| March 9, 2009 12:54 pm


What can you say about a Neal Stephenson novel?  Really.  The man is a bit like J.R.R. Tolkien, he feels the need to go out and re-invent the wheel simply because he can.  As a result, no amount of critical analysis, commentary, or old fashioned smack is really able to do his work justice.  If you want to experience a Stephenson novel, you just have to go read it.

So it is with Anathem, a book about a place which isn’t Earth and a time that isn’t now.  Though it certainly feels like both.  Anathem is s a big book which contains big ideas: the observations of classical philosophers, rules of logic, and ultimately a polycosmic theory of connected reality.  You know, light reading.  It’s also a brilliant though extremely frustrating piece which simply defies any attempt at summary.  The first third is spent drowning in detail, the middle third in quiet contemplation, and the last third in monumental disillusion.

Of Physics and Philosophy

After a few pages, it becomes clear that Stephenson is a philosopher.  I’m not sure if it is the fifteen page description of a big clock, or the ten page description of how it’s wound.  Nonetheless, there is a tremendous devotion to the mind’s perception of reality.  In fact, the entire cosmos of Anathem is meant to glorify the rational and introspective.  Imagine, if you will, what would happen if classical Greek culture had never been absorbed by the Romans and later disseminated into Roman Catholic or Byzantine thought?  Instead, it had retreated behind monastic walls and allowed to flourish? What would that look like?

The Mathic Orders represent a tremendously good guess: communities dedicated to the pursuit of philosophy, as the ancient Greeks understood the term.  A haven for those that seek to understand existence, knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, validity, mind, language, and logic.  The avout are, literally, “the lovers of wisdom.”  This is different from the pursuit of science, but rather the pursuit of knowledge in its purest form: theory.

In many ways, Stephenson’s dedication to rational philosophy drives a great deal of the ideological conflict.  So while you can rest assured that religion versus science will make an appearance, there are shadows of far nastier clash: empirical evidence versus theoretical prediction.  Remember, the sixteenth century brouhaha between Galileo Galilei and the Roman Potentate was not a fight between religion and science per-se, but a scuff between meta-physicists (philosophers) and their empirical colleagues.  After all, the geocentric view of the cosmos was not a Christian belief, but a Greek one; it can probably be tracked back to Plato or even Socrates, though Aristotle is responsible for it’s place in Western canon.  Galileo’s struggle wasn’t with the theists, but rather with his scientific colleagues. Similar fights have been waged on a far larger scales with greater consequences.  What is Communism, for example, if not a magnificently beautiful and utterly failed theory?

Characters, Plot and Ideas

Here’s the plot summary: aliens show up for dinner, how should the world respond?  That’s it, spread out over 900 some pages.  And while Anathem pulls off a reimagining of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” it suffers from more than stale plotting.  The characterization is generally terrible, in fact, most of the characters aren’t really all that likable or interesting.  Actually that’s not fair to the variety of boring and non-likeable people who populate the worlds of the polycosm.  Let me be more clear: nearly every character falls somewhere on the likable scale between mostly unpleasant and raging wanker.

What’s worse, I found that most were completely interchangeable; like gears in a watch or machine milled parts of a car.  Sure, there may be an assortment of adolescent pricks, older pricks, computer pricks, and token religious nuts; but the characters play stereotyped roles and never give any hint of being rounded individuals.  As long as there is a character in the right place to say the right things, that’s good enough.

For example, consider the “deolators” of Anathem.  They get about as much respect as a Scientologist on a bad day.  When he is feeling kind or generous, Stephenson dismisses the deolators and their motives as unfathomable.  More often, though, they are linked to a substantially less flattering and destructive connotations.  In Anathem’s nine-hundred pages, expect the word to be used interchangeably with misguided, superstitious, and stupid.  In the six or seven examples of apocalypse, Stephenson was kind enough to credit the deolators for all of them. Apparently religion is to blame for all of society’s ills.  Silly me, I thought that was the role of politics.

Don’t expect a consistent set of rules for anyone, however.  Based upon Stephenson’s clear distrust of religion and its notions of “truth,” it is ironic that most of the other characters simply assume that they are right.  Indeed, I found the general sense of self-satisfied superiority to be more than slightly obnoxious.  After all, why should the core characters bother to question their own place in a recently rearranged cosmos?  It’s not like the understanding of polycosmic existence isn’t about to be thoroughly challenged.  Though I’m probably being a bit harsh, Stephenoson did manage to nail one stereotype: most of Stephenson’s “avout” are carbon copies of the dry and humorless academics I’ve worked with.BohrCircles

The surprising bit, however, is that the pathetic characterization doesn’t derail the book.  After I realized that individuals don’t matter, I stopped keeping track of them.  Instead, I started to follow the ideas; and that’s when Anathem became really enjoyable.  The concepts, philosophical musings, and theories are the real stars.

Be prepared for information deluge, though.  There is enough detail to either fascinate or thoroughly repulse.  First off, the book is written is Socratic dialogue: this means there will be smug questioning, logical maneuvering and thorough pontification.  In fact, when reading formal dialogue, keep one important fact in mind: there is a reason why the ancient people of Athens “allowed” Socrates to consume a fatal dose of hemlock, probably just before threatening to throw him off a cliff.  At best, he was a bloody nuissance; more often, he actively undermined social order and stability.  Plato may remember him fondly, but there is little in his thirty-five surviving works to say that he remembered him accurately.

Even so, the formal dialogues are easily the best parts of the book.  Clearly, they are also the parts which Stephenson was most interested in writing.  The care with which they have been laid out and composed is simply stunning.  Much better than any of the actual “character development” or plotting.  The ideas are presented logically, carefully and understandably.  A few examples, like Stephenson’s description of systemic evolution (the Bat, Fly, Worm dialogue) are worth the price of the novel by themselves.

Unfortunately, even with the beautiful ideas, Anathem is stilted.  There are so many times that a gorgeous ideas is given a grotesque application.  To use Stephenson’s language, the theorics and praxis simply don’t line up.  After hundreds of pages and thousands of words of logical dialogue, the conclusion is illogical.  Theory and empiricism are fighting it out again and the result is polycosmic miasma. Not a good way to conclude a book that has been marvelously rational.



Okay, so I’ve been harsh.  The simple truth is that I enjoyed many parts of Anathem thoroughly.  I started off by listening to the audio book version, but later bought a hardcopy for closer inspection.  That says something.  I don’t often pay for a book twice.

But even so, this book only reinforces a previous conclusion: Neal Stephenson is a clever fellow.  Unfortunately, he feels the need to beat us about the head with it.  He brilliantly plays with the whole of human history and explores some fascinating theoretical possibilities, but then comes off as an utter ass.

Most very intelligent people, unfortunately, are little more than provocative gasbags.  Far too often, “clever” is allowed to pose as brilliant and cliché to stand in for innovation.  As a result, Anathem isn’t so much a story which raises a number of interesting ideas; rather, it’s a philosophical treatise masquerading as a piece of speculative fiction.   If read as the first, it’s hopelessly and frustratingly flawed.  When read as the second, however, Anathem is one of the most interesting books to appear in quite some time.


One Response to “Anathem: Big Book, Big Ideas”

lanea wrote a comment on March 11, 2009

I think I would have fared better switching to the paper book as you did, but we do indeed agree about much of the book. I give his characters a bit more credit than you do, but I have a big soft spot for Stephenson in general and a few of the book’s characters in particular. I don’t know when I’ll work up the gumption to read this on paper, though, with so much to read and so many hours already devoted to this tome.

Care to comment?