by Neal Stephenson

Hardcover, 2008




London : Atlantic Books, 2008.


Raz, a mathematician, is among a cohort of secluded scientists and philosophers who are called upon to save the world from impending catastrophe.

Media reviews

Seen through the eyes of a young ascetic named Erasmas, the universe of “Anathem” and its properties are revealed methodically over hundreds of pages, and at first, there is much joy to be found in watching this plausible other reality assemble itself and in observing how it parallels our own. Too much of the book is dominated by lengthy dialectical debates, whose conclusions are hardly earth-shattering (if you are reading this review, I suspect you already know how to divide a rectangular cake into eight equal servings) and which do little to promote a reader’s engagement with the characters of ­“Anathem,” any more than one cares about the interior lives of Pausanias or Eryximachus while reading “The Symposium.” What’s worse, the book’s fixation on dialogue leads Erasmas (and Stephenson) to simply tell us what is happening or has happened in pivotal scenes, instead of allowing us to see the events for ourselves through descriptive action.
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The only catch to reading a novel as imposingly magnificent as this is that for the next few months, everything else seems small and obvious by comparison.
Stephenson's world-building skills, honed by the exacting work he did on his recent Baroque Cycle trilogy, are at their best here. Anathem is that rarest of things: A stately novel of ideas packed with cool tech, terrific fight scenes, aliens, and even a little ESP.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tanenbaum
Anathem is unquestionably Stephenson's masterpiece. This is not a claim I make lightly, given his body of work. Anathem is a perfect synthesis of all that makes Stephenson unique. It is deeply historical and philosophical, but the history and philosophy are filtered through the lens of Arbre; an alternate Earth that allows Stephenson to pursue discursive tangents ranging from geometric proofs to causally divergent quantum realities. Anathem simultaneously indulges in classical science fiction tropes and expansive philosophical dialogues. It invokes a fictive history that feels as richly unknowable as our own history in its vastness, but it does not feel belabored or historiographical. For all of this, Anathem is more than just a thought experiment. It is a damn entertaining read with compelling, emotionally complex characters, and plenty of forward motion in the plot (although there is a lengthy period of mental calibration required, in which Significant Events are occurring while most first time readers are still finding their footing). Stephenson has always been laugh-out-loud funny to me, and moments in Anathem retain his quirky, clever, almost smart-alecky, sense of humor.

This is not to say that Anathem is for everybody; it is an intellectually challenging read requiring the assimilation of a glossary of new terminology which Stephenson uses unhesitatingly. Describing the book without resorting to the jargon and language which it introduces is its own particular challenge; a measure of how persuasively Anathem instills its own communicative system in the reader. Where most science fiction and fantasy authors rely on recognizable neologisms or anachronisms in order to convey a sense of foreign time and place, Stephenson instead constructs a terminology with consistent, but alien linguistic roots. Significant portions of the text are given over to defining terms, however each term is defined in its historical context; one does not just learn the word in its current usage but is instead introduced to its evolution through the culture of Arbre. The resultant linguistic tapestry feels more like a conceptual archeology of an as-yet-undiscovered culture, rather than a fictional construct.

In Anathem it is possible to see evidence of most all of Stephenson's earlier works. Certainly the most obvious resonances come from the intrigues, dialogues and mathematical proofs he explored in the Baroque Cycle, however the characters feel more like the hackers and geeks who were the heroes of Crytonomicon. The world has its share of cosmetic similarities to the privatized near-future of Snow Crash, but these are largely seen through the eyes of Fraa Erasmus: an outsider who is compelled for philosophical reasons to keep this world at arms length. The one unifying Stephenson theme which is perhaps most literally realized in Anathem is that Understanding is Power. To say any more, however, is to reveal details that are best left to Anathem to disclose.

--Review by Josh Tanenbaum
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LibraryThing member diaxrake
I enjoyed this book immensely.

It took me about 50 pages to feel comfortable with the terminology. I found myself flipping to the glossary in the back many times early on (I actually enjoyed that), but soon the strange terminology became second nature and I just fell into the story.

There are wonderful philosophies and scientific ideas addressed in this book, entwined in a grand historical framework with engaging characters and a cool adventure story to boot. It takes about 200-300 pages before it switches gears and the adventure begins, but from the first page this book had my utmost attention and interest.

At times, I found myself in awe at the scope of his writing. He can challenge you so deeply with complex ideas, but he balances it so well, maintaining a coherent and excellent storyline. It also is really funny at times, I found myself laughing out loud, something I didn't expect.

This was my first Neal Stephenson novel, but it will definitely not be my last.
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LibraryThing member TheCriticalTimes
Will you like it? If you like action packed novels that go on forever with glassy philo-babble then you're going to have a blast. If you've read Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game you're going to cry. Granted Neal Stephenson isn't after a deep novel that is meant to change your perspective on intellectual monks and reality as we know it. He himself confesses that his goal is to write a good yarn, which he has. If it weren't for the invented terms, elaborate world descriptions, meaningless meanderings and other trappings of an intellectual tome. With Neal Stephenson I always feel that he's onto such a good path but he's always slightly on the shoulder of the road, not on the tarmac.

