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Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem (original 2008; edition 2008)

by Neal Stephenson

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
5,774217735 (4.21)1 / 327
Authors:Neal Stephenson
Info:William Morrow (2008), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 960 pages
Collections:Your library, Fiction/Literature/Plays/Essays, Read
Tags:Math, Science Fiction

Work details

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)

  1. 160
    The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (the_awesome_opossum)
    the_awesome_opossum: The plot and writing are really similar: a dense and complex mystery/thriller set in a monastery. The Name of the Rose is historical fiction, not sci fi, but if you enjoyed the complicated and weighty plot, Name of the Rose would also be good… (more)
  2. 120
    Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (BriarE)
  3. 110
    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Wova4)
  4. 80
    A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (vnovak, szarka)
  5. 60
    The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (bertilak)
  6. 60
    Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (freddlerabbit)
    freddlerabbit: See the Name of the Rose recommendation above - I find Foucault's even more analogous here because Name of the Rose is a bit more plot-driven than the other two, where Foucault's and Anathem both have as much as 40% pure theory-disguised-as-dialogue.… (more)
  7. 51
    Embassytown by China Miéville (bertilak)
    bertilak: Miéville has written a philosophical science fiction novel that rocks and is not bloated: Stephenson please take note.
  8. 30
    Excession by Iain M. Banks (elenchus)
    elenchus: Banks also introduces the "out of context" problem central to Anathem, but in a wildly different plot, and universe. Banks is less ontology and more space opera, but I found both books very entertaining, and both Stephenson and Banks sensitive to political questions raised by their respective plots.… (more)
  9. 63
    The City & The City by China Miéville (chmod007)
    chmod007: Both novels depict coexisting-but-dissociated societies — drastically foreign to the world we live in — but help us reflect on it.
  10. 30
    The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand (bertilak)
  11. 20
    The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (quartzite)
    quartzite: Both books deal with key groups of people preparing to meet alien cultures with a bit of theology and philosophy thrown in.
  12. 43
    Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder (SiSarah)
  13. 10
    Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (Mind_Booster_Noori)
  14. 00
    Evolution's Shore by Ian McDonald (themulhern)
    themulhern: Another book in which the aliens appear with unknown motivations. Here, though, the context is a very contemporary Earth, and so the speculation is much more about the here and now. It spawned a series of which I have not read the rest.
  15. 00
    Finity by John Barnes (szarka)
  16. 11
    Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure by Michael Chabon (MarkYoung)
  17. 00
    Relativity, space time and geometrodynamics by John Archibald Wheeler (bertilak)
  18. 01
    Even Peons are People: Interplanetary Justice by D. Pak (philAbrams)
    philAbrams: Cleaver use of neologisms and author created futuristic expressions and terminology. Also philosophical undertones.
  19. 12
    Parallel Worlds : A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos by Michio Kaku (bertilak)
  20. 37
    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (SiSarah)
    SiSarah: While Anathem is science fiction and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is historical fantasy, they share many themes in common (the nature and value of knowledge and study, the responsibilities of those who possess such knowledge, contact with a strange yet familiar "other" civilization). They both stretch the bounds of their genres and have deceptively simple plots that unfold slowly, and have great depth to the writing.… (more)

(see all 20 recommendations)


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English (216)  German (2)  Finnish (1)  French (1)  All languages (220)
Showing 1-5 of 216 (next | show all)
This is an odd novel and one that's difficult to review or assign a star rating. I settled on 3 because it some ways it warrants a 1 and in others it deserves a 5.

Anathem is a first person account of a young man (19) who is a member of a cloistered society that is part monastery and part…well…philosophical academy. It is largely cut off from the rest of the world, as are others of the same general type. The men, women, boys, and girls within the walls study history, philosophy, and the sciences, but they do not share the culture, religion, politics, or technology of the outside world. Their interests in it are purely academic. Such outside things are transitory, after all, and apparently those within the concents (the things like monestaries) do not wish to be influenced or distracted by fads (even those that may last a thousand years or more).

The larger setting is intriguing. It's an alternate universe/dimension/brane (pick whichever suits you) of the multiverse. It is much like Earth and there are many parallels to people, institutions, and events of our world.

