Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

Anathem

Author: Neal Stephenson

Title: Anathem

Format: Ebook

Pages: 937

Series: –

“They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right.”

Neal Stephenson is a prolific writer, known for his SF and speculative fiction novels (for some reason lack of dragons or other mythological creatures seems to exclude one from the fantasy genre 😉), all of them full of alternatively mind-bending or awe-inspiring ideas, and all incredibly long, even considering the current market conditions. I have reviewed on this blog his 2015 SF novel Seveneves, which dealt with the consequences of an improbable but possible event – the shattering of  Earth’s Moon and the subsequent fallout of the debris on the Earth’s surface. I admired the sheer scientific drive of this novel and enjoyed its far-reaching plot – to a point 😉. Seveneves is a brilliant example of the opportunities and pitfalls inherent in literary imbalance – namely, the dominance of ideas over plot and character development, not to mention certain scientific facts, like the pace of evolution; and yet, it remains a flawed but intellectually highly rewarding, thought-provoking read. Looking for something similarly intellectually stimulating, I was encouraged by Bart at Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It to try another of Stephenson’s critically acclaimed bricks and Bart’s favorite – Anathem.

Forewarned in foreword by the author, I jumped straight in, eager to immerse myself in the highly conceptualized and yet absolutely addictive world of Arbre – and this is the course of action I would advise any potential readers to take. The process of figuring out what’s going on in Anathem and how it relates to our own reality, constitutes at least half of the fun the novel offers. And a lot of fun it is indeed, especially for those philosophically minded, who enjoy nothing more than a riveting peregrination through the philosophical origins of the Western culture now and then.

Bound as I am by the uniqueness of Anathem’s premise and the aforementioned need to keep it all under covers (or bolts, to be more precise) in order not to betray any details about the wondrous discoveries of Stephenson’s opus magnum, I can only describe in broadest strokes the premise and worldbuilding of this book. Imagine a world… and there we go. Such an innocuous beginning to a simple sentence, and so many opportunities for spoilers 😉. Okay, let’s try a different approach.

solar-analemma-140000-UTC
Solar analemma © Anthony Ayiomamitis

Anathem is superficially a coming-of-age story set in a technologically advanced world in the middle of its first encounter of the third kind. There are plenty of adventures and dramas; all flavours of love and death; a journey that is as much outward as it is inward; amazing scientific concepts rooted in our current knowledge; ingeniously crazy conjectures that work amazingly well and are certified to make your brain stretch in unanticipated directions. Everything’s there! But Anathem is also – or maybe even predominantly – a love letter to Western philosophy, from its very beginnings to its multitude of 20th century continuations: the ideas of Pythagoras, Archimedes, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Einstein, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Gödel, Verne, and many other thinkers and scientists merge seamlessly into a delightful paean to the power of human thought.

Our guide through this strange, wondrous world is called Erasmas. (Yes, there you have it. Prepare for thousands of references, some of which will be easy to find and grasp, and some of which will turn out to be much more esoteric. Stephenson let rip with his own philosophical and scientifical faves here :D.) And much like Dante’s Virgil, Erasmas takes us on a journey of renaissance and enlightenment which leads us to unexpected places and which, hopefully, lets us see the endeavours, enterprises and discoveries of human mind in different light. And he proceeds in a consummately thrilling, riveting style: starting out in a deceptively mild manner and lulling the readers into a comforting feeling of security, Erasmas takes us by utter surprise on a truly wild ride when we finally figure out what’s going on. To be fair, we learn along with him – and while I was always partial to this particular writing technique, learning along the protagonists about the world we found ourselves in – in case of this book I can say the application of this technique was a masterstroke.

Erasmus by Holbein
Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523), by Hans Holbein the Younger

As befits a magnificent work of art, Anathem works on many levels. It can be experienced only on the plot level, as a great story. And though I could level some small criticism toward the resolution of certain plot points – Fraa Jad, where are you??? I need you back! –  the faults remain negligible, and do not detract from the overall reading experience. Stephenson created wonderfully believable characters, strong, inquisitive women and men, humane and vulnerable and perfectly imperfect. Anathem is a fantastic romp through a fully realized world, designed and executed in tiniest details, and I could easily geek out here on the ideas such as sphere and tangle and the division between scientific thought and religion, as well as the idea of maths. But I will remain strong and let you all discover these for yourselves 😊.

Moreover, Anathem is, as I wrote before, an honest-to-God love letter to Western philosophy and science rooted in logical thought processes: induction and deduction. But this novel can also serve as a crash course through some of the elaborate contemporary ideas in physics – such as quantum mechanics, wave function (and that applies to music too), the nature of cognition, the existence of parallel universes and the Platonic world of ideas. And yet, among all this unmitigated lovefest for science and philosophy, Anathem manages a cutting social commentary, directed mainly toward the uneasy relations between science and politics, and science and society, but also regarding the general state of social awareness – as well as an earnest meditation on the place and status of science in modern world.

