My rating: 3 of 5 stars
First, let me say I love all other books of Neal Stephenson’s that I’ve read. In most cases, they require a hefty investment (time, weight-the books are hefty, and spiritual collateral-you need to trust him), but the reward is more often than not HIGHLY worth it, and even when it’s not you still break even.
Now, to “Anathem”… The plot, in short, “Anathem” played to me like the work that might have inspired the screenplay of Armageddon, except they had to add Bruce Willis, remove all the references to geometry & logic, replace it with faux-geology, swirl in some sex jokes, and oh yeah why not have an Anthem by Aerosmith. Take the Michael Bay out of Armaggeddon, and you have some idea what Anathem is about. People stuck in remote places doing what the world has told them to do (or more appropriately what they can’t), and then some extraterrestrial threat presents itself & the people stuck in remote places become extremely important. Anathem = spaceship containing four races of interplanetary/interdimensional life forms; Armageddon = big rock.
None of this is to say that fans of Stephenson will be disappointed. Au contraire. Of all the books I’ve read of Neal’s, this one is the beefiest. Part of the premise is that you’re reading an account of the transpirations that happened on a different world/track and it had to be translated from Orth into your language. Yes, it includes a glossary & several clips from reference books; it even includes some geometrical puzzles & proofs. ANathem smacks you with this right up front, and it may take you a week to get through the first 100 pages.
If you get that far, you will be rewarded. Yes, the “action” is dry – there are zero vestiges of Michael Bay. The humor is also quite dry, but not surprisingly so. You’re encouraged to keep reading if you can get into some of the sharpest examinations of logic, dialogue, rhetoric, philosophy, geometry & nature you’re likely to find in a work of fiction. The voice you read learns much throughout the events that happen, and it speaks in a way that makes you think you’re finally about to learn something profound if you just keep going. Right up to the end I found myself getting little snippets of what Neal’s on about, of what his worldview really is or what I’m not considering about my own; these little nuggets were just big enough to keep me hitting the feed-bar.
Well, I kept going… and frankly, the “singularity” moment I was expecting never arrived for me. I’ll admit to not being able to follow the multitude of strings of social commentary Stephenson’s woven here; some of them are obvious & omnipresent, but I found myself repeatedly questioning whether or not there’s supposed to be some parallel meaning or secondary lesson I just didn’t quite see. In the end I decided there were probably more parallels than I could know (because Neal’s much better read & smarter than me), but of those I could perceive, I can say I’ve absorbed his POV. For other readers, this book may become a How-To or a DIY narrative. Still for others, Neal may have alienated them in the first 100 pages & never given them much of a reason to keep going, and their trust may not return.
In short, not my favorite Neal book. My fave is still Cryptonomicon. But I’m glad I read Anathem, if for no other reason than to be reminded what action movies would have been like without Ben Affleck.