Are we talking about the same guy?

      Asimov was crisp. Early Arthur C. Clarke was crisp. HG Wells was so crisp there aren't even words.

      But modern Sci-fi? There is no one who comes even close. All the best are wordier, they add in exposition and scene setting that would have been considered frippery 50 years ago.

      Stephenson's literary style is interesting. There is definitely some self-gratification

  • by Badge 17 ( 613974 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:51PM (#25876463)

    I feel like the XKCD comic has somewhat unfairly focused the discussion on the book's invented words. While I find it frustrating in some fantasy novels, half of the charm of Anathem for me was learning the rules of this new society- which is what happens in the first hundred pages.

    What frustrated me was that, having set up this immersive, complicated world, focused on scholars and their ideas, Stephenson ended up telling a fairly conventional (if exciting) story for the remainder of the book, essentially forgetting about many of the internal conflicts of the monks about halfway through, rather than letting that drive the action. It's as if he doesn't know whether to make this book look more like Eco's The Name of the Rose or a retread of Snow Crash.

    Nonetheless, I enjoyed Anathem immensely, and I couldn't finish the Quicksilver series (dropped out halfway through System of the World). I feel like this book was more of a return to Stephenson's writing in the Diamond Age / Cryptonomicon era. It's not his best, but I'd recommend it over Quicksilver.

  • by DG ( 989 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:53PM (#25876479) Homepage Journal

    I read this book on the plane on the way into theatre.

    This is Neal's best book yet. His work is high concept, intellectually challenging stuff that winds up educating as much as it entertains, and past Stephanson works have wobbled back and forth between action and education. This one gets it exactly right. It starts slow, but it has to, as there are a lot of new concepts to introduce and a whole different world to paint in before we can get going with the main story. As we learn and gain confidence with the new vocabulary (and there is a lot of it, although it is cleverly constructed to provide semantic clues as to what it means in "our world") he builds and builds on what he has already contructed, and before you know it, we are fully immersed in the culture of Arbre - at which points the story takes off and you can't put the damn book down.

    And unlike some of his other work (Diamond Age?) this book ends strong.

    I love how this book isn't written to the lowest common denominator. I love that it is willing to tackle things like philosophy, the nature of conciousness, the ramifications of the "many worlds" theory of the cosmos, thinking "long view" with people who only live a short time, and many other subjects, while still wrapping the whole thing up in an entertaining yarn.

    After I finished, I felt smarter. How many other authors can pull that off?


    • I was going to post a review here, but you said it better than I could. This book has a tremendous scope and very ambitious concept, and not only does Stephenson pull it off, he makes it downright fun.

      I can just imagine an editor saying, "Nobody wants to read all this theoretical mumbo jumbo. Why not put in more of a love story instead?" I'm so very glad that no such editor got near this fantastic novel.

    • I think we need to be careful here.

      I believe that the ending of the book can be interpreted to include both the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics AND the idea that the cosmos is made up of many universes, each with sightly different values for the fundamental physical constants.

      These two concepts are distinct.

  • Stephenson (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Xeth ( 614132 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:54PM (#25876489) Journal

    Self-indulgence has always been Neal Stephenson's curse. Cryptonomicon could've been half the length. The Diamond Age got lost in several places.

    I think his best work (from an entertainment perspective) is Zodiac. It presents the tightest narrative, without all the unfocused wandering that he often falls into.

    • Indeed, Snow Crash probably would have been more effective at half the length, and that's probably his most popular work. It's extremely self-indulgent, and if it weren't for the heavy tongue-in-cheek humor that runs through the whole thing, I doubt it ever would have made it. Zodiac and Diamond Age are probably his most focused works. I faced Anathem with some trepidation, even though I generally like Stephenson, because his last couple of works have been so totally random and wandering (I struggled wit

      • Heh. I'm considering friending everyone who liked it, just on basic principle.

        I'm not surprised at the differing reactions. It's dense, and it's intellectually challenging in a way that I've not had fiction challenge me in a long time. How long has it been since you've read a book that even had one good new original concept to flog? Just his exposition of the Mathic lifestyle is an interesting idea. Then you have some interesting ideas about technology and nanotech. The various bits of philosophy, some of w

  • Baroque Cycle (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DaedylusSL ( 1145293 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @03:59PM (#25876545)

    I just have to thrown out a few comments to the people that quit the Baroque Cycle part way through. Yeah, this series is a beast to read (I have 100 pages left, been reading since January) but it's a fantastic story with a scope that I've never seen anywhere before. Book 1 (Quicksilver) doesn't seem to do too much on it's own, but most of what happens in that book comes back to haunt you (and the characters) in book 3 (System of the World). I'm more than impressed with Stephenson's ability to see a story this big. The books occasionally do get a little too philosophical for my taste, but those scenes are relatively easy to gloss over. (Be careful doing that though, Stephenson is a master at making small details very important later.) Over-all, I thought Book 1 was decent, Book 2 was tons of fun, and Book 3 makes it all worthwhile. Maybe the ending sucks (don't know yet) but the trip has been awesome.