I absolutely, unconditionally loved this novel. I entered Arbre’s world and was almost instantly swept off my feet. Honestly, I didn’t even notice that it was nearly 1000 pages long. Part of its allure stems from the fact that I have not encountered a similarly inherently and subtly educational, entertaining and satisfying novel – and yes, if you’re thinking of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, it can at most clean Anathem’s shoes, as far as I’m concerned (which would be difficult in itself, since the protagonists go barefoot most of the time :P). Part of it is rooted in my own abiding love for Western philosophy and science (though not Plato; however you sell it to me, Neal Stephenson, I will always hold Plato accountable for his autocratic ideas!). Another part is simply the pure pleasure of finding the clues and references, inspirations and influences. When I discovered the sly, heartfelt tribute to one of my favorite books, A Canticle for Leibowitz; when Verne made an appearance; when Orolo created analemma on the floor of an ancient temple – I was over the moon, every freaking time. In short, Anathem turned out to be the perfect book for me. It has been not only the best book I’ve read this year so far, but also one of the best SF books I’ve ever read, period. What else is there to say? I can only encourage you to read it, be humbled by it, and rediscover the joys of philosophy and science, of curiosity and intellectual bravery in the process. The avout need you! 😀

Score: 10/10

49 thoughts on “Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

  1. So that’s what it’s about. 😅 I’ve read about a third of it and couldn’t figure it out—think I fizzled out not long after. I’m happy you loved it, though 😁

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s really the best book I read this year so far! But to be entirely honest, I do love the ancient Greeks and Western philosophy in general, so Anathem felt like a book written especially for me 😅

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Soooooo … you liked it 🤔

    The cover is gorgeous and it sounds intriguing as a whole. I’ve been diving into all things Ancient Greece, so philosophy is rather interesting to me.

    Seeing as how this is one of your most highly recommended books ever, I’ll do a bit of reading into it and see if its right for me 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No, I didn’t 😉 I absolutely loved this book! 😀

      I do realize, however, that I’m one of those weird readers who faced with a puzzle will rub their hands together and find pleasure in deciphering the myriad references and inspirations. This book is a palimpsest of sorts, a fascinating SF novel and a thoughtful commentary on how we see the world and what is or isn’t possible when we take the beliefs as far as they go. Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz? It’s one of my all-time favorite books and Anathem reminds me of it – though, having been written in more optimistic times, it’s less predatory and cutting and painful than Canticle.

      I do hope you’ll enjoy it! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. This may be a perfect book for you as well, then! 😊 It does plunge the reader in the middle of an unknown world, and it may be difficult to get your bearings at first, like Will said, but I firmly believe that this book is worth the initial effort! 🤩

          If you decide to read it, I’ll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on it! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a very persuasive review which drips with temptation. But I’d just convinced myself to ignore any more books close to a thousand pages. And then you remind me how much Bart rates this book, as well as bringing up ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’–one of my earliest reviews and a book I really enjoyed. Ah well, what a lovely dilemma to be in;-)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stephenson is one of the authors I’m most curious about, but so far I have kept myself away from his books mostly because of what looks like the deep commitment in concentration and time they seem to require. Then I read reviews like yours – which sounds more like a love letter than a review 😉 – and wonder what is there to be afraid of…
    Thanks for sharing!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, deep commitment is definitely right 🙂 But it’s worth it! (And you’re right, my review of Anathem is indeed more akin to a love letter than my usual critical analyses 😁)
      You could try to take it slowly – but then, about a third in, the plot thickens considerably and the action starts to rush forward in earnest… and it becomes unputdownable! 😁😁😁

      You’re very welcome, Maddalena! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You know how to make people curious, that’s for sure. I don’t know if this book would be right for me, but as soon as I finished reading your review all I wanted to do was go and buy it immediately!
    I don’t know how I managed to restrain myself (well, the fact that I can’t buy anything online at the moment helped, but this is just a detail!) and I am seriously considering this one now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😁

