Reading Challenge #85: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Part of the reason I’ve been reading other books is because I have read Anathem before, and I was dreading this re-read. Not because it is bad, but because it is long and pretty dense. You know you’re going to be in for a treat of a read when a novel opens with definitions from a fictional dictionary. In fact the whole book is like this, peppered with strange words and dictionary definitions and just-different-enough-to-be-annoying turns of phrase. Yes, there is a reason for it, but it made my head hurt. There are some interesting philosophical ideas and social commentary in this book, but you have to excavate them from the constructed language and tumble them around in your brain for a while for them to clean up enough to be understood. I’m going to try to spare you from this as much as I can in my descriptions.

The story is told by Erasmus (Raz), who is a sort of monk who lives in a monastery for people who want to be cut off from the rest of the world and just think about things. They’re not religious per se, rather they focus on understanding things through study and debate. Different subsets avoid contact with the outside world for anywhere from 1 year to 1000 years at a time. Erasmus’ particular home is only open to the rest of the world for 10 days once every 10 years.

Around the time of one of these opening events, one of Raz’s teachers notes something unusual in the sky. The monastic authorities block off all use of the telescope facilities for a few weeks. It’s obvious something strange is happening but the powers that be want to keep them from investigating it. The teacher conspires to use forbidden outside technology to keep up his study, and soon he is expelled from the order for it.

This book is so long it is hard to sum up the whole plot succinctly, but after the teacher is expelled suddenly lots of the monks start getting called to leave the monastery to solve the mystery of the unusual thing in the sky, which is an alien spacecraft. Raz undertakes a long journey with many high and low points including nearly dying a few times. He finds his old teacher out in the world, only to lose him again. He gets up close and personal with an alien ship and some aliens. Only they’re not aliens, they’re from alternate universes.

In a normal book this process might be exciting and action-packed. Here there are action sequences, but the bulk of the words are dedicated to long thought exercises and philosophy lessons. The concept of the multiverse is an interesting one and the ideas the author puts forward are fun to think about. My main issue is that for large chunks of the book he is lecturing, through philosophical dialog between these monks, rather than showing through any kind of action.

The plot pace picks up considerably in the last quarter or so of the book. It was right about the time when I was thinking “I must have stopped reading partway through when I originally bought this novel a few years ago.” I couldn’t remember any of it past the point where the monks left their monastery. Then suddenly when they were drifting through space trying to board a spacecraft from an alternate universe I started remembering things again. I guess my brain just blanked out all the philosophical dialog in-between.

This novel gets chalked up in the column reserved for “I understand why people voted for it, but it is definitely not for me.” It raises some interesting philosophical questions. It has an interesting story idea. It was just too much to dig through all of the slow, boring, lecturing, jargony bits to get to the good stuff. I suspect I would really enjoy this novel if it was about 400 pages shorter and written in plain english.

TL;DR: Alternate-reality monks talk about philosophy a lot and eventually save the world. Cool idea but boring execution.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3/5 stars

Verdict: Neat idea, interesting story beats, but waaaay too much lecturing. Would only recommend if you’re already a Stephenson fan.

Next up: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart


Reading Challenge #85: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

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