Although there is a world of differences between The Glass Bead Game and Anathem, there are also a large number of remarkable similarities that sometimes go into great detail. Both stories start off by describing a fictional world in which an intellectual class is kept (or keeps) separate from the rest of society. Stephenson calls the rest, the non-intellectuals, extramurals. Hesse calls them normals. In both cases the intellectual classes live in monasteries where they study and, well, study more. In both books young children are gently abducted from the normal world and introduced into the world of thought. Hesse keeps his all male monasteries chaste and Stephenson modernizes by allowing both sexes to intermingle as long as they eat specific foods that keep them sterile. In Anathem (as in Hesse's version) we follow one such intellectual male monk who is coming of age through a number of revelations about how the world really works. In the case of Hesse the story plays out in the same reality as was established from the very beginning of the novel. In Anathem reality appears to be malleable and can be adjusted to serve the coming-of-age plot, something that although entertaining, greatly annoyed me because it felt there were no rules in a novel that boasts a great number of facts that are designed to solidify the imaginary world.

Sooner or later Stephenson breaks his own rules. The best example being that the aliens can't eat our food because of certain cosmic rules setup in the book, but when our protagonist visits the alien ship it turns out he can breath the oxygen there because it just takes some time to get used to the difference. Having said that Anathem is a great yarn if you like action monks. Personally I can't quite get into docile introspective monks who all of a sudden show a violent extrovert side of themselves, a problem in character differences which Hesse brilliantly addressed and described in his Narcissus and Goldmund.

If we put aside all the nitty gritty alternative reality details (you do need a glossary of terms to understand Anathem and Stephenson provides one) you end up with a novel that feels like it goes on forever in a good way and it does. I will not reveal the ending but it's very similar to the ending of the last Matrix movie and comes over as such. Will you like it? I think you will. Will you be impressed by the deep philosophical explanations and deep character building? Probably not.
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LibraryThing member TomVeal
If you have no interest in how Platonic philosophy relates to the "many worlds" version of quantum mechanics, you still may like this novel, though you'll probably wish that the characters talked less. Its setting is a world very like our own, except that philosophy, mathematics and the pure sciences are sharply separated from the secular world. Their practitioners dwell in secluded "maths", from which they emerge to mingle with the world for only ten days out of each one, ten, hundred or thousand years, depending on the math's particular discipline. This arrangement has been stable for millennia. In Anathem, the separation breaks down, as abstract concepts become palpable in the world of senses. Compared to Stephenson's previous works, this one is straightforward. The plot builds to a comprehensible resolution that derives logically from the philosophical discourse. The opening segment's strange jargon, peculiar social arrangements, odd dialogues and slow story progression should be endured for the sake of what is to come.… (more)
LibraryThing member benjamin.duffy
I couldn't finish this. I think I may be done with Neal Stephenson, at least for a while. It seems that, as Stephenson's fame and clout have grown, he's grown more and more self-indulgent. Snow Crash, his first big success, was concise and brilliant, and maybe even a bit too tightly edited; it could have benefited from another 200 pages. The Diamond Age is, to me, his best work, and one of my ten favorite books ever. It strikes an amazing balance between conciseness and allowing Stephenson his manic rambles. Cryptonomicon, which came after, was great but sprawled hugely. Stephenson got away with enormous math-based research dumps - some 20 pages long - that never would have gotten past his editors when he was less established. It didn't ruin the book, but it detracted somewhat from my enjoyment. I found myself skimming a few times, whereas I had clung to every word in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Finally, we come to Anathem, and I just found it kind of slow and boring.

Slow and boring would have been bad enough, but the book also represents a leap forward in terms of another disturbing Stephenson tendency: elitism. In all of his books that I've read, there is a certain contempt for the stupid, the uneducated, the technologically unsavvy. That's to be expected; his books are written by a geek for geeks. But Anathem is heavy on the mean-spirited depiction of "slines," the obese, uncouth spiritual descendants of 20th Century white trash. The book's tone towards "baseline" Americans (the root word of the term "sline") is very reminiscent of Idiocracy, and I generally expect a sharper level of cultural satire from Stephenson than I do from the creator of Beavis and Butt-Head. Anathem just basically comes off as Stephenson's revenge on every mouth-breathing jock who gave him a wedgie in high school. Congratulations, Neal, you sure showed them.
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LibraryThing member santhony
This is my first experience reading Neal Stephenson, so unlike many readers, I can’t compare Anathem to his previous works such as Cryptomnicron or his Baroque Cycle. Suffice it to say, I’ve never encountered writing quite like this. Simply put, Stephenson is obviously a man of stunning depth and intellect. So much so that I fear I was unable to fully appreciate his writing.

