Review of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

Review of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

anathemIt is really not correct to describe Anathem as science fiction. It is actually science fantasy in its purest form, a fantasy about science that blatantly panders to almost every cherished assumption, heartfelt belief, and wishful desire possessed by those who make a literal fetish of science.

In Anathem, Stephenson presents a world in which Science and Philosophy dwell apart from the rest of the world, secure in elite monkish conclaves and protected, for the most part, from the vile and vulgar mysteries of the common herd who occupy themselves with such distasteful pastimes as sports, television, politics, and religion. The scientific elite and the rest of the world have essentially realized that their relationship is no longer symbiotic and have managed to arrange for a reasonably amicable breakup in which the science-monks get the nuclear power plants and the unwanted smart kids in return for leaving the rest of the world free to go its own way and live their lives without finger-waving lectures from the science monks about how illogical their behavior is, and more importantly, without the risk of the science monks eradicating all life on the planet.

Anathem is, without question, a brilliant book. Stephenson achieves the near impossible in concocting a genuinely intellectual thriller that can be compared, in some cases even favorably, with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It works on every level, and I would go so far to argue that it firmly establishes Stephenson as the greatest living writer in the SF/F genre. It is not an easy read, as Stephenson indulges himself in a fair amount of quasi-Joycean neologisms, but once the reader becomes accustomed to them, the catalog of alternate terms add significantly to the verisimilitude of the setting and the ultimate enjoyability of the novel. In addition to the literary fireworks, Stephenson does an admirable job with the characters, despite the degree of difficulty presented by the alien setting. On the intellectual level, the book explores everything from Platonic philosophy to the latest quantum physics, and more impressively, does so by weaving the concepts deeply into the plot. And then, just as one is fully absorbed into what appears to be a literary novel, Stephenson reveals that the entire edifice is nothing more than the foundation of an excellent action novel with a dash of mystery. It is a stupendous achievement and not only well-merited the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and I find it to be bordering on the inexplicable that it did not win the Hugo and Nebula awards as well.

Style: 5 of 5. Stephenson is not the most naturally gifted of writers and his strengths tend to lie in the area of ideas rather than pure textual artistry. However, his clever development of a new vocabulary, while far less ambitious and complex than Joyce, definitely adds to the otherwise workmanlike style and raises it to the highest level in my estimation.

Story: 5 of 5. Deep, engrossing, and almost totally unpredictable, it was a joy to read and promises to be nearly as entertaining to re-read. The pace begins slowly, but gradually picks up and eventually, unbelievably, becomes tense and almost frenetic. It does bog down in one particular part, but fortunately the slowdown is relatively brief and serves as somewhat of a useful break to the reader before the plot picks up again.

Characters: 4 of 5. These were very, very good, much better than anyone would ever expect in the context. Stephenson also wisely avoids the common trap of the modern irreligious writer by refusing, for the most part, to make any of the significant characters religious; his relatively stock portrayal of the two religious characters is cardboard enough to demonstrate the wisdom of this decision. The protagonist, Erasmus, is likable throughout and his attachment to his friends in the Concent of Saunt Edhar is both deep and credible. And even if the relationship between Erasmus and Ala is the conventional genre one of the gamma nerd sans Game with sexually dominant geek chick, in this particular context it makes absolutely perfect sense.

Originality: 5 of 5. This is one of the most original and ambitious books published in the last 30 years. I particularly liked how Stephenson recognizes the limits of the scientific wish fulfillment aspect of the novel, as unlike most of his fellow science fetishists, he recognizes that most people who do not belong to the scientific elite not only have no desire to belong to it, but absolutely reject the notion that the elite has any right to rule over them by virtue of their supposedly superior intelligence or technocratic knowledge. In addition to his many other achievements, Stephenson actually manages to place a subversive corrective on the fantasy even as he indulges it. Unlike his publisher, he realizes that superstition and ignorance are not the only reasons to harbor distrust for science and its practitioners.

Overall: 10 of 10. Anathem isn’t perfect, but it is about as close to perfection as the SF/F genre has ever reached. As an intellectual novel, as an action novel, as a sci-fi novel, as a literary exercise, and as science fetish wish fulfillment, it is practically unmatched. If I had not read it, I would have doubted that a book like this could have been written and be so uniformly enjoyable on so many levels. I grade very harshly and I don’t think I have given out more than ten 10-ratings in 19 years of reviewing books and computer games. But there can be no question that Anathem merits it.

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Excellent review.

I might have given it 9.5 out of 10 (it was a bit dry at parts, and I didn’t think that the characters were quite as good as you did), but we are in 100% agreement that Anathem is a great novel.

It didn’t get 1/4 of the attention it should have.



I followed the link from your VD blog to read your full review. I read Anathem two years ago, and posted my comments on another site at the time.

April 5, 2009

Just finished Anathem, by Neal Stephenson.

I think that means that I’m done with Stephenson’s whole catalog. Pity, as he’s a really good writer, but he’s starting to exhibit the wandering tendency that I’ve observed in other popular writers. That is, he gets off the plot every now and then and throws in irrelevant word-painting.

Maybe all authors do that, but yield to editor’s demands when they’re unknowns. Then when they get some clout in the market place, they can override the editors and their work becomes unreadable.

“Irrelevant word-painting” aside, this story was well written and absorbing until he got into a fantastically improbable series of events that involved a dozen or so individuals launching separately into low-earth-orbit in spacesuits with what amounted to large JATO bottles attached to a framework that they were strapped into. Once they got to orbit, they rendezvoused at a large balloon that was sent up in it’s own rocket, assembled a inertial device with a long tether arrangement that served to swing them up to match orbits with a starship that was 14k miles up.

At this point, I was rolling my eyes and wondering why he went to so much trouble.

But the good guys came through in the end, the hero got the girl, and all the plot lines were tied up except for some mystic woo involving time lines and “alternate narratives”.

All things considered, I liked his “Baroque Cycle” trilogy better.

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