    That said (and in an attempt to get back on-topic), I really haven't decided whether I'll attack Anathem yet. If there's anyone out there that shares my opinion of The Baroque Cycle, I'd love to hear your opinion on it.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:00PM (#25876563) Homepage Journal

    Neal Stephenson is a writer who simply adores a shaggy dog story.

    I think he writes for the love of being clever; cleverness for its own sake, whether or not it leads to anything. Contrast this to other, even more wildly inventive authors such as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, where absurdity seems to have more of a purpose, which is to make the characters struggles more sympathetic. Everyone can put himself in Arthur Dent's place, because while we might be a little self-absorbed, we're surrounded by even more aggressively self-absorbed people. In the case of Terry Pratchett, we have more pure fantasy; we can imagine ourselves to be stronger and cleverer when faced with the absurdity and corruption of everyday life than we are.

    Stephenson's characters seem to me a lot less sympathetic -- not that the have to be. He seems a lot less interested in something you might call "the human condition"; more interested in ideas, places, and things than people perhaps. Cryptonomicon is perhaps the most appealing of his novels that I have read, especially the Goto Dengo character. His survival story is immediately understandable and compelling.

  • by IMightB ( 533307 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:01PM (#25876569) Journal

    I must read Anathem now...

    Personally, I think that Snow Crash, while a good read is not his best (but will make a great movie). Zodiac sucked. I really liked The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon.

    I find the Baroque Cycle (unlike so many others) utterly fascinating, it's like reverse Science Fiction. It's the story of how humans dealt with and brought about the birth of modern science and the culture and the ways of thinking that went along with it.

  • Once an author becomes really successful, as Stephenson rightfully is, editors refuse to push hard enough for cuts. Instead, like the later works of Dickens, we get overbearing and flabby books. Unlike the reviewer I stuck with the Baroque Cycle, after begging my local bookshop daily for an advanced copy. But by book three I was just in 'what's the point' mode, as it went on and on with no conceivable point. Stephenson needs to tighten up his writing. Zodiac was a beautifully crafted bit of work, and Snow
  • Even Awesomer (Score:2, Insightful)

    by kmhebert ( 586931 )
    I thought the book was very good. I thought the made-up words were absolutely essential to the basic idea of the book, that there is a type of "universal knowledge" that any intelligent culture would have to understand to even call itself intelligent. This meta-knowledge took the specific forms described on Arbre and is explained to us in the terms used by the avout. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions very much, although I agreed the ending was rather unsatisfying.
  • A review already? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by daveewart ( 66895 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:09PM (#25876663)

    A review already? Nah, not possible. The book only was only published in September. That's nowhere near long enough to read A Neal Stephenson.

  • I'm over Stephanson (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dave562 ( 969951 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:13PM (#25876709) Journal
    I read Snow Crash at least three or four times and I think it is a great book. The last book of his that I read was the Cryptonomicon. It was good and I enjoyed the parallel stories that took place in different time periods and the way that he tied them all together in the end. However as I was slogging through the 1000+ pages of the book I came to realize that Stephanson writes the equivalent of verbal ejaculate. He makes things needlessly complex. He uses so many metaphors on top of metaphors laced with adjectives contrasted by similes... He seems to be the literary equivalent of the Rube Goldberg machine, using so many devices for the simple sake of using them, as if he's challenging himself to see how unnecessarily verbose he can be. The guy simply has too much going on in his head. Reading a Stephanson book is like being plugged into the mind of a schizophrenic idiot savant.
  • I love the allusions, ties to earthly terminology, familiar yet alien setting, deep history and constant geeking out. It's a tremendous book so don't listen to the reviewer. Imagine it as an alien story that someone actually translated/localized in every way possible, then consider what math and theory as a fundamental religion might do for long term stability.
  • I agree with the OP that the Baroque Cycle was a disappointment. I tried several times to get into it. I'm only half way through Anathem, so I won't read the rest of the review, but it's grabbed me. He definitely has his buzz back. It's the best a novel can be by taking you into another world. I really don't wasnt it to end at this point.

    What Neal Stephenson thinks about Linux is of absolutely zero relevance here. If you have a problem with what he thinks about Linux and that affects what you think about hi

  • 100 (Score:3, Funny)

    by Quiet_Desperation ( 858215 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:29PM (#25876913)

    Not much happens in the first 100 pages or so

    Yeah, that happens a lot in his books. Also for other blocks of 100 pages scattered throughout.

  • It's all been downhill for him since Snow Crash.

    Snow Crash should have been a movie, but now it's too dated.

  • by dtolman ( 688781 ) <> on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:34PM (#25876973) Homepage
    If you're looking for something to read in the office... harper-collins posted the first 120 pages online, plus the glossary (for those too lazy to figure out the words in context... or have the memory of a fruit fly, like I do). []

    Why does it stop 120 pages in? Because the next page is where the plot starts. Everything up to then is just world building.

