Neal Stephenson’s 90s science fiction novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are unforgettable, but his 2003-2004 suite of historical novels failed to pull me in. So when I learned that his 2008 effort Anathem is a science fiction story, I was very happy.
This is a 900-page brick of a book, told in the first person by a young man wise beyond his years. The first third of the book is Harry Potter meets Hesse’s Glass Bead Game: we are in a co-ed convent where science monks do science-monkish things inside high walls that cut them off from the general public. Then we leave the convent and have 300 pages of adventures that drag a little. Finally we get 300 pages of adventures interspersed with long philosophical discussions. I read it all quite avidly.
One thing about the story that I have a big problem with is that Stephenson, assuming that the Multiple Worlds interpretation of quantum dynamics is correct, apparently allows for travel between parallel universes. This happens mainly in the form of somebody becoming unconscious and waking up in a parallel reality. Or is the guy who wakes up in fact just a parallel version of the first one? Has Stephenson abandoned the original guy? From a literary point of view, this is identical to some post-modernist or surrealist techniques where the narrative is allowed to break down into several versions of what might happen. This, in my opinion, acts as a Verfremdungseffekt: very bad if you want your readers to keep caring about what happens in your fictional world.
If an important character dies or fails his quest in the universe where most of your novel takes place, then it is no consolation to the reader if you then show them being alive or succeeding in some alternate reality. Because of course the reader knows that you can make up a story with a happy ending, quantum physics or no quantum physics. It just leads to a commodification of the characters they have cared about for hundreds of pages. Why would anyone take the time to follow Frodo all the way to Mount Doom if they felt that the universe he started his quest in had no priority over twenty alternative ones where he variously died halfway, succeeded in destroying the One Ring or wandered off instead to become a pipe-weed farmer in Far Harad? I, for one, like fiction that makes sure that I care a great deal about what happens. That’s after all what “page-turner” means.
Now, to anyone who knows Stephenson’s previous work, the big question is “Has he given us a satisfying ending this time?”. (This is an notorious flaw in much of his best work.) To my mind, Anathem’s ending is OK, pretty traditional, even to the extent that Stephenson has some of his characters commenting on it. And though the book is as usual full of really, really neat ideas and humorous one-liners, it is IMHO marred by its length and the apparent abandonment of original versions of characters. So I place the book along with Cryptonomicon among Stephenson’s mid-quality work. Now, Cryptonomicon was a best-seller, so I guess most readers will find that to be a great recommendation.