Wed
Mar 2 2011 1:00pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of Anathem

Anathem by Neal StephensonThe thing about Anathem (post) is that it’s a big novel about the history of philosophy and science, set in a different world where that history has been different but parallel, and yet Stephenson manages to make it a ton of fun.

He makes you think, and he makes you work at thinking, and he makes you love the experience. If instead you hate it, you’re going to hate Anathem (a second post), and some people certainly do.

Anathem is all written in the endearingly geeky first person of Erasmas, or Raz, who lives in a Concent, a monastery that is a giant clock, where people retreat to study science and logic and philosophy rather than worship God. The Concent of Saunt Edhar has Unarian, Decentarian, Centarian, and Millennial chapters, which have gates that open once a year, once a decade, once a century and once every thousand years. Erasmas is in the Decentarian Math. The people inside interest themselves abstruse geeky cool things, and only go out for ten days during the festival of Apert when their gates open. Many ordinary people spend a year, or two or three years, in the Unarian math, but the really geeky ones go further in and stay and develop long term thinking.

It’s full of made up words and names, like mathic, praxic and speelycaptor, many of which are defined in the text and all of which are defined in the glossary. It’s full of cool things like the library grape, which has all the genes of all the grapes ever, but which expresses them according to the local conditions, and the leaf trees that produce rectangular quarto leaves that are harvested every year and stored for a century before use.

It has the history of science and philosophy, plus four thousand years more history of science and philosophy and the concents, and it has a strong sense of history and things ongoing. It also has aliens, first contact, other worlds, chases, adventure and some fairly dodgy physics. It’s beautifully written, good enough to read aloud, but it’s somewhat lacking in female characters.

It’s a huge ambitious book of the kind that only science fiction can produce. It’s a whole world of funny words and nifty ideas to sink into. It is also unquestionably one of the most important books of the last ten years, one of the things that in twenty or thirty years we’ll look back on and say, “Yes, that’s what science fiction was up to in that non-decade that began the new millennium.” We won’t be saying this from our retreats in giant clock monasteries, but then nobody ever suggested we would.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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.

The Tor.com Best Novel of the Decade Readers’ Poll index.

28 comments
dissapointed
1. dissapointed
"It also has aliens, first contact, other worlds, chases, adventure and some fairly dodgy physics." -- I'd call that spoilers, unless at least the aliens happen in the first chapter.
Bill Siegel
2. ubxs113
Not a good story. The pacing is excruciating, the plot is ridiculous, the characters, especially the very few female ones, are totally one-dimensional, the climax is confusing and poorly edited and the conclusion is totally lame.
David W
3. DavidW
“Yes, that’s what science fiction was up to in that non-decade that
began the new millennium.” We won’t be saying this from our retreats in
giant clock monasteries,



Pff, that is exactly what I will be saying while retreating in my giant clock monastary.

I just want to disagree with ubxs113. Awesome story, awesome characters (female included), solid climax and nicely edited. Also, the conclusion was awesome.
dissapointed
4. ChrisG
I loved this book: an unfolding mystery, grand, strangely moving, enthralling. Not that I disagree with many of the criticisms, especially regarding the characterizations and ending, but for me these problems didn't detract as much as they might have from the broader canvas.

The unfolding mystery aspect reminded me of Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series, which I love even more to be honest.
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
I loved, loved, loved 90% of it (and I just read it two weeks ago). The remaining 10% fail all relate to various aspects of the conclusion (particularly with respect to the activities of an elderly character).
dissapointed
6. ChrisG
P.S. Actually, as I think about it, the similarity between Anathem and Kirstein's books are even stronger than just the mystery aspect.

By the way, I'd love to see an article/appreciation here on Tor.com about Kirstein's series.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
RobM: I can't really argue with any criticisms of Fraa Jad. It's just that the rest of it is so lovely that I don't care.

DavidW: There's a weird tendency to say that SF is supposed to be predictive, whereas in fact it does all kinds of things. But if you build a giant clock monastery, I'll... be there cheering at Apert.
dissapointed
8. ChrisG
I find with a good portion of Stephenson's books that I love the first 90-95% but hate the ending. Diamond Age is particularly noteworthy in this regard.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
ChrisG: I already did one. If you search on "Kirstein" in the search box you will find it. It's called "Not only science fiction, but more science fiction than anything else".