  • Anyone else feel like Stephenson is channeling James Michener? The only novel of his I've read all the way through was "Space", but I'm told his others are about the same. Overlong, full of alternate-universe-history, bogus technology, confusing characters, pages and pages of pointless exposition, and lackluster ending.

    I did enjoy "Cryptonomicon", but I felt like I was reading "Space" again, and the dozen or so pages describing the preparation and consumption of Captain Crunch cereal just convinced me the

  • First of all, here's my more detailed review of Anathem, including a latter half (with warnings) that is discussion of the ending of the book, which of course means spoilers. []

    But some short responses:

    I guess you will either hate or love the made-up words. No questions they are not for everybody, and they do create a barrier to some who want to read it, but by the end you are enjoying them, even speaking them in your geeky conversations. I think you

  • Every 200 pages (Score:3, Informative)

    by ISoldat53 ( 977164 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @04:48PM (#25877137)
    something happens.
  • First, if you expect a retread of Snow Crash, go read something else.

    I had a lot of "WTF!?" moments in reading Anathem. However, the book paid off. This is the next logical step in the progression from Cryptonomicon to the Baroque Cycle. In each book, he has tried to build a book around one or more important concepts. Baroque Cycle examined how the financial system (and the modern world) came to be out of the stew of European power struggles, the invention of advanced math, and the Reformation.

    Anathem takes

  • There are a number of extremely interesting bits of science in the book, that make it worth the read. They remind me of the Sumerian discourse at the heart of Snowcrash, and are just as stimulating -- Anathem will keep you thinking long after you read the final page.

    But there are a few bits of orbital mechanics that are just wrong wrong wrong. And Stephenson would know that they are wrong. And any one of the scientifically literate reviewers would have known they were wrong. I just don't know why they w

  • "The first impression of this book is its heft---at 935 pages in the hardback edition"

    OK, that's all I need to know. Apparently Stephenson still doesn't have an editor willing to rap his knuckles.

    Everything I've read of his has been an example of someone who needs external discipline in his writing, but doesn't get it. They're full of endless clever asides which do nothing but show how clever the author is for thinking of them, which is frustrating because he's very inventive, and can write brilliantly at t

  • by Crutcher ( 24607 )

    Stephensen has been stepping incrementally closer to being a literature author with each book he's written. Snow crash is fluff, Cryptonomicon is pretty deep, and the Baroque Cycle is a master work (in the original sense). Anathem is his first post master work book.

    Many posters have made the claim: "It would be better if you removed X", for various values of X. What is instructive is that not everyone agrees on X. Stephensen had a lot to say in this book, on many topics.

    I'll address a few things here, but t

  • by EEDAm ( 808004 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @05:24PM (#25877597)
    The Baroque Cycle is just an utterly different (huge) work to anything like Snowcrash or Diamond Age. It needs an editor who isn't scared of Stephenson in places but it is one of the most fantastic feats of human imagination I have ever read. If you can only deal with sci-fi then clearly a novel about Baroque England with Isaac Newton, a half-dicked pirate king and a fabulous ex-Hareem girl turned Duchess with diverse characters and fantastical imaginings isn't going to be your thing. But I can hardly remember a book that left me more open-mouthed with the sheer imagination and achievement of the author. The B.C. is a book that will never leave me.
  • by smcdow ( 114828 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @05:27PM (#25877641) Homepage

    ... of NOT reading Stephenson's earlier books. This enabled me to enjoy greatly The Baroque Cycle, which I've read twice. FWIW, I don't think that Anathem is as good as The Baroque Cycle, but I may change my mind on a second reading.

    At any rate, I'm glad I passed on Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon. If I'd read them, I'd probably be another one of those purists who can't stand it when the object of their fanboi enthusiasms has the audacity to actually change and grow and not continue to be what they were.

  • by RedLeg ( 22564 ) on Monday November 24, 2008 @10:40PM (#25880747) Journal

    The reviewer is an intellectual liteweight, in other words a clueless fuck-wit without the ability to create, but literate enough (barely) to string words together into a critique.

    Ah, Critics......

    This is perhaps one of the finest pieces of speculative fiction I have read in the past 40 years. It ranks with Herbert's Dune, and shares many qualities with that masterwork. I will be surprised if it is not the Hugo winner.


    The Reviewer gets it wrong from the beginning.... This is not about "religious orders", in fact a great deal of time is spent dealing with the difficulty (impossibility?) of establishing the existence of a god. Further, it's not set on a world "very similar to Earth, in a fairly distant future", but on a world in a parallel cosmos, probably not more than 100 years in our future, if that.

    The "made-up words" factor that he takes to task is critical to the whole book. To a reader with a classical education, most, if not all, of the "made-up words" have roots that are familiar. When this fails, a trip to the provided references is sufficient. The fact that these words are just on the edge of understanding is subtle evidence of the "hylean flow".

    Yes, it is "wordy". Welcome to Stevenson. If you're here, you're expected to bring enough wit and dedication to understand.

    I wonder if the fuck-wit even finished the book. It's certain he did not understand it.


Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. -- Thomas Jefferson