Monday, July 14, 2008

Anathem

My early take on Neal Stephenson's Anathem holds. This is top top-notch ideas driven science fiction that will appeal to fans of literary adventure and speculative fiction. The book's main characters are monks who study math and science without the benefit of much in the way of technology. The plot, which moves from medieval drama to adventure to classic science fiction, involves the interaction between the secular world and the cloistered world of math and science.

Stephenson balances his story between debates over the nature of reality, consciousness and the cosmos with political intrigues, coming of age tales and adventure stories. By lacing his most rarefied debates with humor and by walking people through the ideas, he makes it easier for those who need a bit more hand holding to enjoy them. As one of his major themes is the decline of thinking in the face of distracting infotainment, he is no doubt encouraging to use faculties that many readers have not touched since their college philosophy or math courses.

His story is driven by dialogues involving topics as dense quantum mechanics, so it is all the better that his prose is as light as it is. Despite the book's length (900+ pages) this is a brisk read, with many humorous interludes. There is an amusing joke for Star Trek fans tucked around the middle of the book and there is plenty for others as well.

In the review copy of the book, Stephenson provides a timeline of this world as well as some background for those less well read in science fiction. My advice is to skip it. Stephenson has taken great care in slowly revealing his world's details which makes for lots of fun guesswork and theorizing while reading. His use of dictionary excerpts is a particularly nice technique. Every 20 or so pages, Stephenson provides an entry from the world's encyclopedia. These entries provide context for earlier conversations as well foreshadow upcoming events. This avoids the often stilted explanatory text found in novels that devise an imaginary world.

1 comment:

jeremy.org said...

Excellent review. Thank you!