Fri
Aug 7 2009 12:00pm

2009 Hugo Best Novel Nominee Spotlight: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a 2009 Hugo Award nominee for Best Novel.

Anathem (HarperCollins) is one of those polarizing books. Some people hate it. I love it enthusiastically. That doesn’t mean I love it uncritically. I can read the negative reviews and see what they see. Adam Roberts’s review in particular is hilarious because it’s true that it’s very long and has a lot of made up words. The thing is that is doesn’t matter.

Anathem is a hugely ambitious book that does indeed fail in some of what it’s trying to do. Where it succeeds it succeeds so brilliantly that I don’t care whether the physics makes sense or even whether there are any female characters. What Anathem is attempting is to write about the whole development of science and philosophy in a world similar but different from ours, and then extend it forward from here to cover four thousand more years of future. He does this in a way that’s utterly immersive and absorbing—in the first person point-of-view of an appealingly obsessive geeky young man. Stephenson sets up the world of the Maths, closed communities of geek-minded people who take themselves out of the world in the manner of monasteries, but instead of worshipping God they’re withdrawing to study abstract science. He makes this absolutely fascinating and absorbing with detail piled on detail—the one year Maths, the ten year ones, the century ones, the mysterious Millenial ones that only open once a century, and did I mention that the monasteries are also giant clocks that have to be wound?—and then he tells a first contact story set in that world. But the main thing the book is doing is showing how science itself works, the scientific method, and how that is in itself exciting and engaging and fun. That’s a real achievement.

Of course, it’s also a lovely long book I can sink into completely and pull up over my head like a warm fluffy blanket. I’ve never really liked the word “cool” because it implies a certain coldness. What’s wonderful about Anathem is how hot and passionate it is about abstractions.

I can’t get enough of the angle on time the Maths encourage, and the way the people are so totally adorable. Erasmas is only nineteen, but he quite naturally comes out with things like:

When there’s an economy extramuros, we can sell the honey outside the Day Gate and use the money to buy things it’s difficult to make in the concent. When conditions are post-apocalyptic, we can eat it.

or:

For three thousand years it had been the concent’s policy to accept any or all folding chairs and collapsible tables made available to it, and never throw any away. ... We had folding chairs made of aluminum, bamboo, aerospace composites, injection-molded poly, salvaged rebar, handcarved wood, bent twigs, advanced newmatter, tree stumps, lashed sticks, brazed scrap metal and plaited grass.

and then there’s this conversation between Orolo and a man from outside:

“Do you have, in your wigwams or tents or skyscrapers or wherever you live—”

“Trailers without wheels, mostly,” said Artisan Quin.

“Very well. In those, is it common to have things that think, but are not human?”

“We did for a while but then they all stopped working and we threw them away.”

Or there’s Fraa Jad:

“The aliens are jamming the nav satellites,” I announced.

“Or maybe they just shot them down!” said Barb.

“Let’s buy a sextant, then,” suggested Fraa Jad.

“Those have not been made in four thousand years,” I told hin.

“Let’s build one then.”

“I have no idea of all the parts and whatnot that go into a sextant.”

He found this amusing. “Neither do I. I was assuming we’d design it from first principles.”

“Yeah,” snorted Barb. “It’s just geometry, Raz!”

“In the present age, this continent is covered by a dense network of hard-surfaced roads replete with signs and other navigational aids,” I announced.

“Oh," said Fraa Jad.

“Between that and this”—I waved the cartalba—“we can find our way to Saunt Tredegarh without having to design a sextant from first principles.”

Fraa Jad seemed a little put out by this. A minute later, though, we happened to pass an office supply store. I ran in and bought a protractor, then handed it to Fraa Jad to serve as the first component in his homemade sextant. He was deeply impressed. I realised that this was the first thing he’d seen extramuros that made sense to him.

Reading Anathem is a process of becoming deeply immersed in a world and culture in which designing a sextant from first principles may not be necessary, but it’s a perfectly reasonable first thing you think of. If this is appealing, you’ll probably like the book. All the major characters are wildly passionate about ideas, all the time. They care deeply about abstractions to such an extent that while saving the world and getting the girl happen, they’re really not the point of the book.

