Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

i-41f28e3c4d5969a5865b16e71f0b057c-Anathem.pngNeal 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.

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Comments

  1. #1 hat_eater
    April 20, 2009

    Thanks for sharing! Now I know I’m not gonna buy Anathema. While I agree with your assessment of Cryptonomicon I find the concept of multiple universes used in such way as you described above even more of a turnoff than you for exactly the same reason: I need to empathize with someone in the story to find it interesting.
    PS Your antispam moderation has failed apparently ;)

  2. #2 Brandon
    April 20, 2009

    Anathem *

    Read it.

  3. #3 Jonathan Lubin
    April 20, 2009

    Well, I stayed away from Cryptonomicon ’cause I find the whole subject of codes really good for making me sleepy. But I devoured Anathem, thought it was fabulous. I am in mathematics, after all. So I went back to Cryptonomicon, got about halfway in, and just couldn’t finish it.

  4. #4 CCBC
    April 21, 2009

    ” 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.”
    Actually, it is closer to what fantasists like Edgar Rice Burroughs did with characters like John Carter. Remember? John Carter got whacked on the head, woke up in Mars.
    I liked Cryptonomicon. I thought the historical novels a great effort. Stephenson was trying to describe the great world turning toward science. (I would call this a Kuhn paradigm shift except I’ve never read Kuhn and my notion of a paradigm shift is consequently reduced to what may well be a popular misconception. But I have studied history and something happened then — call it scientific revolution or New Learning or what have you. Still, the forces that set up Cryptonomicon began in the 17th Century. Which is what Stephenson is writing about.)

  5. #5 Martin R
    April 21, 2009

    At least Burroughs only appears to write about one multiversal instance of John Carter.

  6. #6 Akhôrahil
    April 21, 2009

    While I agree that Anathem isn’t one of Stephenson’s greater works, I’m kinda surprised that you rank Cryptonomicon that low. For me, it would probably qualify as his very best book (even though it’s aged weirdly, being a book written during the dotcom boom).

  7. #7 Martin R
    April 21, 2009

    Cryptonomicon is a boy book. Here for once Stephenson had no strong female lead. I missed her.

  8. #8 paddy
    April 21, 2009

    What Neal Stephenson needs is an editor – I slogged my way through 400 pages of “Quicksilver” before realising that nothing was going to happen. Complete waste of time. If you can’t grip the reader by the balls in the first 50 pages, then forget about it.

  9. #9 Martin R
    April 21, 2009

    Yeah, after reading it I felt no need to pick up the next book in the series.

  10. #10 Mof
    April 22, 2009

    Found Cryptonomicon to be a bad book, and if it is really one of his best, then I think there will be no more Stephenson for me.

    I am in concurrence with paddy. Stephenson needs an editor.

  11. #11 Renee
    April 23, 2009

    I don’t know, I’ve found that Stephenson really rewards multiple readings.

    I read Anathem twice and I loved it both times, but the second time I read it I definitely appreciated it more – I thought it dragged a lot in the first half of the third part, the first time, but it turns out it was merely because I was so impatient to get to the climax. A second read-through really gave me a chance to better appreciate and savour the concepts. (However, I’ve actually physically worn out my copy of Heinlein’s Number of the Beast so perhaps I am multiverse-biased…)

    Important to note also that Anathem was his first book since Zodiac that was first-person narrative and followed a story linearly in time.

    I’m surprised about the assessment of Cryptonomicon. I loved the origin story of crypto woven in with the origin story of the ‘net, and thought the pacing was fantastic and the characterizations were lovely. But again I have a bias: I’m a huge nerd. I run Linux. I’ve programmed in Perl. So I think I was genetically predisposed to adore the book.

    The Baroque Cycle bored me to tears. There were a few good moments, certainly, but all of the Waterhouse stuff was blah, blah, blah. With Cryptonomicon and the Diamond Age, Stephenson brought multiple seemingly dissimilar stories together in a united concept; in the BS, he tried to do this again and failed epically. It was just too scattered, too all over the place, AND its ending was weak.

