Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Last week I finished reading Neal Stephenson's new 900 word page novel, Anathem.  I generally prefer short novels but I made an exception here because of the book's ambitious scope – the novel includes an invented vocabulary, echoing Ridley Walker, and is inspired by the Clock of the Long Now.

I found the book literally heavy and slow to start, but ultimately rewarding although I'm convinced it could have shed 300 pages.  Interestingly, some things that appear to be bad writing in the early part of the book are later revealed as subtle foreshadowing (it's hard to go into much detail without ruining the effect of the second half of the book).

I think Anathem was interesting, describing a complex world and playing some interesting games with science and philosophy.   But I'm not convinced it worked as a novel.  The world building and philosophical dialogues killed the story's flow, despite being fascinating.  The characterisation was scant, and the adventure-story style sections seemed out of place.

Nearing the end of the book I found myself thinking it would have worked better as a computer game or website.  The different type of content would have fitted together more naturally.  You could explore the areas that interest you, and even have more detail than the book allowed (I suspect Stephenson has piles of notes that wouldn't fit into Anathem as a novel, in addition to the audio material that is available separately).  It's interesting to see how Anathem failed as a novel – it simply didn't fit the medium. 

(Michael Dirda's review of Anathem is well worth reading.  I don't think I'll be keeping my copy of Anathem so if anyone from Brighton wants my copy leave me a comment).

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4 thoughts on “Anathem by Neal Stephenson”

  1. Reading the reviews of this is almost as intriguing as what I imagine reading the book is like. Still umming and ahhing about picking it up though – twitter me with what you’d like in return for the copy and I might launch into it 🙂

  2. While I enjoyed Anathem it’s not made it to my permanent bookshelves. I can see myself picking up a stray copy to flick through in a few years time, but there’s no sense keeping it around until then. And if I’m giving Anathem away I’d rather give it to someone who might share their response to the book with me. So – you’re welcome to the book in return for a blog post. 🙂 Email me where your office is and I can drop it off when I’m in town.

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