Anathem: Goodreads Notes

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Readers will probably either love or hate this book – a nice thing, given its length, is they’ll probably get a good idea of what camp they fall into within the first 10-20 pages (I really enjoyed it). It’s strange and ambitious – both a critique of contemporary society and an exploration of various philosophical/metaphysical ideas with plenty of pages describing the details of spacesuit construction. Religious faith comes in for a bit of a beating, although I think the book as a whole is more ambivalent than some of the explicit narrative suggests (the avout are, after all, basically monks – maybe more on this later).

As a number of reviewers have noted (Alan Jacobs wrote a good review here:…) it could have been tighter and shorter, Stephenson’s prose is sometimes clumsy (and rarely rises above a certain workmanlike baseline), and his characterization is not as robust as one might hope. And, in a book where language, in different ways, plays a large role, he struggles to maintain “linguistic discipline” through the book (there should be more linguistic/stylistic markers between the different populations). But, I have to wonder if some editor managed to get Stephenson to write more “MFA-acceptable” prose if some of the expansive ambition of the book would be lost. Stephenson goes big, like really cosmically big, and it’s fun. While genre lines are crossed more frequently these days, I often find some of the more literary authors dabbling in SF use SF tropes to tell the same sort of stories they could tell otherwise – basically “adultery in space” etc. Often the prose is good but the story is a bore – it’s too small. My favorite contemporary novelist, David Mitchell, gets some distance down the track of what I’m looking for – his literary skills are immense (for an example of the “linguistic discipline” I mention above, it doesn’t get much better than the subtle ways Mitchell describes different modes of speech in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), and he writes “big” stories, but I sometimes wish he would take a sharper metaphysical angle, if I can describe it that way – i.e. point to a more distinctive view of the big universals his books often return to thematically (predacity, communication etc.). Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself achieves a certain unity of poetry and ideas … but there is something about the persistent irony in Roberts’ work that I struggle with (need to reread that book though).

Anyway, I enjoyed this one – needed some Husserl and spacesuits in my life at the moment, I guess.

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