Book Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Have you ever been at a party and two drunk and/or stoned guys are sitting in the corner discussing the meaning of life or the nature of existence?  Would you have any interest in reading a transcript of that conversation?  I didn’t think so.  Now imagine that the two guys are Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, and the discussion is about the nature of pan-dimensional existence.  Okay so now you’re more interested in the transcript, right?  The only problem is that now you can’t understand a word of it.  That’s kind of what reading Anathem is like.

I wanted to like it, I really did, but to be honest it takes up twice the space it ought to.  There’s little enough actual plot in this novel that I could retell it in less space than this review takes, but the narrative is so tangled up in its own contemplative navel-gazing that I had to continuously stop myself from yelling “Get to the friggin’ point, would you?”  At the same time, standard plot elements and devices are given only the most cursory treatment. Should the main character have a love interest?  No, we’ll just let him decide “I think I like Ala” before yanking her away so that he can spend the rest of the novel pining over a girl that he had previously never even gave a second thought to, nor made it to second base with.

My main irritation with Anathem is the author’s heavy-handed use of invented language to immerse the reader in the world in which the non-action takes place.  Plenty of authors have used invented language to gently remind the reader that they are no longer in Kansas, but Anathem spent so much time positively pummeling me with its Oz-club that it became a distraction.  It’s okay to make up a few new names and/or terms here and there, but when the reader spends most of the novel saying “Now what the hell was a ‘mobe’ again?” you’ve overdone it.

Fortunately the made up language becomes more sparse throughout the middle of the story but at the same time, that’s when everything stops happening, and it degenerates into the literary equivalent of a particularly uneventful road-movie.  It’s like the whole Tom Bombadil section of Lord Of The Rings, but ten times as long.  Chapter after chapter of absolutely nothing of any interest happening, but described in excruciating detail.  I would have given up on it, but by this point finishing the novel had become personal, although I found myself "fast-forwarding” through some of the dinner conversation “messals” in which page after page is spent discussing many different wordings and explanations for what could easily have been explained just once, and more succinctly.

I’ll always appreciate Neal Stephenson for writing Snow Crash and In The Beginning… Was The Command Line, but loyalty only stretches so far, and mine is now soap-bubble-thin.  The ideas were fascinating, but so much time was spent on philosophical dead-ends that the whole thing cries out for editing.  Did I need to witness a conversation about the most mathematically pure way to divide a cake into eight equal pieces?  No, I really didn’t.  (To be fair, this conversation was an appendix, but you can’t just drop footnotes and not expect me to read them.)  The intricacies of how the concent’s clock is wound, and how it works the gates genuinely added to the sense of life at Saunt Edhar’s, but plenty of other orthogonal offshoots could have been left by the wayside, resulting in a tighter, more focused work.

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