In Which I Read Anathem

Neal Stephenson has become something of a nerd saint, penning Snow Crash, probably one of the most widely-read SF books of the last twenty years. He’s also a fiercely intelligent cataloger of minutiae, filling books such as Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle with the kind of stuff that will make you ridiculously good at Trivial Pursuit.

Anathem, his latest book, is not his best, but I still enjoyed it immensely. It’s not as weirdly creative as Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, but even then it’s immensely engaging- provided you have a specific personality type. If you are wondering about whether or not you should read it, ask yourself the following questions:

1: Do you like books where most of the action is taken up by characters having long discussions about philosophy, science, history, and math?

2: Do you enjoy books that take place on other planets wherein the social and governmental system is somewhat different than our own?

3: Do you like made-up words, most of which are tweaked versions of Greek and Latin terms?

4: Do you like books with explanations of geometry in the appendix?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, go ahead and read Anathem. In a nutshell, the book is about a bunch of cloistered monks devoted to science on an alien world. Then (and I don’t want to give anything away) stuff happens. Big stuff. Totally gonzo, wowzers sci-fi stuff. However, the book spends the first three hundred pages grounded in a hermetic, academic atmosphere, so even when the hugely epic world-shaking plot starts up, it still feels pretty grounded. With all of the philosophical exposition, the book acts as a sort of SF, grown-up version of Sophie’s World, and I mean that in a good way.

What makes Stephenson so special, though, is that you get a real sense of joy from his work. Stephenson isn’t just smart- he seems to jump for joy at all of the wonderful stuff there is in the world, and Anathem gives you a very real sense of that. After reading Anathem, Platonism seems interesting to me all over again.

Yes, it’s one thousand pages of alien science-monks and made-up words, but it’s also a very obvious labor of love. Stephenson doesn’t just know quite a bit about the history of philosophy, he also knows precisely why it’s so interesting, so wonderful, and so worth studying. That’s why Anathem‘s 900-plus pages go by so fast- the author is jumping up and down about how wondrous the world is.

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