I could do another one. I love those books.
dissapointed
10. ChrisG
bluejo: Great, thanks! I'll take a look. Sorry I missed it.
Evan Langlinais
11. Skwid
I absolutely adore this book, and agree that it's one of the most important SF books, if not the most important, written in the last decade. When I was at Anticipation in 2009 and talking to people about the nominees that year, it became obvious that very, very few people had read the book, with most citing the sheer size of it and a few saying they'd bounced off of the linguistic learning curve. The other nominees that year were, IMNSHO, not even in the same class as this book, and I find it tragic that these could be the reasons it didn't win the award.

You got my vote, Neal.
SF Strangelove
12. Strangelove4sf
To quote from my own blog review: "Anathem is not principally about story or ideas, although it contains plenty of both. The brilliant laser-focus is on process: how to reason, how to argue, how to integrate ideas, and when thought should lead to action. Stephenson's mind-boggling achievement in science-fictional world-building is that he has recapitulated, in large part, Western philosophy and thought in a skewed alternate presentation that allows the reader to see it fresh. The book is mostly static, devoted to talking-heads. But what conversation!"

Jo Walton is correct, I believe, that this is a book that will be talked about and admired decades from now.

I see some similarities with the under-appreciated Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson. They both deal with how we reason and how we think about science. Robinson has the advantage of a great character in Galileo.
dissapointed
13. xian101
Here is my own appreciation of Anathem. I really do like the book!
Terry Lago
14. dulac3
ubxs113: @2"Not a good story. The pacing is excruciating, the plot is ridiculous, the characters, especially the very few female ones, are totally one-dimensional, the climax is confusing and poorly edited and the conclusion is totally lame."


So...it's typical Stephenson then?
Neville Park
15. nevillepark
Yeah, I found the characterization rather flat. And the Platonism in Anathem is to actual Platonism as, well, sci-fi science is to actual science -- but it was such a pleasure to see philosophy (and ancient philosophy at that!) take a central role that I really can't complain.

(David Lewis! He doesn't use the many-worlds interpretation, he uses David Lewis's modal realism! That's so awesome, I just...I can't even. :D )
Warren Ockrassa
16. warreno
@1: I don't think those constitute spoilers. You'd have to read the book to understand why, though.
dissapointed
17. Matthew Caffrey
I love the Fraa Jad involvement in the ending. The whole idea of the 10,000 year math, the intertwining (and overlapping!) of parallel universes - those were the aspects of the book that stuck with me most strongly in the year since I read it.

I understand that some physcists scoff, and I guess I don't have the academic credentials to argue. But it it the same physics/philosophy that Scalzi uses in Old Mans War to have his ships jump across the universe. Pareallel, almost identical universes that it is possible to move between. I love the confusion at the end, the multiple realities thinning out haphazardly.

Neal Stephenson's "deus ex machina" problem is well documented and real, both is Newton's spontaneous recovery in System of the World, and the bizzare ending to the otherwise fine Diamond Age. Even going back to his first shot at fiction, the Big U, you see that he has trouble tieing up an ending without the supernatural. And he still resorts to that in Anathem - but this time it is different because this time the trick at the end is the culmination of all the talk of physics and philosphy throughout the novel; it is the natural conclusion he has been preparing us for. So instead of pulling the Philosopher's Stone out of his puckered anus as he is wont, he shows us where the science naturally could lead us if we let it take us that far.
dissapointed
18. Ian P. Johnson
I loved this book. It really kept that sense of sustained immersion in an imaginary world going all throughout. Most of this had to do with the language of Anathem. At first I didn't get some of the words, but since I'm a linguist, it all seemed to fit together, since Stephenson used real roots to make up his fake words. So there were moments that I went…

"Cartabla? That's a GPS… cartatabla… Huh! Clever."

Actually I love it when writers use real roots to make up their fake words. It gives their fiction a sense of realism that's lacking in a lot of fantasy… which is something that a lot of fantasy could use more of. If you've read any Moorcock, you definitely get the feeling that the names of most of the Young Kingdoms don't sound like real. They're beautiful, and I love the Elric series, but I do like it when names have some meaning to them. And Stephenson doesn't commit the Cardinal Sin of speculative fiction: putting an apostrophe in a word in a random place just to make a word sound exotic. (Usually when there's an apostrophe in a foreign phrase, there's a good reason– like in Arabic. Before an Arabic vowel, an apostrophe signifies a glottal stop.)

