Saturday, May 16, 2009


I just finished Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Anathem. Quick take: it's great. Here's my review cross-posted from

Mystery writers must strike a careful balance: no one likes a mystery that is too obvious or one that is too obscure. Similarly, science fiction authors have a mandate to bring the science and make it plausible (their readers are, after all, total geeks). But fans are also looking for something new and interesting. So that's the sci fi game: "predict" what the major scientific breakthroughs will look like for the next millennium or so, but make them seem "real" ... or else your nerdy fans will turn on you.

Most authors just gloss this over and focus on the plot. Enough about the physics of warp drives ... explosions! After all, it's a lot to expect a mere fiction author to put forth a coherent theory of wormhole dynamics or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics just as a prerequisite for blasting some aliens.

And yet Neal Stephenson, bless his heart, seems determined to try. He has always reveled in cool ideas themselves and will happily spend pages explaining how public-key encryption works or what nano-bot power sources might look like. With Anathem he has taken this urge to its obsessive extreme and constructed a fully detailed, 7000-year intellectual history as a backdrop for his story.

I can see how this book might not be for everyone. The book starts slow and at first lacks the usual Stephenson pizazz. There are no kitana-wielding pizza-delivery-men here, just a bunch of monks (although some can indeed kick ass). The sheer volume of alternate vocab words can be daunting. (Note: be sure to read past page 200 before giving up -- the plot picks up significantly after that point.)

But in many ways, Anathem is Stephenson's most confident and mature novel. His earlier books have a magpie quality to them (particularly the Baroque Cycle) -- jumping willy-nilly between multiple characters, plotlines and concepts. Here he sticks to a single narrative and builds systematically to a gripping finale. While it is not perfect, I enjoyed it tremendously and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes a good spec fic speely.


Unknown said...

Hey Tim,
Yes, I finnally was able to snag a copy of this from the library. Whew Whew I am lovin it! Don't want it to end! In a somewhat related I note that today on the MSNBC site:
They have a review of Robert Lanza's new book Biocentrisim which dovetails nicely into Anathem's theme. Well of course just by thinking of you guys your wave forms have collapsed into my concept of you and I want you to give Quinn & Laura Jean a Big Hug from me!!!

Uncl Joe

t said...

Hey Uncle Joe - thanks for the interesting link - I'll have to check it out. Sorry we didn't get to hike with you this summer. Next year for sure. Hope you are all doing great!