Posted by : atcampbell | On : July 20, 2010

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

On July 20, the North Reading Group met at the Milwood branch of the Austin Public Library, 12500 Amherst Dr., Austin, TX 78727, to discuss Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. The book was published in 2008 (William Morrow) and a movie-like “trailer” is available on the web.  Eight people attended, and two who were unable to attend sent comments by email.  Nine had read Stephenson before.  All 10 started the 960-page book and 7 finished it.

This book exhibits a remarkable range of pacing.  At the beginning it moves at a glacial pace, in keeping with cloistered life in the “Math.”  Many Maths with various programs exist in the world, but the primary characters in Anathem study mathematics, astronomy and related history and philosophy.  At the beginning, they are looking forward to their 10th anniversary there, a week when they will be permitted to go into the secular world and visit their families and the public will be allowed to tour the math.  Some residents of the math have been there for hundreds of years and some for thousands, but they are sequestered from the relatively short-timers.  Several group members gave up on the book during this extremely slow-paced section.  The pace quickened, though, when the actions of some aliens caused what amounted to a universal draft, where groups from all the maths were sent forth to gather at a central location to deal with the situation.  The pace continued to increase until at the end the scenes were shifting so rapidly that some found it hard to keep up with the action.

One of the members listened to the book on CD’s while driving on a trip.  She spent 35 hours on the trip and enjoyed the book, but found it easy to put aside from time to time.  One reader was “charmed” by the vocabulary–“Avout” as opposed to devout, for example.  Several readers commented that they liked the intellectual discussions, although some thought it covered too broad a front and could have been improved with a little more focus.  One reader liked the Math of “Loreites,” whose job was to point out errors that crept into the other Maths’ arguments.  (Given the virulence of many academic debates, one wonders how there could be any thousand-year Lorites.)  Another math produced the traditional “fighting monks.”

One reader commented that the book was too heavy to carry around.  One read it on a Kindle and liked that advantage.  Another tried it on a cell phone and found it was ‘way too long for that.

The emailed comments of one reader are worth quoting:  “To me, it worked superbly on all the levels I look for in science fiction, or in any book for that matter: character, story, prose, setting, ideas. . . . a single-viewpoint character . . . first-person narrator . . . Fraa Erasmus serves well in that capacity, frequently being the bridge between various subcultures . . . a delightful voice, observant and wryly sardonic . . . . This novel is full of richly rendered characters making truly difficult decisions. . . . The world-building is the real strength of the book.”

Despite the flaws inevitable in trying to reconcile many philosophies that in actuality are widely separated by time and culture, this book is a remarkable true science fiction tour-de-force.  The reader may at times be interested, enchanted, bored, annoyed, skeptical, and confused–as are the characters.  The consensus of the group was, however, that if you stick it out you’ll be glad you did.

After the meeting we enjoyed dinner at the nearby Thai Cuisine.

—Tom Sciance