The story is ostensibly set on the planet Arbre, which in many ways bears a striking resemblance to present day Earth, in its history, religion, politics and level of technology. Arbre contains political subdivisions and religious schisms, but it also features numerous “concents”, structures similar to monasteries. However, instead of being religion based, these orders are based upon philosophical and mathematical principles. Our narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is a member of one such concent. Apparently, roughly 3,000 years ago, as a result of “The Terrible Events”, technology was largely frozen and higher education and training was limited to these concents (much like Middle Age monasteries become cultural repositories).

The concents remain completely isolated from the secular world for varying periods (orders within each concent “reveal themselves” to the world at set intervals, i.e. one, ten, one hundred and one thousand year terms). Otherwise, they are shielded from all things secular. The story revolves around an event of great crisis, a visit by aliens, which requires members of the concents to break this isolation discipline.

It should be noted that this is a behemoth of a book. The first 250 pages are something of a slog to get through. Imagine reading a book where approximately 5% of the words are written in a foreign language. Much can be assumed through context. There is both a timeline and a glossary to assist in familiarizing oneself with the linguistics and history of Arbre. By the time the action kicks into gear, I suspect most readers are adequately comfortable with this new world and its terminology.

Did I mention that Stephenson is brilliant? The book contains copious sections dealing with philosophy and moderately complex geometric mathematics (at least complex to me). These segues can become somewhat tiresome to those not so inclined. In fact, there are two relatively large sections which are so deeply philosophical and immersed in quantum physics that I’d wager that not one in a thousand readers will appreciate or understand it.

There are three instances where geometry and physics are footnoted and “calcas” relegated to an appendix. This is an excellent method of removing largely unnecessary material from the body of the novel, while allowing those who might be theoretical physicists and mathematicians to derive further enjoyment. In my opinion, this scheme could have been utilized more extensively, in effect transferring between 50-100 pages of dense material from the main body of the work to an appendix with the other “calca”. The necessary math could easily have been “dumbed down” to a level of comprehension that would allow the story to proceed without bogging down. I’m not talking about turning it into an elementary piece of work, but I’ve got a post-graduate education and some of the theory in this novel just made my hair hurt!

Very entertaining story line, excellent writing and good use of theoretical science. Overly dense at times, at least for my taste, but in all, an outstanding piece of work.
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LibraryThing member AnnieMod
There aren't too many authors that can combine philosophy, mathematics and science fiction in a novel and pull it off. Stephenson manages to do exactly that here.

If you expect to read a fast moving story, you will be disappointed. It is a slow novel, more ideas than action (even when everyone goes on a big adventure or when the aliens show up). You do not need to understand the math or the philosophy but if you do, it is part of the pleasure to figure out what is the equivalent on our world. Because everything is named differently but the ideas are the same. The first 100 pages are hard to read - between the invented language, the terms and words meaning something different and the whole idea of the concents and people never seeing the world for a year, or ten, or a hundred, or a thousand, it is very hard to get into the story. But I am happy that I pushed through it - because once you get the hang of it, it is a fascinating story.

However - writing a review is actually not that easy. Part of the charm and the beauty of the story is figuring out the things on your own. There is a fascinating world that looks so parallel to ours but almost in reverse - scientists are locked down and hidden, anyone that seems to have a brain gets also locked into the concents (which are like the convents of Earth), there is a starship that shows up from somewhere, there is a huge adventure, there is a boy that does not know the world and learns the world. And that is one of the strong points of the story - we see the story through the eyes of Erasmas - a boy that had been cloistered when he was 9 and now sees the world again for the first time 10 years later. And through his eyes we learn about his life and the world and what really is going on. And for being so different, he is also so similar to any guy that age - full of friends, first love and curiosity.

At the end, the explanation of why everything is so similar and yet so different is handled nicely. It is such a clear science fictional concept, so cleanly executed and done that it made me really love the story.

It won't be for everyone - it is too long in places, the action is moving at a snail pace sometimes. But it is just the way of the story - the pace suits it; the long explanations feel right. By the end I wished that there is more - the sedate pace lures you into a story that makes you stop and think. And one that stays with you for a very long time - because it is just one of those novels - full of ideas and light; full of adventures and concepts.
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LibraryThing member cajela
This is an amazing book, but probably not for everyone. It's very slow paced, with a Tolkeinian depth to its world and language. The made-up words that some have complained about do have an indirect relevance to the plot. Once you get past the initial jarring, it adds much to the atmosphere. Read it when you have a fair amount of spare time and brain space; it's not a casual beach book.

Anathem is the tale of a road trip, of first contact with aliens, of many worlds quantum mechanics, of the nature of consciousness, of platonic forms, of mathematics and ritual and a little bit of love. This is big idea science fiction, told in a majestic pace suited to the vastness of its topics. Say monyafeek :)
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Note: This review contains mild spoilers.

