Anathem: Don’t skip the Note

Science fiction book reviews Neal Stephenson AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson

In his “Note to the Reader” at the start of Anathem, Neal Stephenson writes “if you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own, skip this Note.” My advice is this: Don’t skip the Note. In spite of years of speculative fiction reading, I found myself constantly referring to the novel’s chronology and glossary, not to mention online summaries and Stephenson’s acknowledgements page.

Here’s why. Our narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is an avout, a fid, and an Edharian. He is a Hylaean, a Protan, and a Decenarian. He lives in the mathic world, not extramuros. Nor does he live in the Sæcular world, though he was born there. It is worth noting that Erasmus is also not a Procian, an Ita, nor a Hierarch. He is also not a member of the Inquisition, the Millenarians, or even the Old Lineage.

He’s not even an Earthling.

Anathem takes place on Arbre, which Stephenson suggests we pronounce like “‘Arb’ with a little something on the end.” Arbre is similar enough to Earth that words like “carrot” remain useful, but there are many differences. Perhaps the most important difference between our world and Arbre is the isolation of the learned and the literate in the mathic world’s concents. We learn that roughly thirty-seven hundred years before Anathem begins, the “Terrible Events” nearly destroyed the world. The survivors turned on the literate and the learned, or “avout,” and forced them to live in isolation from the rest of the population and from technology. In spite of this handicap, the avout have nevertheless developed technology at three different times that led to three different attacks on the mathic world. Now, the avout live in accordance with the “Cartasian Discipline,” meaning that they are forbidden from procreating, from using all but a few pieces of technology, and from making contact with the outside world.

There are exceptions to these rules. For example, the avout are allowed to make contact with the outside world during “Apert.” Decenarians like Erasmus are allowed to glimpse the outside world for ten days, once every ten years. Meanwhile, the doors on the Thousanders’ concent only open once every thousand years.

The discipline dividing the affairs of the avout from the Sæcular world runs into trouble when an alien spaceship is discovered orbiting Arbre. It’s a threat so daunting that all of Arbre will be forced to respond as one, and Erasmus and his friends are asked to leave the safety of their walls to help fight alien spaceships. Or as Erasmus sums up the plot: “Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs … We have a protractor.”

Anathem offers readers a very steep learning curve during the first two hundred pages. However, once Erasmus’ world is established, it is easy to enjoy this adventurous, funny, and intelligent science fiction novel. (In other words, it’s a Neal Stephenson novel.) Yes, those first two hundred pages can be difficult, but remember: soon you’ll be reading about mathematicians and philosophers defending their planet against alien invaders. It’s also worth taking the time to do your homework on the history of philosophy and quantum mechanics. Both of these subjects will be discussed in detail, though Stephenson’s taken the liberty of changing most of the words.

Consequently, there’s a need for several lectures over the course of the novel, and Stephenson has devised several means by which the avout can meet, discuss, and debate their ideas so as not to become repetitive. My favorite might well be the “messal,” in which several senior avout dine and discuss ideas while more junior avout serve them. The junior avout can express their boredom with the dinner by leaving the room, at which point we’re treated to a somewhat gossipy, academic discussion in the servitors’ area about the dinner’s discussion. At other times, Stephenson’s characters simply walk along while engaged in conversations that recall Socratic questioning.

Add to this Stephenson’s tendency to engage in lengthy digressions, and we have a novel that is perfectly suited for Stephenson’s fans. However, Anathem might not be the best novel for newcomers, and it is certainly not for Stephenson’s skeptics. It took me several tries to get past Arbre’s jargon and engage with Erasmus’ story.

Having said that, once I did get into the story, I did not resent the effort. I was hooked — and quite sad to see the story end. Anathem is notable for many reasons, particularly the detailed rules and history of the mathic world, but perhaps the best thing about this book is that readers who finish it will find themselves wanting to start over.

~Ryan Skardal

Anathem by Neal Stephenson science fiction book reviewsAt one point do you admit defeat and give up on a book? Especially one that you really WANT to like, by an author whose work you respect, and has been lauded by critics and readers alike. I’ve put off tacking Anathem for many years because: 1) it’s a massive door-stopper about an order of monks millennia in the future devoted to philosophy, science, and mathematic theorems; 2) it’s got an entirely new lexicon of neologisms invented to describe this alternate world; 3) most of the readers I respect have found it challenging but rewarding; 4) will I lose all my SF street cred if I admit to not liking this?

I decided that the audiobook format might be the best way for me to take on this behemoth. It features four different narrators (Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, William Dufris, and Neal Stephenson doing glossary definitions at the start of each chapter), and the characters are given distinct voices and personalities. They do their best to create the young, pedantic and nerdy voices of the young avouts. It’s not their fault if the majority of the dialogue seem to be caricatures of academic esoterica. In any case, the story itself is so enamored with world-building and discussions of obscure invented philosophies and the history of same that the plot is stifled to death under the weight of details Stephenson piles on.

I’m very willing to grant authors a lot of leeway to build a world as detailed and dense and complex as our own world, and I think Stephenson has probably achieved this. However, I found that no matter how many pages I listened to, whether on the train, at the gym, walking the dog, etc. I just couldn’t really get myself to care about these monks and their interminable debates.

