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Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem (original 2008; edition 2008)

by Neal Stephenson

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
5,963220701 (4.2)1 / 336
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. 170
    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. 70
    The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (bertilak)
  6. 70
    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: A Novel 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 (220)  German (2)  Finnish (1)  French (1)  All (224)
Showing 1-5 of 220 (next | show all)
Nine hundred some pages of mansplaining. ( )
  encephalical | Jun 20, 2017 |

Neal Stephenson's latest brick of a novel is both something of a departure for him, and carries on in what he has made his own inimitable style. The newness comes in the fact that this is the first 'real' science fiction novel he has written – in that it deals with space travel and alien worlds, although he of course began his career with cyberpunk in Snow Crash and the wonderful view of how technology shapes the mores of a future society in The Diamond Age. However, Anathem very much continues what he has made his own style over his previous four novels – Cryptonomicon, and the Baroque Cycle trilogy. Each of these volumes weighs in at around a thousand pages and combines high adventure with discussions and explanations of profound mathematical and philosophical concepts, including endnotes and diagrams, but are surprisingly easy reads, thanks largely to Stephenson's wonderful clarity and openness of style.

Anathem takes place on a world where the educated elite live apart from the general population in monastic-style communities which live with only basic technology and shut themselves off from the outside world for at least a year at a time – or ten, a hundred or a thousand years for parts of the communities, accepting new recruits rarely and not communicating with the outside world. This allows them to avoid 'contamination' from transient agencies such as popular culture or politics but is also, it becomes apparent, something that was enforced on them in the past when the general population became afraid of technologies these thinkers were developing. However, when an alien threat to the whole world appears, the old order becomes threatened and the monastic and 'secular' sides of the world have to cooperate.

The first thing that grabbed me about the novel is the way in which Stephenson uses language; there is a 'note to the reader' before the main text explaining the origin of the word Anathem – a pun on anthem (a piece of music) and anathema (an object of hatred) to mean a ritual enacted when a thinker is expelled – and that he derives much of the archaic-sounding language of the maths (as the 'monasteries' are called) in a similar way. Much speculative fiction uses strange words to demonstrate an alien culture, and this method is wonderful; the reader quickly becomes accustomed to the mode of speech, and when you can't figure out what the words mean from context and etymology there's a handy glossary.

There is a superb sense of the 7000 years of history and knowledge that the cloisters are protecting, in the language their and the traditions; the rituals for welcoming new entrants or expelling wrongdoers, songs in which the harmonics are the expression of mathematical equations. The author often explains ideas to the reader by the simple but effective method of having them explained to a character, in the manner of true Socratic dialogues, which is not nearly so clumsy as it sounds and is vital considering the weight of some of the ideas that he throws around. For instance, this book has left me intent on reading up on Phase Space and the in particular how it relates to parallel universes.

The one thing that lets the book down, and kept it from a five-star rating, is the adventure side. In his previous books these have been genuinely thrilling, but in Anathem there are a couple of frankly dull picaresque sections, notably the travel over the north pole. The only reason I can think that this is so is that both Crytonomicon and the Baroque Cycle were set in our own past (World War 2 and the late 17th/early 18th centuries respectively), and so more energy is spent on creating the imaginary world than the events of the journey.

Everything else, though, works. The relationships between knowledge, politics and religion; scientists responsibility to the wider world, and the world toward scientific endeavour; love, loss and the possibilities of multi-dimensional reality. As always, Neal Stephenson is a wonderful writer for expanding the horizons, inside and out.
( )
1 vote Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
For a retired mathematics and computer science professor this book was a perfect fit. I seek out references to mathematics in sci-fi, but this time I was immersed in a tale whose heroes and heroines were the experts on directed acyclic graphs, the Pythagorean Theorem, a pictorial proof of which actually appears in the book, symmetry groups and all things mathematical. As the story progresses, the references to computer science and quantum theory made it even better. Although these facts are woven into the story, it is apparent that Stephenson is not just fudging it, he knows his science well. The world he creates is an extremely interesting place to be during the telling of this tale. The only problem is that the details of monastic life, of cosmology, of mathematics, of logic, of philosophy, of physics, of space mechanics, all seemed somehow to have their own separate rooms in his world. ( )
1 vote drardavis | Jan 24, 2017 |
Just finished reading this for the third time, and I would describe this book in my top 10 ever books! Would I read it again? YES!!!! ( )
  Wanasai | Jan 22, 2017 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 220 (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 editionscalculated
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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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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