Anathem is what you would call a “big idea” book. In it, Stephenson creates an entire world, called Arbre, with a 3,000-year history (complete with apocalypse) and even its own languages. He tackles themes like quantum physics, parallel universes, the Platonic ideal and the existence of God. Yet Anathem is surprisingly readable, despite weighing it at almost a thousand pages.

I was trepidatious about tackling Anathem. I had heard about the made-up language and, having read books written in fictional dialects before, I expected a difficult slog. But Stephenson confines his invented words to key concepts and technologies. He also provides dictionary excerpts for relevant terms, although many words — like the title — are twists on English words and are easily deciphered from context. I even grew to enjoy the language, and so was a little startled when some French was thrown in toward the end (to a purpose, of course). My favorite word was jeejah, which is a device like a cell phone or smart phone, as ubiquitous on Arbre as here, and just as annoying to those who aren’t permanently attached to them.

Because of its history, which includes something apocalyptic called the Terrible Events, the general populace of Arbre is suspicious of new technologies or science. As a result, they have sequestered their intellectual elite in places like monasteries, where they are isolated for a year or more at a time. The avout, as they are called, are only allowed to work on theoretical science and mathematics, and cannot own or develop any technology apart from a short list of items. Depending on the “order” they belong to, the avout open their gates and mingle with the outside world for 10 days annually, each decade, each century or each millennium.

It is during the 10-year celebration of this time, called Apert, that the story begins. The protagonist is a young avout named Erasmus, who on the last day of Apert receives an unjustified punishment and is isolated from his fellow avout for several weeks. During that time, Erasmus’s teacher is expelled in a ritual called Anathem for an unexplained transgression. Investigating this, Erasmus discovers that his teacher had illicitly used technology to discover something world-changing: an alien ship orbiting the planet. Soon afterward, Erasmus and several others are called to an emergency conference regarding this first contact. But Erasmus wants to find his teacher first and sets off on a perilous road trip.

Even though Stephenson fills Anathem’s many pages with lengthy discussions of physics, math and philosophy, including a complex lecture on how parallel universes affect one another, he also throws in plenty of excitement. Besides aliens, there is a treacherous trek across the frozen Pole, some big fights, explosions, spies and conspiracy, and even a love story. But there is all that science and philosophy, too; this is no beach book. Still, it all is crucial to the story, as everything discussed in theory proves true in actuality. Be prepared by the end to be traveling across cosmoses and following multiple conflicting story lines through quantum space.

I thought it was all great fun. And while the story may have rambled on too long in places, or wandered off on unnecessary tangents, Stephenson’s world building is excellent. I was more than ready to accept Arbre as our parallel and to live there for the whole of this lengthy book.
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LibraryThing member kalyka
On the planet Arbre, scientists, philosophers and mathematicians live as monks, having as little contact with the outside world as possible, and have done so for millennia. In fact, communication between avout and Saeculars (people from the outside world) is usuallly limited to the time of Apert, which, depending in which math (Unarian, Decenarian, Centenarian, or Millenarian) one belongs to, happens from once a year to once a millennium. They live in concents void of modern technology, and the avout, as they call themselves, have but three possessions: a bolt, which is a intricate piece of clothing, a sphere that can shrink and expand to its possessor's will, as well as emit light, and a chord. Fraa Erasmas is such an avout, and the novel is recounted through his eyes.

Through him, we discover the world of Arbre, and the smaller world of the Decenarian math, which is the cloister in which he lives. Through much of the first part of the book, he gives the reader a tour of the concent, and the events surrounding Apert, which can be described as New Year's. Only a few weeks later, a major world event takes place and Erasmas, along with many other avout, are thrown into the outside world, with nothing but a change of clothes and some money. His mandate: to go to the concent of Tredegarh, where a Convox is taking place. Both avout and the Saecular Power will meet to discuss what must be done about the current threat to the world: namely, aliens.

However, still wounded about the expulsion of his mentor Fraa Orolo, Erasmas diverges from his pilgrimage to go find him, half-way across the world to Ecba, viewed almost as a holy land where even expelled avouts will be welcomed. Upon his arrival, the aliens, who have been orbiting Arbre for some time, send down a probe to Ecba, and all hell breaks loose. The military comes in and whisks away any and all witnesses of "the Visitation", and are transported to Tredegarh, where Erasmas was supposed to go in the first place.

From then on, endless talks about the aliens and how to deal with them take place, and finally, the avout at Tredegarh hatch a plan: send people, who are completely untrained and inexperienced in this kind of travel, into space to deal with the threat and destroy them as a last resort.

At over 900 pages long, this was not only a story, it was an epic saga of sorts. The author has successfully created a world of its own, but nonetheless very similar to ours in terms of technology levels and geology. Everything is described by Erasmas in minute detail, even though the tale is narrated by a young man of not yet twenty years old, who is very much unaccustomed to the world outside the walls he has locked himself in. Even terms for objects that one uses in daily life are different: jeejahs for cell phones, speelies for movies, syndevs for computers, so on and so forth, and that language remains consistent throughout the novel.