Because this is told in first person by someone not unlike a monk, the view we get of the outside world is limited (although it seems similar to contemporary Western society). The view we get of the concents, especially the one our protagonist is from, however, is quite detailed—almost painfully so. The first 200 pages are largely backstory, which our young narrator reveals in diversions, digressions, and accounts of his daily (and dull) routine. These pages build the setting and introduce the reader to the vocabulary needed to comprehend the rest of the story. I found this a bit annoying even though I understand why the made up words are used. A concent, for example, is like a monastery, but it's not a monastery. Fraas and suurs are like brothers and sisters (priests and nuns), but only sort of. This makes the story a bit difficult to follow at times, but there is a 20-page glossary at the end that defines some (but not all) of these terms.

There are also lengthy debates and dialogs that encapsulate the arguments of various philosophers. Most are recognizable to any casual student of philosophy, but, of course, the Earthly names have been changed. The same holds true for theoretical physicists, religious institutions, and technology. The ideas are familiar, but the specific names are different. I rather liked the idea of giving some intellectual substance to a fictional story, but it often went on far too long. I didn't need to read a full discussion on the Socratic concept of Forms (by another name). This is a novel, not a philosophy text. (Not that I have anything against philosophy texts, but when I want to read Plato, I'll read Plato.) To be honest, it all does tie into the story by showing the intellectual progression of ideas, but it does become tedious.

Because of the amount of detail given to the organization and physical description of the protagonist's concent, the history of the planet, and the various philosophies and theories that lead to the concept of a multiverse (again by another name), this makes for a long and often dry story. The first edition hardcover tome I read was over 900 pages. I think the basic story could have been condensed to about a third of those. Some details may have been lost, but the inclusion of a bibliography with applicable science and philosophy books could have sufficed for those wanting the details.

This is not an easy, light read. Some familiarity with philosophy and theoretical physics may help, but it still takes some effort. The novel is certainly clever and creative, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed it. I did, however, appreciate it.
( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
Wow. This is a hard read, to say the least. And, in all honesty, dry. Overall, I liked the book, so thus the 3 stars, but if I could boil the entire book down to a single word? "Meh".

The good: It's an alien science fiction that doesn't fall into the typical alien science fiction stereotype traps. The book is less about the aliens, and their conflict (more on that in a second), and more about the theory of "Narratives" and "Hemn Space". Ultimately, math, physics, and philosophy monks engage in debate about the nature of their world Arbre, their universe and multiverses, as well as mundane things like what wine is best suited for a certain dinner, or silly things, such as pink-spotted nerve-gas-farting dragons. It can get humorous at times, and Stephenson really enjoys the science and math dialogues he creates in this world.

The bad: Unfortunately, the plot isn't discovered until you're about 50% through the book. Up to that point, you're just reading about all these math months and their theoretical debates. You learn about their world history, learn about some of the politics, and so on. Lots of character building. Lots of world building. And it take 1/2 the book.

The ugly: The language. Oh, the language. The hardest part about the book, is reading Stephenson's fictional jargon. Jeejah, speeley, mobe, praxis, fraa, suur, drummon, reticule, suvin, syndev, cartabla, and on, and on, and on. So much so, that the book ships with its own 20-page glossary. Yeah, you spend the entire read, reminding yourself who the Panjandrums are, or what a Bolt, Chord, and Sphere are, or who Metekoranes is. Yeah, to say this is a rough read solely based on the fictional jargon is an understatement.

The unfortunate: The book presents the plot around page 405 (of a 932-page story). At that point, the book actually starts to get interesting, and hook the reader. Before that point, the momentum is just non-existent. You're reading, either because you're a Stephenson fan, you don't want to let down your friend who recommended it to you, or you don't give up on books you start. But, if you make it to this point, the momentum starts, and picks up speed all the way through page 874. At this point, there is less than 60 pages in the book. It's time to resolve the conflict, and leave with a bang. Unfortunately, it falls flat. Yeah, the conflict gets resolved, but not in the way you're expecting, and not in the way it should either. The last 60 pages are really, really, really disappointing. It's as if Stephenson was tired of writing the story at this point, and didn't know how to end it properly, so this just sort of fell out.

Despite the bad, ugly, and unfortunate, I'd read it again. If for no other reason than figuring out the story, because I now have an upper hand on the jargon. The fact that the book redeems itself from pages 405 through 874 makes it at least not a bad or terrible book. The characters, when you get to know them, are endearing characters, and overall, the story is interesting. But so much is left unresolved, or forgotten, that it's not worth the 4th star. ( )
1 vote atoponce | Oct 7, 2016 |
There are a number of technical problems to writing sci-fi and fantasy. Chief among them is the tremendous amount of work required to set up a cultural matrix: a language, a history, an iconography, etc. that makes the world fully realized and engaging. In this new 900-page doorstop, Stephenson tries to solve this problem with approximately 200 pages of exposition, setting up the mindset of a post-apocalyptic monastery where you have religious scholarship without the religion (mostly). So you have to wade through a lot (and I mean a lot) of invented slang and jargon--mostly revolving around philosophical and metaphysical conceits--as well as 4,000 odd years of this history (which still seemed somewhat murky and half-finished at the end of the book). After it was over, I still never really quite got what the Elkhadarian school of philosophical thought really was.

