I finished Neal Stephenson’s Anathem last night. It was a pretty incredible book – I enjoyed it, and it covered tons of physics AND philosophy AND it was well-written and well-composited. I would definitely recommend it to any fan of speculative fiction, or of thinking about things. That being said, there were some oddities about the book that I wanted to write down.
One thing I found quite strange about the book was the enormous vocabulary he introduces to immerse you. In a sense, this subtly different language is part of his theme and message, so I don’t want to spoil it, but it made the first 100 pages or so pretty sloggy. Once I was into it, though, I really appreciated the little differences between “our” language and the language of the book. It’s interesting, thinking about it now with the book behind me: by introducing a completely separate but intrinsically linked language that the characters use and think with, I achieved a more complete projection into their (especially the first-person narrator’s) position(s)… and so when the plot took various turns, I was much more invested. Very clever, Stephenson… very clever.
Another thing that was odd about Anathem was the handling of science and religion simultaneously. Most works of speculative fiction just fiat past this hurdle (“here are the G/god(s)”, or totally sidestep it and ignore it), but Anathem was up front about right away showing the in-world dichotomy amongst the learned who believed in some higher ideals, and the ones who believed in what they could see and measure. I guess I’m a bit biased here, since his take on it is so in line with my though patterns (being/trained as a scientist), but I really liked this more concrete (if fictional) analysis of what it means to have faith – whether your faith is in a higher being, a higher plane of existence, or something else equivalent (like the Hylaean Theoric World of the book, where ideal triangles live).
Overall, I give the book a solid A. The only reason it’s not an A+ is because the plot leaves a ton of interesting stuff uncovered, so I wanted more books to explore it. I guess part of the book’s themes is understanding the point at which to cut loose from scholarly investigation, though, so I won’t fault it too badly.