All the major characters, and even many of the supporting characters, are very well developed, with their own unique personality, although they are difficult to relate to, so detached they are from the world others are exposed to. They all react differently to the situation they are placed in, and each is, at a certain point, conflicted with their own actions and decisions.

However, the book could have been shorter. Much, much shorter. Events seem excruciatingly slow to come around, as much of the book is focused on dialogue. Furthermore, the focal point of the great majority of these dialogues is the debating of theories and hypotheses, and the exchange of obvious conclusions. If the people of the Saecular Power become impatient at this kind of talk, imagine how the reader would feel. Additionally, just when the reader feels that the story is actually going somewhere, it veers into a completely different direction, which creates much confusion.

When there is adventure, which is rather seldom, it is told in such a way that it leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination, and doesn't feel fast-paced at all. Adding to that sense of sluggishness is the feeling that the novel could have concluded at many points during the story, but just continues to drag on and on, making it decreasingly interesting as it went on.

In the end, it was just painful to read.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
What does Neal Stepenson write about? Anything he damn well wants, and Anathem is his latest long-winded, exploratory romp.

I saw Mr. Stephenson recently, at a sold-out book signing. He clearly didn’t want to be there; I think he hated the audience. Any other author and I would have been permanently disaffected, but Stephenson can get away with it.

Why do I cut him so much slack? Because I see him as a sort of literary performance artist. It doesn’t seem as much like he writes novels as that he is doing something perverse, wonderful and occasionally downright obnoxious.

Not everything he does works, and it certainly is not for everyone. Anathem is at best a fascinating other-world based on the worship of knowledge and the complexities of clocks, at its worst self-indulgent interminable exchanges (re-hashings of classical Western philosophy for the most part).

The New York Times criticized Anathem as not really being a novel, and they’re right. Stephenson has caused the format to burst. Anathem feels like it would be more comfortable in a non-linear layout, one in which the user could choose how immersed he or she wished to be in the narrative and the ideas. Expandable dialogues, links off to more details.

But I am one of those hopeless Stephenson fans. He has his finger on a certain pulse of humor that feels personal, like he’s writing just for me. So Anathem felt like indulgence. What fun! What a world! A world within a world, really: he takes monastic life and turns it on its ear.

Anathem’s world--Arbre--is one on which men and women work simply in walled cloisters, building and ruminating upon knowledge, isolated from the outside culture. Contact between the so-called Mathic avouts--those toiling simply behind the walls--and the regular hoi polloi occurs only during planned “aperts,” when the gates in the walls are opened as controlled by an elaborate (and, to me, fascinating) clock. These aperts happen every year, ten years, hundred years, thousand years; different portions of the cloistered society are allowed outside contact at different intervals.

Stephenson spends the first three hundred or so pages weaving this world behind the walls. It’s interesting to read, if you like the ideas he’s exploring and can deal with the absence of anything that can be called a plot. The life of our protagonist, Erasmas, is part monk, part scholar, part scientist, part dullard. He is merely a narrator of a richly-conceived landscape.

Don’t panic, though, it does all go pear-shaped and then we get science fiction, Stephenson-style, which is to say hilarious, rampaging, and peculiar of plot. And, in true Stephenson fashion, again, the book doesn’t know how to end right.

The most intriguing new element in this book is Stephenson’s exploration of the notions of consciousness, quantum events, and multi-cosmic theory. He riffs on the beauty--and perhaps the universality--of mathematics and other “true” forms of expression. It’s worth a read, for those who find their curiosity piqued.

If you hate Neal Stephenson, you will likely hate this book. If you are a fan, you will probably like it, especially if you are of the Cryptonomicon or Baroque Cycle persuasion.
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LibraryThing member elenchus
Neal Stephenson’s Anathem combines an adventure tale with a narrative exploration of metaphysics. In some ways the marriage is of convenience, making more palatable the dry arguments of ontology and epistemology. But it’s more than that. Stephenson selects the rarified set of circumstances under which ontology and careful consideration of multidimensionality are of immediate practical interest: when “strangers come to town from four different cosmi at once.” [656]

Anathem’s setting, the planet Arbre, is an analogue of Earth. Not only is the physical environment similar, the inhabitants effectively are humans who made slightly different choices at major historical crossroads. Nominally alien yet always recognizable are major schools of philosophy, religion, technological and political watersheds in the planet’s social history, and so on. (Stephenson’s names for these are sly and amusing, different enough to preserve the alien culture, familiar enough to draw comparison to our history.) Arbre is a laboratory for imagining counterfactuals, casting into sharp relief patterns and developments occurring on Earth but so familiar as to be glanced over. This is the “marriage of convenience” between setting / plot and theme. Thematically, Stephenson could have written the same book set on Earth … but plot-wise, it’s clever that he doesn’t. Readers would have a host of other expectations and perspectives had he done so, and I think it’s deliberate that the reader not have those until perhaps the end.