But I'm rambling. Sorry– language is one of my greatest obsessions.
T Neill
19. Anarra
I was at Rosemary Kirstein's Coffee Klatch at Boskone and also mentioned that the figuring out the world of the Steerswoman and finding out the mystery was my favorite part of her books. And also Anathem. They really do have a lot in common. (Though not the language!)

I love the language in Anatham. I adore that I could usually figure out what the words meant by root words.

It took me a couple of re-reads to figure out what was going on with Fraa Jad but once I did I admired the way the writing of it paralelled what Fraa Jad was doing.
Amy G. Dala
20. amygdala11
While I love Neal Stephenson's writing, I do wish that he could give a proper ending to a book.

Anathem is intimidatingly huge, stuffed full of jargon and great ideas, and strangely ends all-of-a-sudden: just when it was getting interesting.
dissapointed
21. Trent Goulding
Put me down with those that loved Anathem. It massaged all sorts of sweet spots, and its flaws pale next to its achievements.

I mean, I love Gaiman, and I think the Graveyard Book was an enjoyable, worthy effort, but that said...Anathem was robbed.
Andrew Mason
22. AnotherAndrew
nevillepark@15:
And the Platonism in Anathem is to actual Platonism as, well, sci-fi science is to actual science -- but it was such a pleasure to see philosophy (and ancient philosophy at that!) take a central role that I really can't complain.

Yes, it isn't so much real Platonism as a quasi-scientific theory inspired by Platonism, taking 'world', as in 'the world of Forms', much too literally. (Though C.S. Lewis, or at least Diggory Kirk, did the same thing.)

(David Lewis! He doesn't use the many-worlds interpretation, he uses David Lewis's modal realism! That's so awesome, I just...I can't even. :D )

I don't think so. In Lewis, all logically possible worlds are real. In Stephenson, only worlds that can be reached by a coherent narrative are real. (This is shown by the passage about the block of ice within a star.) This also means that while in Lewis the set of possible worlds is fixed, in Stephenson, I think, it isn't - a mind which touches many worlds can create new narratives that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
dissapointed
23. AmalS
I liked this book very much. It was grand in scope and not for everyone. Somewhere the details were excruciating, but overall the book was fun. I liked it because it made me think (in Quantum Physics terms)!!! The first person narrative of the book was fun. Erasmas is a cool protagonist.
dissapointed
24. JDC
I believe Anathem to be the 5th book in the Cryptonomicon / System of the World series. After all, Enoch Root is surely on that ship somewhere.
dissapointed
25. Helpme
Instead of: "The thing about Anathem
is that it’s a big novel about the history of philosophy and science, set in a different world where that history has been different but parallel, and yet Stephenson manages to make it a ton of fun."

...how about: "Anathem is a big novel about the history of philosophy and science in an alternate universe. And it's a ton of fun."
dissapointed
26. Bobarino
Some of the niftiest people ever live in Neal Stephenson's head. I'm just glad he shares them with us every once in a while. Raz, Fraa Jad, Hiro, YT, Uncle Enzo, Randy Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe--you'd have to be crazy not to want to know these people.
Neville Park
27. nevillepark
AnotherAndrew: Actually, he gives a shout-out to Lewis -- though, on re-checking, not directly in the book itself but the online appendices:

Lewis wrote a book entitled On the Plurality of Worlds...which might have a familiar ring to those who have read Anathem, since the messal attended by Fraa Erasmas bears the same name. In it, Lewis lays out a metaphysics called modal realism which (to sum it up very crudely) asserts that possible worlds really exist, and are as real as the world we live in. The relevance of modal realism to Anathem is obvious.
dissapointed
28. LisaG
I must disagree with many of the critisisms of the elderly fra. If one fails to understand what happened to/with/because of this dear fra, they've missed a big part of the story.

I'll not spoil this incredible tale but, will say that if you missed the point of this character and his story you may want to read the book again. You missed a lot.

Also, Ala is female and a huge part of this tale. Cord is also female (very free in her sexuality) and a huge part of the story.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment