Neal Stephenson is the only author I’m a fanboy over, and I was drooling over this one. It didn’t quite live up to Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle, but I don’t think it’s mathematically possible for any book to do so.
The first thing that drives one nuts about Anathem are the new words. There’s a reason for it all, kinda, but I felt like I was in my third semester of German all over again trying to read the first 100 pages. Literally every sentence has a word Stephenson has made up, and even if they attempt to evoke the sense of the word they represent, it’s arduous. This really slows down the pace of getting in to things. Which takes a long time anyhow. Fully the first 400 pages of the book have a lot more about getting you in the mood of the world than a story happening. It’s not bad, exactly, but I wanted more payoff. The Baroque Cycle took just as long to get started, but there were more than 2000 pages waiting for me when I did. Here, another 400. And believe me that I read those 400 in one go once I was into it.
It’s still great, even with a slow intro. I’m not going to get into detail here about deep emotional content or whatever, but Stephenson’s hilarious when he wants to be, skips parts when it’s correct, and doesn’t cut too many corners when he’s trying to explain a concept. Even when there are long periods of boring exposition, it’s usually got a side plot that’s a bit sillier than usual to keep the interest level up. The ‘talking head’ periods of book were very noticeable in this one, but I think that has a lot to do with the style, a first-person narrative, which isn’t what Stephenson has done in the best of his other books and robs him of a chance to hop between multiple plots when one gets boring. That plot-hopping is one of his strengths and it was missed here.
As for the sci-fi bits, it’s well done. Stephenson’s stuff always has just one, fairly small bit of non-reality mixed in, and the whole world comes out of that, including cultures, histories, and yes, aggravating pseudo-languages. This one’s no exception, and it’s quite a cool story once you get into it. It kept me guessing up until the final climactic bits, at which point I didn’t really care about the mysteriousness of it all and was just enjoying myself.
It’s worth commenting that, with very rare exceptions, I much prefer books that end, as this one clearly does. Too much sci fi focuses far too much on the world and not the characters in it, and my personal feeling of payback for 400 pages invested is no excuse to mess up a story. It’s a cool world Stephenson’s come up with, and one can easily imagine a book or three set in it (in particular, in it’s past), and I would love to see some good writing that followed the Geometers, or folks like them. But just because I think they would be cool does not mean they should be written. Just because the Foundation was a cool idea does not mean it should have turned in to 10 books; it was tired after 1 and a half. Anathem is good because the story is good and the characters are interesting, and world is interesting because the characters live at interesting intersections within it. It’s best to leave the world behind while it’s still cool.