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Anathem – a new novel by Neal Stephenson November 26, 2008

Posted by ce9999 in Novels.
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A brief foray into an older medium: Books!

Last weekend, out of boredom, I stopped at a corporate book-vending unit (aka “bookstore”) for a quick look around. Among other things, I checked out the sci fi section. I still check this section every time I go there, even though the state of sci fi book publishing, at least in a corporate store like this, has gotten so sad that it’s hardly worth the effort anymore.

Surprisingly, I did see something of interest this time. Neal Stephenson had apparently published a new novel a couple of months ago, and only now was I first seeing it. Had it been that long since I’d stopped by? Or was it just that the store was lax about getting it in stock?

Either way, there it was. Anathem was the title. I picked up a copy. Hefty, about 900 pages. This didn’t surprise me, given some of Stephenson’s other work. I took a peek at the dustjacket blurb. As I read, my eyebrows began to rise a bit, then a bit more, and as I got closer to the end of the blurb I began to run out of forehead! There were lots of made-up words, just casually bandied about, and the fact that they were used in the dustjacket blurb was pretty unusual. Typically, publishers will attempt to make a blurb fairly generic, so as to avoid scaring off any potential readers. Here, though, they were putting all of this odd, made-up language on flagrant display. Why? I supposed that the novel itself consisted of some very hard-core worldbuilding, and the words were intended to tease potential readers.

I was suitably teased. I sat down on a bench and took a look inside.

The book began with a brief dictionary definition of the word “Anathem”, which made even less sense than the dustjacket blurb. I began to recall my first reading of Dune, where, for much of the story, I had to laboriously refer to the glossary in the back to figure out what was being talked about. By the time I was done, my paperback copy looked like it had been read three or four times! I took a peek at the back pages of Anathem to see if there was a glossary. There was some explanatory stuff at the end, quite a lot of it, in fact, but the end sections were also titled with strange, made-up terms. Clearly, the book was constructed in as immersive a fashion as the author could possibly devise. That could be a good thing, if it worked, or it could mean disaster. Or exasperating boredom.

I turned the page. There was a table of contents, which offered some clarity on what was going on at the end of the book. The appendices were quite helpfully labeled “appendices”—in plain, 21st century English—even though each individual appendix was strangely named. There was also a “note to the reader” right at the beginning. Oooo, good. I took a look at it. It was fairly short, explained some basic stuff about the setting, and offered some very minimal pronounciation tips. The majority of the “note” consisted of a timeline, summarizing the 6000 years leading up to the events in the story. Wait—6000 years of backstory?!?!? Oy. Stephenson really doesn’t do anything halfway, does he? :)

I flipped to the beginning of the first chapter. I must admit, I was having some pretty serious doubts by then. The idea of the book, and what I’d seen of it so far, reminded me of books I’d read by Gene Wolfe. I realize that a lot of people really enjoy Wolfe’s novels, and that some even consider him to be the best American writer currently alive, but I found myself frustrated while reading them. I eventually gave up on them entirely, in spite of being quite impressed at the level of worldbuilding detail. I was really torn, too—I think I finished four or five of them before finally throwing in the towel.

The first few pages of Anathem, though, didn’t strike me as frustrating at all. They were in Stephenson’s characteristic style, which is not at all like Wolfe’s, and even more surprising, I found it fairly easy to understand what was going on. Remember that old skill we were all supposed to learn in school, the ability to discern the meaning of a word through context? It’s totally essential to be able to utilize that skill while reading a book like this, but a big part of being able to use it rests on the question of how well the context defines the strange words. That is the writer’s responsibility. As a reader, if the context doesn’t tell you what you need to know, there isn’t a lot you can do about it. It seemed like Stephenson did a pretty good job—better than Frank Herbert did with Dune, actually, judging by the first few pages. I didn’t have to refer to the appendices at all to understand what was going on.

I forced myself to put the book down after about five or seven pages. I was starting to get drawn into it, and I didn’t want to spend $30.00 on a book that day. There’s a good chance I’ll grab a copy from the library, though, if they have it. They probably do.

(But first, I’ve decided to take another stab at Stephenson’s earlier, huger work, The Baroque Cycle. THIS time, I’m not going to allow myself to get sidetracked after only 200 pages. I’ve heard that things really get going in the second book, so perhaps the first book is something akin to a 900-page-long prologue? Hmmm. Why can’t he just get to the point? On the other hand, one of the things I really enjoyed about some of his other books were the interesting digressions. Some of the ones in The Diamond Age were especially enjoyable. So the idea is for me to just sit back, read, soak it all up, and trust that the author knows what he’s doing.

I’m also curious to puzzle out the Cryptonomicon connection. There is clearly a connection between the two works. Is the connection is simply incidental and gratuituous, or is it integral to the story? I’m really looking forward to finding out. And if I enjoy it enough, maybe I’ll end up buying a copy of this new book!)