Neal Stephenson


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

May 5, 2009

wanted to love this book. I had high hopes for it - I have read two other books by Stephenson, Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, and I rate those both as five star books - my highest rating. Plus, Anathem came with plenty of buzz. Both the readers andthe editors at SF site.com voted this book the best novel of 2008. Click here for readers choices and editor choices #1 and editor choices #2. Additionally, Anathem was nominated for the 2009 Hugo Award. Perhaps my expectations were too high and disappointment was inevitable, but this is not a great book.

The novel is told from the perspective of an avount - a monk-like inhabitant on an Earth-like world name Arbre. The avount is named Erasmus, who narrates this tale, but he is a sterile character. Erasmus is deliberately bland, Stephenson is too good an author to accidentally create a dull character. Erasmus belongs to the "mathic" world of cerebral thought and stunted emotions. Stephenson may have created an authentic science-nerd voice, but unfortunately authenic does not equal interesting. (check out the Amazon.com reviews of Anathem, almost none of them mention Erasmus by name.) At one point Erasmus suddenly falls in love with Ala, but this display of emotion makes no sense, because just a few pages earlier he bitterly detested Ala.

One of my big frustrations with this novel is the pacing. Why can't someone give a straight answer for once? Orolo is an interesting guy with some brilliant ideas, but apparently every conversation with Erasmus must adopt a mentor/student question/answer format, Orolo (or any of the wise characters in this book) appears to be incapable of giving a straight answer.

A number of times the thread of the story really picked up, and I thought at last Stephenson had cut to the chase and a wonderful conclusion would follow. But each time the pace picked up, another debate would ensue. Another series of talks at the dinner table. Another round of idea/swapping between the characters, and the tension would drain out of the novel for a few dozen pages. I thought the debate between Fraa Lodoghir and Erasamus in front of the live TV audience was completely unnecessary

Despite these complaints, there are plenty of parts of this 900 page book that I did enjoy. Tracking the alien ship across the sky, and calculating a lot of information about the visitors just from observing their craft was great. I love the suspense as the members of the monastary try to figure out what Orolo knew, despite the fact their actions could get them banished to the secular world. The part where the alien probe parachutes to the volcano cone where Orolo has set up his signal is terrific - but what happened to the visitor and the three vials of blood - was anything learned?

Stephenson does a wonderful job at world-creation. Arbre seems to have a 3500 year history, a history which directly weighs upon the modern political environment, on the deeds and thoughts of the characters in the novel. It is a believable world, as fully fleshed out as Middle Earth or the empire in Dune. The Arbre inhabitants have their own vocabulary and political factions. The split of mathic and secular world is convincing and interesting - though I doubt that the secular world would leave the avounts alone - wouldn't some warlord break into those secluded enclosures and force the avounts to build him weapons? If the avounts refused, couldn't the warlord simply prevent any new citizens from joining the monastary until they eventually died off from lack of new bodies?

I really loved the detailed description of how the citizens of Arbre attempted to sneak up to the alien. Stephenson clearly did some research into constructing a plausible stealth method of getting some desperate commandos into orbit on a suicide mission. The space adventure was one of the great parts of the book.

But the most frustrating part of Anathem is the ending - apparently there are multiple universes that Fraa Jad can simultaneously see and occupy? If this is true, why would the events in one parallel universe effect the events in the "home" universe? And how come Erasmus can suddenly detect events in both worlds? Did Fraa Jad always have this ability? I didn't like the ending; I didn't understand why the belligerent aliens suddenly were not hostile, I felt cheated out of a substantial tour of the alien ship, and it seemed to me that Stephenson didn't explain a lot of lose threads.

This is an uneven book. I expect greatness from Neal Stephenson, and he certainly delivers in terms of story ideas and creativity. But his pacing and characters are below par, and so ultimately I give this novel just an average 3 star rating.