three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
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A-AnathemNeal Stephenson has been writing hard-to-classify fiction for two decades, beginning with Zodiac and The Big U before moving on to Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and the voluminous Baroque Cycle, a trilogy that includes Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004).

The Story: According to the author’s prologue, Anathem is "a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth’s past and present." Far in the future on the planet Arbre, Erasmus, the narrator, is a 19-year-old "avout" and a member of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a monastery of sorts where scientists and philosophers are shut off from the rest of the "saecular" world. The tale unfolds around the once-a-decade celebration of Apert, a time when the two groups mingle. As Erasmus and his colleagues prepare to venture into the Extramuros outside their sheltered existence, their peaceful lives are about to be disrupted.
Morrow. 960 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0061474096

Chicago Sun-Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Anathem is chock-full of great ideas, and the details matter. … Because of the internal strength of Stephenson’s storytelling, Anathem achieves transcendence of traditional commercial boundaries that once were meant merely to describe, but have since evolved into an unimaginative system that defines literature far too narrowly." M. E. Collins

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This may not sound like the stuff of compelling fiction, and the fact that the characters in Anathem occasionally engage in Socratic-style dialogues … might scare some readers off. … [But] Stephenson has done something remarkable in this novel, which is to make the resolution of a venerable philosophical debate essential to the unfolding of his story." Laura Miller

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Anathem is an absorbing book and features plenty of action: a first kiss, a volcanic eruption, a spacewalk and several Hong Kong cinema-like fight scenes. … Anathem’s appended lectures and proofs round out this semblance of a world running sometimes in parallel to our own, but given to fascinating, logically derived, yet wholly unexpected departures." Nisi Shawl

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"One of Mr. Stephenson’s best skills—as he has showed in Quicksilver, Cryptonomicom and other novels—is his ability to present a puzzle, piece by piece, in such a way that the reader can gradually arrive at a solution along with the book’s narrator. He is science fiction’s Agatha Christie, placing a shocking revelation in full view but revealing it one small clue at a time." Paul Boutin

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"For all its heft and intellectual bluster, the book’s an engaging read: think The Name of the Rose crossed with Dune; Poul Anderson’s sci-fi classic The High Crusade also comes to mind. Stephenson is usually adept at dropping just enough incident and humor into things to keep one’s eyes and brain from glazing over from endless discussions of the Hylaen Theoric World or Directed Acyclic Graphs, and with enough attention, genuinely fascinating brain food emerges." Marc Mohan

Washington Post 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[Anathem] reminds me of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago—much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull. … For the most part, Stephenson’s prose lacks any particular grace or beauty (at least to my ear), and while he can be mildly satirical at times, these precious moments are few." Michael Dirda

Critical Summary

Stephenson has never been an easy writer to pin down, and he has a reputation for not always wearing his erudition lightly. Particularly in his later books—and that now includes Anathem—readers are vetted at the door before being invited into the author’s labyrinthine worlds. The early books were held up alongside the work of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and other cyberpunk gods, though in the last decade Stephenson has carved a niche as one of the most ambitious writers working today in any genre. Anathem is intellectually rigorous and exceedingly complex, even to the point, as the Washington Post avows, of being "grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull." Others complained of too much abstraction. Stephenson’s fans are legion, however, and many will add Anathem to their list of must-read doorstops.