Book Review: Anathem

I have a sneaking suspicion that hanging out on Twitter is causing my attention span to grow shorter and shorter and … wait, what was I talking about? Oh, short attention span, right.

So as penance for all that microblogging, I decided to set myself a thick book to read. I chose Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. I’ve read all of Stephenson’s early work, but the Baroque Cycle didn’t grab me. Then I saw that fellow Googler Riona MacNamara had downloaded it to her Kindle, so I decided to take a whack at it.

I ended up liking Anathem a lot, but it’s not for everyone. Here’s a simple test to help:

If you like to read: add 1 point.

If you like to read science-fiction or have read Einstein’s Dreams or you’ve heard of Penrose tiles: add 2 points.

If you like other Neal Stephenson books or Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series: add 3 points.

If you liked A Canticle for Leibowitz: add 4 points.

If you were a math, computer science, or philosophy major: add 5 points.

If you have ever considered becoming a monk: add 6 points

If you have read any Socratic dialogues or any Thucydides or you made it through Light: add 7 points.

Add up all the point values and if you tally over 10 points or so, you’d probably enjoy this book.

At 937 pages, Anathem is a hefty read. For the first six pages, I was kind of annoyed because Stephenson seemed to be making up new words like “Saunt” for “Saint” or “upsight” for “insight.” But after a few hundred pages you realize the reason for that and it’s a good one. Plus anyone that can slip words like “sere” and “tarn” into the story smoothly clearly knows what they’re doing with language.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. There were heart-pounding action scenes interspersed with some very approachable philosophical discussions, a sprinkling of actual physics, and some extrapolation of technology into the future. I also love that Stephenson has invented a whole world, even a whole cosmology. The scope of the book is pretty breathtaking, and Stephenson takes the hero of the story on a much bigger journey than you would expect.

I do hope Stephenson keeps building in this world. It will take you several days of serious reading, but assuming you meet the criteria above, I think you’ll enjoy the book. Especially if you were able to make it to the end of this review without checking back on Twitter or Facebook.

29 Responses to Book Review: Anathem (Leave a comment)

  1. Makes me wonder if I should consider being a monk.

  2. Greg Lindahl, some monasteries will give you a tour. šŸ™‚ I visited one in (Indiana?) one time — pretty neat stuff.

  3. Yea Matt,
    Feels like me too is jammed on Twitter and Google reader. No blog or site visits out of box now a days.

  4. Matt,

    Your comments section seem to add the word “Said” after the name of the commenter.

    For example, Matt Said. Now, Said looks like Last Name.

    To avoid this, please change the S in Said it to lower case so at to look like Matt said.


  5. You are certainly on something regarding shorter attention span. We might see a a new trend of shorter content too, like one or two sentences news for hurried people. How would this be treated by the engines?

  6. well l scored 15 šŸ™‚ hand’t thought of the link to Thucydides – I did it in clasical studies though I think I was the only one that read it all.

    Ime in the wrong genration and side of the family to consider becoming a monk – though it would have been cool to have been tought by jesuits my mum cosidered using faimilay contacts trying to get me into King edwards (IE the one JRT went too) if we had stayed in Brum.

  7. ahan, that seems to be an idea of twitter! the short span attention. šŸ˜€

  8. Robert Konigsberg

    Fifteen points! Canticle was my favorite book in college.

  9. My wife and i are reading anathem together. Neal stephanson does an amazing job of creating a world and story depth. Snow Crash is still my favorite though.

  10. So how was the ending? A “good” or “bad” will suffice.. I ask because I was pretty disappointed in the ending to Snow Crash, and a friend has told me that Diamond Age has a pretty rushed and ill-thought-out ending, too.
    Just curious, because I LIKED Snow Crash a lot and I could see myself really liking this as well.

  11. Maurice, some day I hope to write a blog post comparing the Athenians and Melians to the search industry. šŸ™‚

    Andrea, I thought the ending was excellent.

  12. I come in at 18 points, but I couldn’t get through the second chapter. Annoyed doesn’t even begin to express the frustration I have with his writing style. You might want to subtract points for people who don’t have patience for lexicographers.

    I loved Asimov’s Foundation series, and I’d say I’m a fan of science fiction in general. But Anathem was as unreadable for me as Eraserhead is unwatchable. To each his or her own.

  13. 1 point…guess I’ll pass :.)

  14. Just made the 10 point cut-off. With a comp sci and math joint minor, I took 3 of the 6 points for that item.

    I’ll check it out, thanks.

  15. Matt,

    Thank you for invoking A Canticle for Leibowitz. Every time I explain Anathem I reference Canticle and end up explaining two books. I was feeling like the only person I know who has read it.

    I’ll add that anyone who enjoys quoting long speeches from Atlas Shrugged will find Anathem light reading.

  16. 22 points! (Never felt drawn to the monastic life).

  17. re Athenians and Melians šŸ™‚ so whos Sparta and Persia and whos the Macedonian barbarian waiting in the wings

    I realy must re read the peloponnesian war though ime having hard time finding an opponant for fields of glory in that period still probaly saves me buying a ton of 28mm Lead that I wont paint.

    if you like big chunky books try Ash by Mary Gentle I think they published it in four parts in the states.