This is definitely one of the best books of this year, or any year.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

19 comments
John Aynesworth
1. jaynesworth
I laughed out loud, because this reflects my feelings about the book so perfectly. Thank you for reminding me, Jo.
Bill Siegel
2. ubxs113
OK, I really enjoyed this book but let's not make any mistakes, it's not great literature.
R. Emrys
3. R. Emrys
a world and culture in which designing a sextant from first principles may not be necessary, but it’s a perfectly reasonable first thing you think of

You may have just gotten me to try Neal Stephenson again.
Soon Lee
4. SoonLee
R. Emrys #3:
I'm not sure that ANATHEM is a good introduction to Stephenson. But then, as I think about it, I don't know if there is a good introduction to Stephenson. I love his writing, but all of his books have a component of 'failed experiment' to them. It's just that that (as Jo said), the parts that work are so well done, it doesn't matter.
Rikka Cordin
5. Rikka
I dunno about that. I personally adore Stephenson; he's so much fun to read. Anathem was spectacularly mind-boggling in a high-school-science-y sort of way. I loved it immensely and giggled more than I probably should have during the reading of it.
Tony Zbaraschuk
6. tonyz
SNOW CRASH's opening is maybe a good introduction to Stephenson. Actually almost any of his openings are worth it.

I'm possibly biased, though, since if Amazon ever publishes THE LAUNDRY LISTS OF NEAL STEPHENSON I will be the first person on earth to pre-order a copy, but the sheer fun of the storytelling is almost always worth it. This is a guy whose boring infodumps are more interesting than most Hugo winners. (Consider, say, the Manila truck trip in CRYPTONOMICON...)

ANATHEM I found gloriously fun, and the idea of the Millennials was just amazing. Of course I knew enough about Platonism and the Scientific Revolution that I could start matching the versions of our history to the version in Stephenson's, which was an added inducement, especially since there were just enough twists to not make it a Turtledove-book exercise in spotting the parallels and then getting hammered over the head with them 87 times per chapter. The whole idea of the concent and the slowly interacting worlds (I think I would love to be a Centennial and only have to deal with the _important_ stuff from the last century, anyway); the idea of the Book; the slow realization that there really are amazing secrets hidden in the older circles; finally seeing a Millennial at work... it was great.
Brendon Roberts
7. saunterasmas
It is a damn fine book. Definitely in my top 5 books of all time. It's probably my equal favourite Stephenson along with "Quicksilver".
R. Emrys
8. tr1ck
I agree wholeheartedly. I recently re-read this book and was not disappointed. There is just something about Stephenson's books that lend themselves to multiple readings. And every time I read them there are certain parts that still make me laugh out loud.
David Goldfarb
9. David_Goldfarb
Anathem ate up quite a lot of my reading time this last May and June, because I needed to read it for the Hugo voting, and I simply didn't find it immersive or absorbing. I enjoyed the world and the plot okay, I wasn't too bothered by the neologisms...it just didn't pull me forward. I'd read it for a while, and then have to put it down; and then at some point I'd have the choice between picking it back up again and playing Bejeweled 2, and rather often Bejeweled won.
Rikka Cordin
10. Rikka
@7 saunterasmas I feel that it's so difficult for me to treat The Baroque Cycle as three individual books. It's much easier to let them blend into the one big book they should have been. Still, I'll agree, Quicksilver was brilliant in so many ways.
Joseph Lewis Szabo III
11. pointman74250
I'm in the middle of reading Snow Crash again. I suppose the reason I picked this one up is because of his newest novel. I haven't read Anathem....yet, but I will be buying it soon.

http://ultrahip.blogspot.com/
David Dyer-Bennet
12. dd-b
But does it end, or just trail off? I found Snowcrash lightly amusing and highly annoying, and Cryptonomicon slow and not very interesting. Does Anathem have different things to offer? The bits you quote sound fairly okay.
Soon Lee
13. SoonLee
It ends more traditionally than any of his other books to date. Mind you, that's not saying much.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
DD-B: I like the end. But I like the end of Cryptonomicon too.
Henry Troup
15. htroup
Since I loved Cryptonomicon, but couldn't stand the Baroque cycle, Jo's persuaded me that I'm going to have to try this one. It looks like one of those brain-stretchers.
R. Emrys
16. R. Emrys
SoonLee @ #4: You're probably not still reading this thread, but it absolutely turned out to be a good introduction to Stephenson--certainly better than any of his other books I've tried and failed to finish. Mostly because the infodumpers infodump in character, rather than suddenly spouting trivia to random passersby on the street. It was wonderfully geeky and a good way to spend a couple of weeks.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
R.Emrys: Well, I'm still reading and I'm really glad you enjoyed it.
Soon Lee
18. SoonLee
R. Emrys @16:
What Jo said.

"Wonderfully geeky" is a very apt description of Stephenson's writing.
Stefan Raets
19. Stefan
I just re-read this post (following links from my review of Reamde) and my goodness, I so badly want to reread Anathem right now. Your quoted sections are wonderful examples of what makes reading Stephenson so much fun.

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