February 17, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

What a ride Anathem is! In this novel, Stephenson has created a work that is epic...grandiose...LONG. Clocking in at over 900 pages, Stephenson has once again done an admirable job of maintaining a complex storyline, creating a new world, and bringing diverse characters to life.

But all was not rosy with this book. I'm a fan of long novels; they don't scare me off, but this wasn't just long, it was bloated. While the core of the story was incredibly interesting and did manage to draw me though the book, there were far too many sections that made me want to cry from boredom.

It's hard to condense the storyline into a reasonably small blurb, but I'll try to give you a flavor for the book. On the Earth-like planet of Arbre, Erasmus is a "fraa", a type of monk-like character who lives in a "concent". Concents are similar to monasteries, except the men and women who live there focus their lives on philosophy, physics, math, and learning in general rather than religion. The members of the concents remain shut off from the rest of civilization for long periods of time. The novel opens shortly before the gates of the concent open and Erasmus and his friends are free to interact with outside members of the world for the first time in ten years.

Strange things start to happen, and eventually Erasmus and his friends are forced on a journey that takes them out of the comfort of their concent to assess a danger posed to the entire planet.

Stephenson really excels at world-building, and his skills shine here. Arbre, the world in the novel, felt very really to me. He covered thousands of years of world history, and created a large nember of new words, requiring their own glossary.

However, his strength is also his weakness: the book became bloated in describing things, or getting caught up in long philosophical or physics-based conversations between characters. There are sections that are far too long where nothing really happens. For example, the book starts out with a description of a clock. It's a big clock. It takes a lot of people to wind it. It's central to life at the concent. I just told you the main points. If you read the book, the first EIGHTY pages are devoted to this clock. I'm not kidding. The book starts slow and while I really got a good feel for the clock, I could have done with some rather extensive edits to get to some action more quickly. Other parts of the novel suffered the same problem, where the action was slowed so dramatically for explanations that in my opinion were far too long (and too boring!)

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and really did love the main storyline. But I felt like it was too much of a slog to get through it, so I'd be hard-pressed to recommend this book to anyone besides existing Neal Stephenson fans, or die-hard sci-fi fans. If you're neither of those, skip this. But do check out Cryptonomicon by Stephenson, which is one of the greatest books I've ever read, and the reason why I keep reading (and being disappointed by) his newer books.

1 comment:

  1. You're right, this sounds interesting, but looks like there's quicksand here, too. Eighty pages about a clock, no thank you! (Reminds me of Steinbeck and his turtle, blech.) I did look into the other book you mentioned, and that definitely sounds like something I should check out. You lead me to Ender's Game, you wouldn't lead me wrong, would ya? ;)


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