  18. By what I have read in the link above and the little intro in that page, the book looks to me closer to “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco than the Fundation series by Isaac Asimov. And if it takes you closer to 100 pages to get to understand the reason of some stuff and its unbearable for 100 pages it’s certainly copying Umberto Eco’s style. “The Name of the Rose” could only be read if you either have some knowledge of Latin (or use Google to translate the Latin in it, šŸ˜‰ ) or buyIng the book with and extra booklet with the translations otherwise you get lost in the narrative. Other Eco’s books has some other “tests” for you to continue reading. No comment on how many times I have tortured myself with books of that kind *rolling eyes in here*.
    So if you really want to “test” yourself and you span attention try one of Eco’s books, I will not be made responsible of any side effects due to the reading of same. LOL
    Thanks for the recommendation. šŸ™‚

  19. Hmm. I loved the Baroque Cycle, Cryptonomicon, and Anathem. Logomachists will enjoy Anathem’s twists of language šŸ™‚ Canticle! I get blank looks when I mention it.

    Hmm. I thought Anathem less monastic and more University. Didn’t smack to you of the divisions between string theorists and the rest, when string theory was shunned, until it suddenly became the fashion? The community model is closer to academic – which has deep and twisted roots into religion – also a theme in the Baroque Cycle.

    I’d add another qualification question:

    * Did you ever consider completing a PhD or becoming a professor? [6 points]

    And lose the monk question…

  20. Is it OK if I tweeted about the post?

  21. I got a lot over 10 points and still found the book too long for its thin idea and not-so-original plot. This in spite of the fact that I like long GOOD books. See for a writer’s insight to long books and cycles. Or even for a quick review on one of Charlie’s books – maybe you want to see for yourself afterward. BTW – I found your blog reading some old rants about no-follow from 2005 – oh, how the world changed, Matt!
    all the best!

  22. I have an aricle about top 5 books in 2008 to share with you:)

  23. A Canticle For Leibowitz ranks in my top 5 post-apocalyptic novels of all time. Glad you included it in the test. Props to @kberg for naming Canticle his fave in college.

  24. You are certainly on something regarding shorter attention span. We might see a a new trend of shorter content too, like one or two sentences news for hurried people. How would this be treated by the engines?

  25. Well, I read Socratic dialogues. They hurt like hell, but I read ’em alright. That puts me up over 10 points, so I’ll give this monstrosity a shot.

  26. Re: Ending, to Andrea…

    Yes, Stephenson’s endings have always been rushed, inadequate, and/or incomprehensible. I love all his books (starting with _The Big U_) but I can perfectly agree with that criticism.

    However, you can’t say that about _Anathem_. It has, not only one ending, but three endings, and I think they’re all good.

    Why do I say three?

    1) The culmination of the plot points for the main conflict within the novel.
    2) The implication of the plot points and the culmination, in understanding and action
    3) The effect of the culmination on the meta-conflict within the novel.

    In short, the reader isn’t left at the end saying “Wait – what about this? Or that?” They can find answers to most of their questions, without compromising the rest of the book.

  27. I am having a very hard time reading this book for various reasons:
    1. The author adds vocabulary where perfectly good English words could be used. I have not found a single word from his imaginary planet that cannot be translated into an English word. As a matter of fact, that statement is true for any language. Anyone that claims that a term cannot be translated into English is lacking the proper knowledge of the English Vocabulary.
    2. I was 200 pages into the book, and had no clue of what the main plot was. The author spends too much time introducing terms and images that do not seem to lead you anywhere.
    3. The introductions to the different historical particulars of the imaginary planet are confusing and, from my point of view, could have been cut out from the book.

    This book is nothing like the Foundation. The Foundation had a clear plot and the author never confused the readers by introducing any unnecessary terms or irrelevant technologies. Isaac Asimov always uses existing concepts in Physics and Mathematics and seem to have an good understanding of these concepts. The author of the Anathem does not seem to have neither a good grasp of Physics nor Mathematics. As an example, he makes a big fuzz about what an orbit of a planet is or is not without actually giving any indication that his characters actually understand the subject. Just plastering the words coordinates and velocity into a sentence does not make you believe that there is any particular understanding of what an orbit is or what is confusing about the concept. (The dialogues seem to be written by teenagers with no more education than Jr. High.)

    To summarize, I don’t think Anathem compares to any of the Sci-fi books written by the great authors such as Isaac Asimov, Jules Vernes, H.G. Wells, etc. The book is unnecessarily verbose. The multitude of images confuse instead of elucidate the reader.

  28. I only got 9 points (generously) on your test and I absolutely enjoy this book. Even the first parts before the plot becomes apparent. I will read this book, from the beginning, many more times for sure!

  29. I love the monk/monastic lifestyle without the religion. I love the dialogues, the consciousness discussions (R.A. Wilson would be proud), but what really sold me was the lack of religion. They weren’t disrespectful (as some might think of me), they just said “We can’t know enough to come to a conclusion, so why bother?” I have heard some of you talking of the Canticles, but from what I’ve been told it is heavy Catholic, which is a big no-no for me. To those who wished for a Jesuit education, you don’t know the curse you beg for. They teach the three R’s, then slip in illogical ideas and falsehoods. They just hope you aren’t able to sift through their bull to get to the straight information. Also, the Catholic church did more to stifle science than it even did to preserve it. But I’m ranting now.
    To those who had commented on his language usage, Arbre isn’t Earth. There are similarities entomologically, so you can infer meaning, but you might expect different phrasing for a different planet.
    Lastly, I love the Foundation Series and Anathem, and am looking for a book with the following:
    1)No aliens. I know the probability is that there is life out there, but more likely simpler, not more advanced. Overdone.
    2)Mix of science and humanism. As a secular humanist, this appeals to me.
    3)No religion. Battlefield Earth, The Canticle of Liebowitz, etc are too religious for me. Asimov had values and morals in his books, but he wasn’t converting you to his church.