Sunday, October 26, 2008

Anathem Rocks My Socks [Anathem Review]

"Have you ever read a book that completely changed your view of the world?" I posed this question at a dinner with several adults once and their response was a unanimous "No." This surprised me a great deal, as you can imagine, but when I elaborated with an example, they softened their reply with "Oh, well maybe when I was your age." This tells me one of two things. Either my fellow diners were less deeply philosophical people than I first thought, or my mind will not always be as malleable and thoughtful as it is now. Whatever the answer, I hope that you have not already reached this sad point in your life. This latest book is proof that I haven't, that's for sure.

Anathem is a novel by Neal Stephenson that I recently finished reading. Finishing it is a fairly weighty statement, as Anathem is more on the "tome" side of the book world. At over 900 pages, it can be a bit intimidating. Despite this, I was excited to read it for two reasons. First, I have read Stephenson's Snow Crash and found it a thrilling example of the cyberpunk genre. Second, the book just came out in September and was immediately selected as the feature book for the Sword and Laser podcast. I'm not a very active member of this book club, but I do pay attention to their SF selections (they alternate between science fiction and fantasy novels) and have found their analysis and background fairly helpful.

Anyway, I was fortunate enough to receive some birthday money from my friends in the blogging world, so I went out and grabbed myself some serious tree-matter. It happened to be very cheap on Amazon that day so I lucked out, but sadly the price has risen steadily since I purchased it (it's now around 20 dollars, which is still a pretty good deal if you get the free shipping). Once I got it in the mail, I could tell it was something special. The hardbound version was very tastefully decorated, with gold leaf adorning the spine and the "N.S." on the cover. Inside, the pages are separated into separate books with finely illustrated pages depicting Mathic architecture.

So with all this literary foreplay, how did the book turn out? To say the least it is my favorite book at the moment. While going into the plot and even the set-up might be too much of a spoiler, here's what I can tell you. The story is set in a timeline that is actually very similar to our own. This is deceptive because the part of the world we live in ("the Saecular world" as it is known in the book) is largely irrelevant to the overall story. They have largely gone through the same cultural, scientific, and philosophical advancements that we have, but the process has been streamlined (mostly to simplify a complex system).

The protagonist, Erasmas, lives in "the Mathic world," which, over a thousand years ago, segregated itself from the rest of society. Those that live in these scientific monastaries only come out and interact with Saecular society every 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years, depending on the level of commitment they have chosen to devote themselves to. A book describing this kind of scientific monasticism would probably be an interesting read unto itself. Fortunately, Stephenson delivers a large chunk of it initially and then sprinkles it throughout the rest of the ensuing adventure.

Beyond the bizarre lifestyle of the monks, there is an underlying philosophical and cosmological argument being formed throughout the entire book. To go into it would probably weaken the way that Stephenson himself introduces it to the reader, so I will simply suggest that you be patient with his "teaching method" and enjoy his brilliant fusion of modern multiverse theory and Platonic forms (just let that one sink in for a bit).

Overall, I loved the book and I am going to lend it to just about anyone who will let me impose it upon them. It may also make up a significant portion of my Christmas gifts to others. Originally I reviewed the book (having only half-finished it) on I've also actually written a bit of fanmail to Mr. Stephenson, so I feel this post is the last bit I can do to plug the book.

Here are some extra resources (watch out for spoilers):
I hope you liked my review of Anathem. If you plan on buying the book (or any of Stephenson's other books) please uses the widget below and support my blog!

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The content of this page is completely the creation and opinion of James Rogers. He is affiliated with Connect Mason and formerly Broadside Online but the relationship only governs republication, not content.

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