      Oh, the problem of online buying – all the books at the tips of your fingers! Sometimes being offline and far from bookshops is the only saving grace of bookworms like us 😉 But I’ll be very content if you remember this one and maybe one day you’ll find yourself in the right mood to try it 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I quickly grabbed a hardcover copy of this one at a second-hand event a couple of years ago as if it was telling me that, despite its beautiful size, it is a tale that I must read and indulge in the future. I’m actually really glad to get your seal of approval on it now, a seal that I now bestow upon my copy, and will now make an effort to prioritize it (amongst the other highly praised novels you’ve shared with us lately). I do love that it can be loved at different degrees, depending on the reader’s own knowledge/understanding of the story and its references. I sure do love reading full-star reviews from y’all. It makes me love literature even more every time! 😀 Thanks for sharing this passionate review, Ola! 🙂 Oh and I also learned that peregrination was a word. One that I’m going to try and sneak into a future review too! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, I’m happy I could introduce peregrination to you, Lashaan! 😁
      Yeah, this one is passionate all right – I’m sharing all the love for this book in any way I can, because it’s such a perfect gem of SF. Though I fully realize that to those who are not fans of ancient Greece or philosophy this may turn into a bit of a slog; after all, it is nearly 1000 pages long and despite the adventurous premise and lots of action there’s still quite a lot of both in here 😉 And yet I cannot not recommend it! 😁

      I’ll be happy to read your thoughts on it one day, Lashaan! And I very much hope you’ll enjoy it! 😀

      Like

  7. Great, great review, the fact that it’s such an enthusiastic love letter indeed makes me want to instantly reread it. (But I must show character and finish the Dune series reread first. So I hope in a year and a half maybe? Two years?)

    You’ve also sold me on Canticle. That has been on my list for ages, but somehow I was never convinced.

    Btw, Snow Crash, an early Stephenson is not long at all, and great fun cyberpunkish too. But lenght is a bit of a problem at times: I simply can’t get started in book 2 and 3 of the Baroque Cycle, I have had them for ages, and I loved the first one. And I promised myself to finish those before Cryptonomicon – aledgedly the other Stephenson masterpiece, to which Baroque can be considered somewhat of a prequel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, man, that’s a lot of Stephenson reading! 😂 But Anathem was such fun I’d be crazy not to read more by him – I think I’ll start with Snow Crash and later on I’ll try to tackle Baroque – Cryptonomicon has been on my TBR for ages but now that I know Baroque is a prequel of sorts I’ll need to read that first 😉

      Canticle was a revelation for me – this book is freaking cutting, bleeding and laughing through tears. One of very few books that actually made me cry.

      Thanks you, Bart – and great thanks for the recommendation! 😊

      Like

      1. From Wiki: “Stephenson’s subsequent work, a trio of novels dubbed The Baroque Cycle, provides part of the deep backstory to the characters and events featured in Cryptonomicon. Set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the novels feature ancestors of several characters in Cryptonomicon, as well as events and objects which affect the action of the later-set book. The subtext implies the existence of secret societies or conspiracies, and familial tendencies and groupings found within those darker worlds.”

        Now I’m thinking I maybe should just read in publication orde.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eh, I agree. Maybe it’sts just me in an unforgiving mood but I read that explanation as Baroque being a very long footnote to Cryptonomicon 🤣 In this case, I might try to tackle Cryptonomicon even before Snow Crash! 😁

          Like

        1. One of the biggest draws of blogging for me are the meaningful yet strangely anonymous relationships I have formed with other bloggers over the years – the amount of detail we get into in the book discussions online is sometimes much more comprehensive and rewarding than similar conversations offline 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I have never read Stephenson, probably because I’m completely intimidated. But I love this gushing review and I’ll have to remember this book when I’m in the mood for something philosophical:-)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Tammy! It’s great, great fun, and a very captivating story on its own – I hope you’ll enjoy it if you decide to give it a shot one day 😀

      Like

  9. buriedinprint

    I loved reading your review. I’ve also read the book and I remember it being a good reading experience but I don’t remember a THING about it. Maybe because it is about so many things, really. Because it is so hard to summarize succinctly. But Canticle I do remember well and I really enjoyed that too. It’s one that I would happily reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊
      Yes, it’s many things at once, and a lot of fun, too. I agree, it’s difficult to sum up, especially if you want to avoid spoilers 😉
      Canticle is one of my all-time favorites and one of the most important books I’ve read. I think I need a re-read soon! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. There is, St Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, but I never read it – it was never finished by Miller and published only after his death. I felt Canticle was a complete work and never felt a need to read this part-sequel/companion novel…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. buriedinprint

            You’ve echoed my thoughts on the matter. Mind you, never say never. Sometimes those books are finished based on notes or by someone who was familiar enough with the author’s intentions and style to make it a satisfactory reading experience in the end. But, like you, I didn’t feel the need to rush in that direction either.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Apparently it’s a good book on its own 😉 so yes, a day may come I’ll reach for it, especially that Miller managed to write some 600 pages before his death, so it’s mostly his. But I don’t think it’s really a sequel – more of an accompanying novel that takes place in the middle of Canticle’s timeline.
            On another note, for some reason every time I try to follow you I get an error message – do you know why this may be happening?

            Liked by 1 person

  10. buriedinprint

    I think we’ve reached the limit of nested tweets in our conversation above where you were asking why you’re having trouble subscribing to BIP. Do you generally read/follow through WordPress or something other “reader”? I’ve recently added a more visible sub-by-email option to the bottom of my site’s homepage if that’s helpful. I appreciate your asking; I’ve always had fewer subscribers via WP than any other platform, which is funny, because although I’m hosted independently, I’ve used their tools to create my site. If there IS a problem I’d love to try to get to the bottom of it. Back to the question of the “sequel” to Canticle, that is all reassuring actually. Companion novels particularly interest me (although I will always love serial reading too).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I usually use WP reader functionality as I get bogged down in all the email notifications and lose track of which blogs I can follow through the reader and email, and which only by email. I tried several times to follow you through WP and I always get bounced back with an error message. I’ll try email subscription 🙂
      Yes, the fact that it doesn’t happen after is a big point in favor of the Canticle companion novel 🙂 especially considering how Canticle ended!

      Like

      1. buriedinprint

        After your message yesterday, I tried to add another layer of association between my host and the WP interface, so I’m hoping that might help? If you wouldn’t mind trying again and sharing whatever error message you receive? I would really appreciate it. If you’re willing and would rather not clog your comments feed further, please feel free to email.

        Whatever you’re reading this weekend, I hope it’s as much fun as Anathem. I’ve recently finished Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and might start a Patricia McKillip later today.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No worries 😊
          I tried again and this time managed to follow you through WP – but when I try to get on your site, I get a following message: “This site can’t be reached 2014.buriedinprint.com’s server IP address could not be found.
          DNS_PROBE_FINISHED_NXDOMAIN”

          I need to give McKillip a second chance – I’ve read Winter Rose and wasn’t wowed, but I keep hearing her books are great. I’m currently reading Odd Thomas for a change of pace, and The Hollow Kingdom is coming next 🙂 Not as good as Anathem, but then, not many books are! 😄

          Like

          1. buriedinprint

            Thanks so much: that’s very helpful. So you can see my feed coming to you via WP, in with all your other subscriptions, but when you click, from WP, to try to reach my site directly, that’s when you get the error message. But if you were to simply visit my site through your web browser, you can locate the IP (because you mentioned you subbed through it via email). I do all my own tech stuff, so I really appreciate your pointing this out so I can find a solution.

            I’m not very familiar with McKillip but, like you, I keep hearing I must try her. This one, Alphabet of Thorn, looks delightfully bookish. Her Riddlemaster books are on my TBR too.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I think it may be connected to this “2014” thing in the link from WP. I can visit your webpage directly, and I have subscribed by email (just got a confirmation that I’m actually subbed ;))

            I’ll be looking forward to your reviews of McKillip – maybe that will help me decide! 😀

            Liked by 1 person

  11. This sounds like a powerful and complex book that can be joined on many levels. I don’t think I’ve read this author before but I will make a note of this one – and such an intriguing cover. I have to keep going back to take another look.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t recommend this book enough! 😄 You’re right, it is complex and multi-level, but it’s highly enjoyable on any and all of them. This cover is mouth-watering; unfortunately, that particular edition had been sold out within a month of publication 😅 – and sadly, I didn’t manage to grab a copy…

      Like

  12. I’ve definitely seen this on the book sale trolley at work. As soon as I’m allowed back in the building I’m grabbing it – your enthusiasm has made me thoroughly curious … Great review! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  13. piotrek

    Heh, it’s a beautiful review of what seems to be a masterpiece 🙂 Long, learned, and apparently even entertaining… ok, I will finally read a Stephenson novel 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah! 😀
      It’s a great book and I’m pretty sure you’ll love it! It is long, but let’s be frank – when had that ever been a deterrent for you? 😂😂😂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. You made a grand job of selling this one, Orla. I was tempted, until you let slip 1000 pages. That’s even longer than my current challenge, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though as a modern novel, perhaps it’s in a bigger font.

    So I have noted the title, but I’ll probably stick to having enjoyed your review of it, for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m sorry I couldn’t make the temptation more irresistible, then! 😁 I can assure you that writing style in Anathem is decidedly more modern and the pages flow with ease and without notice, until the suspense in the later parts makes the reader fly through the rest of the book.

      I do understand your reluctance, however – if I knew from the start how long it was I’d have probably approached with more caution (the physical copy looks like a murder weapon, it’s so big!) As it was, blissfully ignorant I dove into my ebook version and was truly transported – and the page count didn’t matter at all 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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