Let it be said that I love Stephenson. Zodiac and The Big U were entertaining little novella playets, and (while obnoxious in places) [b:Snow Crash|830|Snow Crash|Neal Stephenson|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1157396730s/830.jpg|493634] was a great post-consumerist action thriller. The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon are fantastic techie epics (who else would think to pit Confucianism against Victorianism in the battlefield of nanotechnology?), and (while clearly in need of some pruning and wildly anachronistic) the Baroque Trilogy is awesome.

But Stephenson has always had problems with plot. One of his tricks is to walk us through incredibly complicated quantum possibilities, indicate the most spectacularly threatening one, and then have it occur, almost off-stage, as if the verbal rehearsal actually was the thing itself. Action by conversational fiat. (Now that I think about it, Greg Bear, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and even Robert Heinlein did this. Maybe it’s a sci-fi thing. Still, it feels like cheating.) Anathem has this in spades, only with a lot more talking. Granted, I really enjoyed the characters, and once the plot really got rolling (around page 400 or so), I was totally hooked. Plus, I feel like I understand quantum mechanics a lot more--though I’m sure my confidence is unwarranted--and I am suffused with that trademark Stephenson glow that comes from signing onto a very cogent, earnest, and unsentimental analysis of the way society should work. (Stephenson does great, sometimes even brilliant, macro analysis.)

However, the action is mostly in stasis for a good two-thirds of the book, and it takes a very hardcore geek to make it through the Many World theorems that stand in the place of much of the plotting. So I think the audience for this book will be very small (possibly composed solely of physics majors?), which is a shame, as he’s still a great writer. He may need an equally great editor, though. ( )
  Simeon.Berry | Aug 29, 2016 |
I listened to the audio book for this re-read, which was a lot of fun until the last four chapters, which really dragged on. I suppose I skimmed the physical minutiae of these chapters the first time and its hard to skim an audio recording? Anyway, I still love this book but I won't bother with it as a *listen* again - or take away a star (though really, it's a five star read and a four star recording). ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
re-reading... not sure this is a good idea but REAMDE has not yet arrived... ( )
  jkdavies | Jun 14, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 216 (next | show all)
Seen through the eyes of a young ascetic named Erasmas, the universe of “Anathem” and its properties are revealed methodically over hundreds of pages, and at first, there is much joy to be found in watching this plausible other reality assemble itself and in observing how it parallels our own.

Too much of the book is dominated by lengthy dialectical debates, whose conclusions are hardly earth-shattering (if you are reading this review, I suspect you already know how to divide a rectangular cake into eight equal servings) and which do little to promote a reader’s engagement with the characters of ­“Anathem,” any more than one cares about the interior lives of Pausanias or Eryximachus while reading “The Symposium.” What’s worse, the book’s fixation on dialogue leads Erasmas (and Stephenson) to simply tell us what is happening or has happened in pivotal scenes, instead of allowing us to see the events for ourselves through descriptive action.
added by SimoneA | editNew York Times, Dave Itzkoff (Oct 17, 2008)
The only catch to reading a novel as imposingly magnificent as this is that for the next few months, everything else seems small and obvious by comparison.
Stephenson's world-building skills, honed by the exacting work he did on his recent Baroque Cycle trilogy, are at their best here. Anathem is that rarest of things: A stately novel of ideas packed with cool tech, terrific fight scenes, aliens, and even a little ESP.
added by PhoenixTerran | editio9, Annalee Newitz (Sep 4, 2008)

» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Neal Stephensonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dufris, WilliamNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gilbert, TaviaMinor Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Serrano, ErvinCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stutz, DavidComposersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wyman, OliverMinor Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Do your neighbors burn one another alive?" was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061474096, Hardcover)

For ten years Fraa Erasmas, a young avout, has lived in a cloistered sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside world. But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change—and Erasmas will become a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world, as he follows his destiny to the most inhospitable corners of the planet . . . and beyond.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:01 -0400)

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Raz, a mathematician, is among a cohort of secluded scientists and philosophers who are called upon to save the world from impending catastrophe.

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