For all that, the plot is fun but the metaphysics are the meat of the book. The mathematics and logic behind imagined parallel universes is fascinating, fleshing out the abstractions of ontological realism. Key example: "Complex [Protism] can have any number of boxes and arrows [depicting the flow of information / reality from one cosmos to another], as long as the arrows never go round in a circle." [374] There are a great many "narrative dumps" in which characters go into painstaking detail regarding history, math, or culture (whether Arbrean or as an abstract argument, i.e. equally Arbrean or Terran). I expect this device is tedious for many even though Stephenson's setting takes these into nominal account, as the characters are variously from isolated monasteries and the outside culture, and need a lot of discussion to understand one another. I relished these expositions, though the plot always held my interest. Anathem bears re-reading: as a thought experiment to quiz understanding during a metaphysics course, and for the sheer entertainment.
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LibraryThing member mrtall
Anathem, Neal Stephenson’s latest blockbuster novel, marks his return to science fiction after a (very) lengthy sojourn in his Baroque Cycle’s historical focus.

The setting is an Earth-like planet whose culture is tired and stagnant. For thousands of years the intellectually curious and adept have been cloistered in monastery-like confines, living lives of physical asceticism and mental discipline. The ‘extras’, i.e. the ordinary slobs on the outside, plug along in their weary consumer culture.

And then (round about page 200 or so, out a fairly monumental 900) something happens, and everything starts to change . . . .

So if you’re going to get into the flow of this book, you’ve got to stick with it for a while as Stephenson builds his world and introduces his characters and their ways. But that’s not to say this set-up is dull; on the contrary, one of this book's great joys is simply following around Erasmus, a young ‘avout’ in one of these monasteries of the mind, as we figure out his uber-geeky world's mores and assumptions. And just at the point at which you’ve had about enough socio-anthropological exploration, the main thrust of the plot kicks in like an afterburner, and the rest of the book is a compelling read.

A couple of notes for those who haven’t read Stephenson before: there’s no pulling punches here intellectually. Much of Anathem is devoted to philosophical, scientific and theological discussion and speculation, and if you’re not up for some thinking, you’re probably reading up the wrong tree.

Also, Stephenson loves to play with words, and he’s invented an extensive vocabulary of neologisms for his world. There’s a glossary provided, but I found that figuring out the words via his periodic in-line definitions and their contextual usage was more than adequate; again, it’s one of the joys of the book.

Stephenson is at the top of his game right now as a novelist and indeed as a thinker in general, and this book reflects this peak. Don’t miss it.
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LibraryThing member JenneB
Oh wow. This was cool.
Basically what you have here is a sort of alternate universe where they have these monasteries that are scientific instead of religious. And with lady and gentleman scientists both. And they sort of cloister themselves off for different periods of time, like 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000 years, so the outside society is constantly changing while the monasteries more or less stay the same.

It also is about different philosophical/mathematical/scientific ideas that people in our world have thought of already, and explains them to you in an understandable way. I know this sounds annoying, but it isn't.

What I love about Neal Stephenson's writing:
--it makes you feel smart and teaches you things at the same time
--even though the story is very involved, you always know exactly where you are and what is happening to whom
--he is willing to spend a whole paragraph describing a vast collection of folding chairs and tables, just for the hell of it
--he's kind of a goof
--he can write a book that is 935 pages, and on page 500 or so you are already sad because it will eventually have to end.

What I don't love:
--he has this idea that only women can possibly understand interpersonal relationships, and men are clueless oafs. I don't believe this is true.
--a 935-page book is freaking HEAVY.
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LibraryThing member felius
Anathem is wonderful. It's almost an alternate history which asks the question "what if religion had moved out of the monasteries and science had stayed behind?". Except that it's not an alternate history but a parallel history, and one of the best fictional treatments of parallel universes ever written.

Deep with philosophical insight on the nature of reality and conciousness, Anathem recalled to my mind A Canticle for Leibowitz and Contact, but all with a very Stephenson flavour.

Despite the 900+ pages I don't think that this plodded at all, and found it to be quite a page turner.
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LibraryThing member kgodey
I've had several false starts with Anathem; I found the beginning pretty hard to get into. There is a lot of new terminology, and it seemed a bit dense. However, once I finally got going, I couldn't stop reading.

Anathem is set on the planet Arbre, in the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Concents are similar to monasteries, but are staffed by people called avout who are dedicated to research. We follow Fraa Erasmus, a young avout as he prepares to see the outside world for the first time in ten years. As this is happening, people around him have started acting mysterious, and he's a pretty curious fellow. I don't want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but he goes on a pretty epic journey, emotionally, philosophically and physically. The book is plotted tightly and has a very apt ending.

I'm not sure how much my academic background helped me understand this book – I was familiar with a lot of the concepts. The philosophical arguments (or "Dialog"), the rhetoric and the explorations of the nature of the universe/consciousness were pretty breathtaking.

The worldbuilding was extensive – we learned a lot about the history, geography and culture of Arbre, and how it differed across the world. I loved the detailed history of the various chapters and concents within the mathic world (the avouts), with sound philosophical backing. It was an extremely immersive experience to read about them. I much preferred the orderly world of Anathem's avout to the more gritty worlds portrayed in Neal Stephenson's other novels (Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash.)

The characters were well-rounded, and a lot of fun and the relationships between them extremely touching. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew Fraa Erasmus' friends almost as well as he did. It's always extremely satisfying when a book can balance a consistent and reasonable story with actual heart, and Anathem did a great job, especially considering it deals so much with ideas and debate. It would have been really easy for the book to come off as cold, academic and dry, but it never even comes close.

Originally posted on my blog.
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LibraryThing member EmreSevinc
This book, being in a class by itself, is not something I can easily recommend to everybody. If you have a good background in sciences, mathematics or engineering, as well as an insatiable curiosity for philosophy's fundamental problems, and then if you also have a good grasp of the history and current workings of Internet technology, well then this book will whet your appetite so much that you'll wish it never finishes.

But make no mistake, it is definitely not one of your run-of-the-mill summer reading pieces. After all, we are talking about a masterpiece that was reviewed in the famous and prestigious science journal Nature (see Jennifer Rohn's review entitled "Imprisoned by intelligence" in Nature 456, 446-447 (27 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456446a; Published online 26 November 2008), a publication that normally publishes original science articles and reviews of scientific books.

Apart from its very dense narrative, something that will make nerds feel at home, Anathem also doesn't forget to keep a line of energetic action to keep you breathing up-tempo. Moreover, in the middle of information-rich prose, Stephenson never fails to communicate the most intense emotions and fundamental aspects of being human.

If you feel ready to read a book written by one of the most curious authors of the 21. century, whose spectrum of interest and imagination is probably very much wider than many scientists, philosophers and futurists combined, then please make time for yourself and start reading Anathem slowly.
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LibraryThing member Cecrow
In Anathem, Stephenson transports us to the planet Arbre, not to indulge in aliens and space opera but as a means of freeing himself from Earth history. In this alternative human civilization it is men and women of science who go about as secluded monks. This reversal works as an exploration of the thin line between the roles of science and religion in society. It provides a similar feel to "The Glass Bead Game" with the world's scholars held apart from the rest of society, yet not entirely forbidden to interact. This is much lighter in tone, however. I think Fraa Erasmas might be Wade Watts from "Ready Player One" in another cosmi, they sound so much alike.

Stephenson presents no equivalent for Hesse's game, but he plays many games of his own. There is a lot of math and philosophy being tossed about, dumbed down just the right amount but often exploring some esoteric sidebars. More challenging is the literal glossary's worth of invented words. Most of these are mild variants of words we know that incorporate a slight mispelling: a warning that while their definitions are still technically the same, their connotations in this story are something other. A helpful appendix gathers them together, but I quickly adapted and rarely needed it.

A more welcome aid is the author's introduction that sets out the backstory's timeline. Seemingly half the novel is backstory and Arbre history, filled with analogues for real-world historical figures and events: Socrates and Plato, the fall of Byzantium, etc. But the meaning behind these figures and events, and how history has rolled out in their wake, also get their own unique twists. I never did entirely sort this all out, but it didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the story. To say anything at all about the plot is spoiler territory, but it provides the key requirement of bringing relevance to all the groundwork for Arbre that Stephenson makes you absorb. Even better, it has an ending that satisfies. If you can't find a copy of Cryptonomicon, this can be another good entry point to Stephenson's work.
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LibraryThing member AK_Doug
Fun world to ponder, with engaging characters and vivid action sequences.

The arbitrary new vocabulary is tough to get used to, and quite a few portions of the book delve too far into tangents. This is a good book that could have been an excellent 300 page book.
LibraryThing member psybre
The primary success, beauty and wonder of Anathem for me was not the delightful, youthful voice and experiences of Erasmus and his "math" (group), nor the detailed science in the fiction, nor the review of philosophical dialogs and theories I was familiar with, or even the introduction of ideas new to me (philosophical, scientific, cosmological or xenological) to mull through, but the lexicon and phrasing that allowed me to pick up the book at a new paragraph and get wrenched right back into the world and the story after a sentence or two. I feel larger for visiting the world of Anathem, mostly it seems, due to the size of Arbre and its various complementary "narratives" and "cosmi" being so immense that I was breathing in a universe larger than the one I am accustomed to inhale.
And I did inhale.
And so should you.
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LibraryThing member jonathon.hodge
Absolutely loved it! How could you not with quotes like this:
"Linguistics got me into this excellent mess - only physics will get me out." and "Our opponent has a starship crammed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor."

Any fan of Neal Stephenson will eat it up, as will any fan of smart lit with Philosophy, history, religion/theology, and mathematics in it. Enjoy… (more)
LibraryThing member sjanes
Fantastic book. Just fantastic. I'm going to try to write a review that's very low in spoilers, in that I'm not going to give away anything about how it ends; on the other hand I experienced a certain joy in entering this book with absolutely no foreknowledge of its contents. You might enjoy that, too.

The setting is a world called Arbre, similar to Earth in many ways; its people are human, even though its culture has gone in a different direction. In this world, there has been an enforced separation between science and technology, between theory and practice. (This is to keep technology from developing faster than culture can acclimate, though details are scarce there had been disasters far in the past that inspired this separation.)

The theors live in monastic communities, with their own system of governance independent from the outside world. The flow of information is highly restricted: some groups allow communication once a year, others once every thousand years. Little heed is paid to the rise and fall of politics and religions outside the walls.

Things begin to change drastically when an anomaly is spotted in the sky. Brilliant minds from around the world are brought together in protection of the planet. Adventure ensues.

But that's not the point of the book, really. The plot is filled out by hundreds of dialogues and thought experiments and wonderful big ideas. Everything is pseudonymous, but can be recognized as a treatment of the big ideas of Earth. (After all, truth is truth, no matter which universe you live in ... ) At no point does it come across as forced. The characters spend their lives studying their world with no tools but their own minds; the story offers a glimpse into that way of life.

And, astoundingly, there is an ending. Very few loose ends remain, except for of course one thing which is clearly necessary to be left unresolved.

I never once stopped enjoying myself while reading. I forced myself to take breaks, so that it wouldn't be gone too quickly. I think it'll take a bit of time and distance to determine if I liked it better than The Baroque Cycle, but it's certainly up there as possibly the best thing Stephenson's written.

Thank you, Early Reviews program
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LibraryThing member bobmcconnaughey
"Anathem" was an odd book to read. I'd started it several times and only got through the first 50-75 pages and then dropped it. But the last time, after getting through the (intentionally) very slow beginning, it very rapidly became thoroughly engrossing. It never became a "quick" book to read, but its length, (and very much unlike, in my case, the Baroque Cycle), FIT the book, as did the level of concentration needed to complete Anathem. A good friend, decades long reading partner who borrowed my copy had exactly the same experience - after a couple of false starts, he ended up thoroughly engrossed (except Mike LIKED the Baroque Cycle, which I thought could have neatly fit into 2 books, max. and still probably wouldn't have really enjoyed. I thought NS was throwing in extraneous information to show how much background research he'd done and how he'd gone past the need for editing (in his opinion only!!!!)). I need a programming editor to keep track of unmatched braces!~

But the multiple reveals that emerge over time in Anathem, the complexity of the interlocking social systems AND, more particularly, the care he took with developing the various characters, didn't feel like wasted words - they felt (mostly) necessary. In some ways I'd describe Anathem as the inverse of Snow Crash. Anathem IS a novel of ideas, but the ideas are embodied in the characters and, in this case, the wordiness, the telling as well as showing, fit the needs of the book and the societies he's carefully limned. Both Mike and I who've read everything NS has written (we became NS groupies as we're both geographers by training, as is NS) think it is the closest he's come to a "masterpiece." Previously I'd very much enjoyed Snowcrash and Cryptonomicron and thought that The Diamond Age had been his best - w/ the Baroque Trilogy serving as doorstops...No, i gave copies to our library and didn't buy the last one...but they COULD have been doorstops..

In another odd way, it reminded me of the city and the city by Mieville, which i also liked a good deal - not nearly as long (nor as grotesque as his earlier books - which i liked) in the degree of attention needed to follow an excellent, twisty story.
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LibraryThing member tronella
I think this is actually my new favourite Stephenson book! This is set in a world where, because of some kind of Terrible Events which occurred in the distant past, all mathematicians live in strange monastery-like cloisters ("concents") cut off from the general population and study theoretical maths and astronomoy, but are banned from studying things with real-world applications. It starts off feeling like a future or fantasy-world dystopia, describing the different rituals of the concent and the daily lives of the people who live there, but then due to outside events the main character ends up involved in something that affects the entire world, at which point the tone shifts to being more scifi. Every chapter begins with an excerpt from the dictionary of the mathematician's language, defining and giving historical context to some important referents. It took me quite a while to finish this, as the characters often engage in long mathematical or philosophical debates which are, however, quite plot-important, and so I had to make sure I wasn't skimming them. But I wouldn't call it a heavy read.… (more)
LibraryThing member adiasd
The best science fiction book I've read since Neuromancer. An amazing story mixing philosophy, mathematics, cognitive science and quantum physics in a very interesting plot. Also impressive is the author's monumental work to create a new world with its own history of science. To enjoy however, it is necessary to have some patience to go through the first 100 pages and then finally enter in the world of the author and become familiar with it. After that the book becomes really interesting and you can't stop reading. Particularly interesting are the dialogues about parallel universes and their relation to human consciousness. Other highlight is the parallel the author makes between religious life and academic life. Great book.… (more)



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