Neal Stephenson - Anathem



I've vented my disdain more than once over some space opera books. Great doorstops, effective counterweights, but otherwise bland stories (often "military" in nature), well hidden plots in often 1000+ pages and a cast of characters outperforming your average TV soap.

Let's move to books by Neal Stephenson. Great doorstops, effective counterweights, often 1000+ pages and a cast of characters .... Well, you get the message.
Despite all that, most (not all I must confess) Stephenson books do entertain me above average. And with that I mean "far above average".
Anathem is an explosion of words, a story meandering so often it might well be a river delta, and a cast of characters that takes some time to process. But Stephenson's books are not just explosions of words, they're also explosions of ideas - most of the time outlandish, often bizarre, but always captivating. For me, Anathem is no difference.

Anathem is set in an alternate universe. On the planet Arbre, fraa (brother) Erasmas (pun intended, all the time, everywhere) tells us about his ongoings in his concent (cloister, but no cigar). The outside world is our world, full of electronic devices, although they all have a different name. The world of Fraa Erasmas and his brothers and sisters (Suurs) is a world devoid of those devices. They're thought to be the root of all evil in respect to disasters in the past. The cloisters are also devoid of religion: they are bastions of pure science, everyone working just with the help of formal discussion and chalk boards. Anathem is the act of eviction of the fraas and suurs to the world outside. But it seems over the years some fraas have learned more than just discussing philosophy, math and parallel worlds.

Neal Stephenson takes no shortcuts: the book is full of delightful philosophical discussions based on old Greek philosophy or modern quantum mechanics - but all with other names. Often the action comes to a complete halt to make way for a fifty page discussion of principles. Sometimes the action overtakes the pages in excruciating details. Stephenson doesn't take this plight lightly: describing a fight can mean a discours of ten pages over the handle of the sword or the wrapping of the suit of one of the combatants. Yet still it doesn't irritate me at all. On the contrary.

What I like about the books of Neal Stephenson is that his characters come by so naturally. In many books the author introduces backstory or explains background information by letting the protagonists discuss it, describe it or explain it in a weird and forced way. Reading it, you know that the writer is explaining something to you that you should know. Not so with Stephenson. Explanations seem afterthoughts, strange habits are quickly described and explained after which the story goes on.
Maybe you have a beef with the numerous discussions, sometimes resembling discussions about angels an pin needles at first sight, but in the course of the story the always become relevant.
Because Stephenson might sometimes be long winded, his description sometimes overly detailed, but his stories are always clever and surprising.

Anathem is no exception, although the fairy tale ending is a bit of a disappointment to me. And for some people the message might disappear behind the smoke screen that is the very elaborate story. Elaborate indeed, pleasant nevertheless.
Fraa Erasmas goes on a journey that takes him everywhere on and around Arbre. In a short scene above Arbre the story seems to go haywire with alternate realities - spun out in a way that I didn't find convincing and I thought had little relevance for the story in the end. But then again, opinions about that might differ. Or must I say: there might be alternate realities for alternate people?

When you read reviews you'll notice that a lot of people accuse Neal Stephenson of the same that reviewers accused Umberto Eco of: being a smarty pants. I beg to differ, big time. Books by both Umberto Eco and Neal Stephenson are full of intellectual trouvailles which are a delight, especially if you recognize them. But for a lot of people being smart is equal to "trying to be smarter than me". If one thinks that goes for both the book and the person, one can get irritated. The problem with both writers is (or 'was' in the case of Umberto Eco) that they don't want to look clever but that they are clever, and again, delightfully clever if you know to appreciate it. If your ego can't withstand that, skip Stephenson (and Eco for that matter) altogether.

Anathem was published in 2008, followed by Reamde In 2011 and eventually Seveneves in 2015, of which you can find a review on this site as well. If I had to compare the storytelling to one of these I would choose Seveneves, although the ending of that book is way more satisfying for me than the ending of Anathem.
Counterweight? Doorstop? No problem. Not only because I read it on an e-Reader. But mostly because Stephenson takes us somewhere we've never dreamed of before. This is what a book should be: an alternate reality to enjoy. Neal Stephenson delivers.