By jim | October 2, 2008
I like big tales. A fat book allows an author more chances to fail, I think, than to excel. But a big story well told transports you to a new world, at least for a while. Still, I must admit I approached Neal Stephenson’s new book, Anathem (just over 900 pages) with a little trepidation.
I love Stephenson: I’ve been a fan since Snow Crash, and dedged up Zodiac and The Big U, and have read pretty much everything since. He’s a sharp writer, but (like many of the sharp folks I know) has some flaws. In the beginning, Neal Stephenson could not write an ending. The books had a tendency to end quite abruptly, in my humble opinion. It was like sitting down to a favorite meal, and having your plate taken away after three bites. “But, but, what happened to…?” Even in Cryptonomicon, which I regard highly, the ending fell flat.
Like most writers I admire, Mr. Stephenson has changed and grown. The last few books have shown increasing sophistication (and length!). After 2600 pages, I thought the Baroque Cycle had a quite satisfactory ending. It also had some of the most entertaining prose I’ve ever read (mixed in with several passages that nearly drove me off) and some great characters. I know he’s a smart guy, and he works hard researching his novels. But really, it’s a stretch to give me too many details about mercury mining in the Harz mountains in the seventeenth century. “More than I wanted to know” kicks in after the second page. A good friend told me I was whining, it really wasn’t that bad, but I think the point remains: Neal’s writing can be very uneven, and with an average page count of 900 over the last four volumes, I’m starting to think he needs a meaner editor.
On the other hand, the interesting life of the Vagabond King is one terrific tale. The elephant battle made me actually guffaw out loud, and the IQ test is priceless. His intelligent worldview, geek humor, and fun yarn spinning are a rare combination. So, with these bona fides out of the way…
Anathem is set on another world, similar to our own in many ways, but with a much different history. The main characters are what we would consider monks, living lives of scholarship is cloisters removed from the secular world. The cloisters are categorized by how often the open their doors to the public: once a year, once a decade, once a century, or once a millenium. Obviously, these monks (or avout, as they refer to themselves) take a longer view of history. Their culture has been technological for much longer than ours, and the monasteries (or concents) exist through the ebb and fall of governments and nations with explicit exemption from secular laws and concerns.
Developing this setting takes around 150 pages. The prose is good, not brilliant, and it runs to the expository, which is to say, a trifle dull. My initial reaction was, “My good, in learning how to write an ending, Neal has forgotten how to write a beginning!” Once the story took off, I came to the opinion that the story really needed this complex setting. The book as a whole is a fine tale well told, but it does tend to wander off into philosophical tangents on a regular basis. This is good and bad: the history of philosophy is mapped onto an entirely different culture, including new names for the same idea. I can’t think of a single writer besides Neal Stephenson who would have a prayer of pulling this off. “Occam’s Razor” becomes “Gardan’s Steelyard.” Some of the mapping is immediately recognizable, but significant chunks of it are above my pay grade.
I’m not a spoiler kind of guy, so I won’t go into the plot. The avout become involved in secular affairs, and our protagonist is in the center of it. Frau Erasmus is a likeable, believable character, and we follow him through a very eventful period in his life. He changes, learns, and grows straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’ Journey. Many of the rest of the characters in the book come off a bit flat in contrast.
Surprisingly, a quick rehash of western philosophy up to quantum theory doesn’t kill the book, though at least for me, it leaves a few bruises. If you like metaphysics with your action, or action with your metaphysics, this book is for you. It is thoughtful, intelligent, and well crafted. Most folks will leave it with a deeper appreciation of quantum theory, scholarship, and a long view of human affairs. They will also leave it entertained. I give it four and a half spheres (out of five) with an asterisk.