    Anathem found a thing, and then explored it in multiple ways, rather than finding multiple things and exploring them in the same way… I thought it was a nice surprise. And I also liked the ambiguity of Anathem’s ending, to be honest, because I thought it put a good spin on the typical boy-gets-frozen-then-gets-girl sci-fi ending.

  12. #12 Mike Olson
    April 28, 2009

    I read, “The Big U,” in 1984. Something about it, just kind of haunted me. I graduated college, became a lab tech in the navy and a single parent. I tried to find Stephenson but couldn’t. I missed the whole “Snow Crash,” bit and it wasn’t until years later I re-discovered him and read his novels. I feel that in “Anathem” he has most fully developed his world view. I know he doesn’t care for, “The Big U,” but he has a really interesting voice regarding, science, art and society that was evident even in that first work. I guess I’d say my favorites are Zodiac, Snow Crash and Anathem. The Big U as well, but mostly for sentimental reasons.

  13. #13 David
    May 7, 2009

    You sort of missed the point about the whole multiple dimensions thing. The ability of the thousander (forgot his name) to jump between universes and remember what has happened (one mind in many brains) allowed them to get to the happy ending, even though he was dead in the final reality. Sort of Groundhog day in space.
    I have to say that I prefered his previous 4 books to this one, so that puts me in the minority here.

  14. #14 Martin R
    May 7, 2009

    Regardless of the Thousander’s abilities, we’re left not knowing if the book ends in the same universe as it started in.

  15. #15 David
    May 7, 2009

    Since Jad is dead it must be a different universe. The point is that he can do it. The whole end of the book is an exploration of what that would be like if it was possible.

    Perhaps it is Stephensons answer to the people who don’t like his endings…Maybe we are all just in the wrong universe!

  16. #16 David
    May 13, 2009

    Martin, I take it all back, you are right. I just saw Star Trek.

  17. #17 Michael
    May 30, 2009

    The multiple universe bit was crucial for advancing the storyline (and, as one commenter pointed out, necessary for the ending) it really was only a small part of the book (though there were clues throughout so it should not have come as any surprise).

  18. #18 Beverley Eyre
    August 1, 2009

    I thought Anathem was by far the best of Stephenson’s books. I agree with 13 the reviewer didn’t grok the many-worlds aspect of the plot. One of the things about Anathem that might be a barrier to people like the reviewer is that it helps to be very knowledgeable in the exact same areas that Stephenson used as the context for his book. For example the ‘monastery’ the avout live in resembles Plato’s Academy (with Socrates in residence too), so it helps to have read Plato. It also helps to be familiar with quantum mechanics and some mathematics. Also, I’m not really sure what the reviewer means by the ‘abandonment of the original versions of the characters’. Does he mean that characters should never change in response to the events of the book? Surely not. Then what?

    Anyway, I highly recommend this book. It’s by far Stephenson’s best and shows his growth as both a writer and a thinker.

  19. #19 Martin R
    August 2, 2009

    I’m not really sure what the reviewer means by the ‘abandonment of the original versions of the characters’.

    Let’s say I tell you the story of Cinderella. Halfway through I introduce a storyline that takes place in a parallel reality and involves a parallel version of the girl, Cinderella-b. At the end of my story, you cannot know whether I have actually finished my tale about Cinderella-a or if the girl who gets the prince is in fact Cinderella-b, and the original girl has been left in an indeterminate untold state. That is what Neal Stephenson does in Anathem.

  20. #20 Teryk M
    October 15, 2009

    Just finished reading the book and really enjoyed it. I really liked Cryptonomicon and read the entire Baroque Cycle so I suppose no surprise there.

    With respect to Many Worlds Theory devaluing the narrative, I didn’t feel that way at all. In my reading of it the book followed along as Fraa Jad explored the local “hemn space” looking for a “world line” with the most satisfactory result. He then left the characters, and the reader, in that narrative.

    It was a lot better that what I thought Stephenson was going to when the book first jumped narratives. At first I thought he was going to provide an array of unique endings. Sort of a “choose your own ending” snub to critics who state he can’t write a decent one.