The problem with trying to review Anathem is that to give the details of exactly why it is so great would give away half the fun of reading it. I’ve never read a Neal Stephenson book I didn’t like, but there are definitely areas where he is weak – endings, for example, also resisting the urge to cram all of his copious research into a book wherever he can, and while I like the parts where he spends four pages describing, eg, the removal of Randy Waterhouse’s wisdom teeth, I can see it’s not going to work for everyone. The good news is that Anathem is a distinct improvement over his past works in that it has a plot, an ending, and tells a self-contained story in only 900 pages, which compared to the Baroque Cycle seems positively restrained.
The first three hundred pages or so are an intense piece of world-building and scene-setting. This is not Earth, but it’s something like it, and Stephenson dumps you straight into this world a few steps removed from our own, with just enough resemblance to our language for you to almost understand. I spent the first fifty pages flicking back and forth to the extensive glossary, but when it starts to fall into place it’s worth the effort.
The “religious” communities of this world are not based on belief in a higher power, but belief in logic, and the mathematical laws of the universe. (Holding what we would term religious belief is optional, and as much a matter for debate as any other part of the world.) The monks and nuns (“fraas” and “suurs”, as they are named in this world) live in their monasteries and convents (or “maths” and “concents”), discussing and debating for years, and stepping out into the secular world once every decade, hundred years, or thousand years to mingle with the people outside. It’s a very convincing, detailed world, all told in the first person, and when the outside world starts to encroach upon the sheltered, unchanging world of the concents you feel for the bewildered monks having to deal with the changes it brings. The middle part of the book is a little slower, although it does introduce Fraa Jad, probably my favourite character because of his habit of dropping bombshells into the conversation as though nothing has happened, while being completely aware that’s what he’s doing.
The dialogues between the monks take up large parts of the book, and here’s where the brilliance lies – they allow Stephenson to digress, tell stories, explore physics and the universe and philosophy, but rather than being interesting sections which don’t advance the plot, they are an absolutely integral part of it, and every time I felt my interesting in the abstract nature of the dialogues flagging they tied them right back into the plot.
If there was an area that disappointed, it was that in a book filled with many good characters, the main love interest is underdeveloped compared to almost everyone else, and the romance comes right out of nowhere and never really convinces. It’s a necessary part of the development of our protagonist from innocent, cloistered youth to the more worldly-wise figure he is at the end, and with the first person perspective it’s probably intentional that he doesn’t spot her attraction to him until it’s right in front of him, but even afterwards she doesn’t get developed as much as many of the other characters. While I appreciate the proper ending to the book, it’s almost too sudden a finish, and after nine hundred pages of buildup I could have stood to have a few more pages of epilogue.
Anathem is probably not going to win over anyone who didn’t like Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon, but it is a return to proper SF, and a return to form after the slight disappointment that was the Baroque Cycle. It’s funny, filled with characters you feel for and root for, and a hymn to the wonders of a world where logic is the key belief, without being blind to the problems and failures that would ensue. There’s no doubt that Stephenson thinks it would be a better world than ours.