The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Wednesday, 04 November 2009]

Review: Anathem

An enormously ambitious novel that mostly succeeds.

Neal Stephenson is one of those guys who are so smart it hurts. It really shows in Anathem, a novel you could call sci-fi, or if you’re one of those people who don’t want to be soiled by the sci-fi ghetto but still enjoy great writing, you could call it “speculative fiction.” Same thing, but sounds much more coffee shop and black turtleneck.

Anathem takes place on a world that is a lot like Earth. After a series of “terrible events,” scientists and philosophers have moved into “concents” (think monasteries) where they spend their lives keeping knowledge alive and running great clocks—basically, time capsules of human knowledge, with the idea that when civilization “extramuros”—outside the concents—goes belly-up (as it’s wont to do from time to time), the concent inhabitants will be able to help rebuild.

To this end, the inhabitants of the concents avoid contact with the outside world, instead pursuing their studies and philosophizing. And, oh, the philosophizing! Stephenson has created a whole philosophical and scientific history as a backend for his plot.

Like a lot of Stephenson novels, Anathem takes a while to build up steam, starting out slow and meandering before the plot really kicks in. Which is understandable considering the sheer amount of world he has to build. Once it gets going, though, Anathem becomes very hard indeed to put down.

If you like your fiction erudite and generously sprinkled with philosophy, you can’t go wrong with Anathem. Highly recommended.

The novel also serves as a nice meditation on values—how much of the now do we spend on what’s important, and how much on fluff and vacuousness?

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