I granted this book over 300 pages to get me hooked, and it failed to do so. That is not meant as a criticism of the book’s length. I was completely enthralled by Stephenson’s Crytonomicon, a massive story that ranges between the setting up a data haven and hunting for Nazi gold in the present (well, at the time of writing) and a fascinating story of the mathematitians cracking the Nazi Enigma Code back in WWII. That book had me engaged with Bobby Shaftoe, Larry Waterhouse, Amy Shaftoe, Randy Waterhouse, Alan Turing, even a cameo from Ronald Reagan! I couldn’t stop laughing at so many scenes that still leap to mind, and I was sad when the story ended. So no, length is not the issue.

The invented language of Anathem is also not really a sticking point for me. It was quite fascinating how Stephenson coined all of these terms and integrated them into a seamless whole, complete with their historical development and etymology. If you like language and how it evolves, you will like this aspect. I read through the glossary a few times to get comfortable, and got to like the sound of these alien terms.

What just killed me is the absolutely turgid pace of the “plot” if we generously chose to call it that. I mean, basically nothing has happened in over 300 pages except for the ritual week of Apert, when the consent (monastery) opens its doors to the extramuros (outside world) for one week. An entire book, even something as dense and brilliant as China Mieville’s Embassytown, could be completed at this point. And yet I found that nothing had been attained besides some veiled intrigue about some anomalous astronomical sightings, and many of the main characters are mysteriously expelled from the consent into the outside world, which I take it will begin their quest for answers. Too late, I’m afraid.

I kept telling myself that if I just stayed with the story it would start to click. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other books I’d rather be reading. And when you look to see that there are still 20+ hours remaining and you are dreading it, you know you’re in trouble. And when you just decide to stop and pick up another book and an intense feeling of relief floods your mind, then you know the truth. Time to move on.

I’m now batting .500 with Neal Stephenson, who I still consider one of my favorite writers thanks to Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. However, The Diamond Age and Anathem didn’t do it for me (though I may take up Anathem again someday), and I expect that Reamde is even more self-indulgent though at least it’s set in the present and centers on MMORGs and espionage. That goes double and triple for his Baroque Cycle, which sounds very much like a dive off the deep end into all of Stephenson’s favorite quirky interests in history, politics, philosophy, etc. At this point, I may not get to his upcoming book Seveneves for some time. But I haven’t given up, we just need some distance.

~Stuart Starosta

Anathem — (2008) Publisher: 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. Anathem is the latest miraculous invention by the New York Times bestselling author of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle — a work of astonishing scope, intelligence, and imagination.

SHARE:  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail  FOLLOW:  facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrsstumblr

RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

View all posts by Ryan Skardal


  1. Excellent review, Ryan. You expressed perfectly how I feel about this novel.

  2. This one has been sitting in my MP3 player and iPad and phone for a long time now….

  3. You touched on something that’s a value for me; a character I can relate to. While I had some issues with Cryptonomicon, the characters perked me right up (and I loved the WWII codebreaking section). In the Baroque Trilogy, it was the characters who kept me reading, even if I was yawning a bit over the fifteenth discussion of calculus, world economies and tea, or something.

    I have Reamde but haven’t read it; I hear that despite the length, the story moves more quickly.

  4. April /

    I don’t think I’d attempt a long book that is known for quite a bit of world building via audio if I could help it. I listened to the first WoT via audio but only after I had read it several times so my mind could breeze by those bits while listening to them.

    Audio tends to slow things down for me, shorter works that are more character driven work best for me in this medium.

    I didn’t remember Anathem feeling long at all though it did have a bit of a slow start, if I remember correctly. I did, in the end, quite like it. But, I’m one of those strange people who like long books better than short ones, as a rule. His Baroque Cycle I adored.

    Couldn’t read Diamond Age (I found the actual story to be nothing like the blurb led me to believe and no character I cared about enough to continue reading) and have never been tempted to try Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash.

  5. I have Anathem (audio) but haven’t read it yet.
    I loved Cryptonomicon and Reamde.
    Baroque was so incredibly self-indulgent.

  6. Well, (clears throat) one nice thing about reading a long, dense book in print is that, occasionally, only if you wanted to, you could give in to the temptation to skim.

    • April /

      Yes, my friend hates audio because she can’t skim!

      I don’t skim but I also will have no trouble putting a book down if it isn’t engaging me fully – though I do tend to give them a bit of leeway at the front.

  7. April, I think you’re right that audio is not the best medium for Anathem, but even in print I suspect I would have run into the same problem of not being engaged with the storyline or characters, and as Marion pointed out, the latter is a game-breaker in most cases. I still think I might try again someday, but I’m already enjoying the other books I picked up much more instead, so why go against that?

    • April /

      I can definitely relate. I’ve often had to put aside books for this very reason. Sometimes I hope to come back to them but I usually don’t unless I have a compelling reason; for instance, even though it has all the elements I love, I never got through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but because of the upcoming screen version, I’m going to try again.

  8. Matt W /

    I really liked Anathem, but as others have said, it’s probably not a great fit for audio; it’s too long and slow. And it helped that I’d coincidentally read Julian Barbour’s non-fiction book The End of Time just prior, which Stephenson draws on heavily for his theorizing. I’ll point out, though, that Reamde is a lightning fast read. It’s a much more conventional thriller and doesn’t suffer as much from Stephenson’s obsessive need to cram all his research material into the narrative.

  9. Matt and Kat, I definitely am still open to reading Reamde as it’s a contemporary story about espionage and MMORGs, but even there I wonder why that book needs to be 1,100+ pages long. I think that reading a lot of classic SF the last few years that are mostly under 250 pages long has made me more skeptical of modern doorstoppers that need 800+ pages to deliver their stories. Would you say that modern editors are afraid to cross popular authors, or that today’s readers are just more receptive to really long books as long as they’re engaging?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *