Anathem, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow and Company, 2008){ Audio Version Macmillan Audio, 2008: Narrator: William Dufris, with Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert and Neal Stephenson)

Cover of "Anathem"

Cover of Anathem

Grade: Ω — The Omega rating is the opposite of an Alpha. An excellent book, that breaks rules and/or may appeal more to people who do not normally read the genre than those who are aficionados of it.

In brief: Anathem is a book that breaks all the rules and is all the better for it. Set on the world of Arbre, it is the story of Erasmus (or Raz), an aesthetic living as an academic within the monastic like setting of his Concent. Told in a manner that drew me and my thought processes into those of the characters, this book excelled in creating a believable and thought provoking world. This story is definitely not for everyone, however, and even I found it dragging at times. Even so, it proved one of the best reads of 2010 (the year I read it in).

Setting: Arbre, an earthlike world. Telling more would give away bits.

In Depth: As I listened to this, I could not help but wonder how Stephenson managed to get this book published. Not because it was bad, quite the opposite, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Rather, it broke so many rules and was in such opposition to what normally gets published that I couldn’t believe that it ever made it to the page. I am, however, delighted to see that it did. I have not enjoyed a story so much in a very long time.

Anathem is the first-person story of Erasmus, a young man of about twenty who has spent his life as an academic aesthetic behind the walls of a three-thousand four hundred year old monastery. There, he and his colleagues are cut off from the rest of the world, left to study arcane and abstract philosophical and scientific disciplines in a self-sustaining monk-like cycle of hard research and physical labor. When one bit of this arcane abstraction takes a real-world form, however, Erasmus’ life changes forever.

A wonderful comment on academia and modern society, this story pulled me in thoroughly. I was enchanted by the word plays throughout the story and even found myself thinking in the style of the ‘Avout’ scholars of the tale.

This story is not for everyone, however, and at times it reads like a 960 page info dump. Indeed, that is actually part of its charm. Throughout the story, Stephenson manages to perform info dumps as part of the narrative style. Indeed, he even uses the ever dreaded “As you know Bob” in a manner that becomes central to the stylistic form of the novel, something I would warn lesser writers (including… no especially… myself) to avoid trying.

Thus, this is a slow thoughtful book which speaks as much about philosophy and physics as it does about characters and plot. If you want a romp-roaring adventure, I’d highly recommend you do not consider this story. In fact, there was a point in which even I began to envision crowds of Medieval troops screaming “Get one with it!” as per Monty Python. Just as I was getting a bit fed up, however, Stephenson turned the plot and threw me into an exciting adventure that managed to pull all the elements together into a very satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this as a read, but it isn’t easy and is a LONG way from being an action adventure tale.

Notes on the Audio Edition: This was a very well produced Audio Edition, with some elements that I normally detest in a narration being done in a manner that truly added to the tale. Of particular note was the use of music and multiple narrators. In this case, however, the vast bulk of the narration was performed by William Dufries, with other narrators (including Stephenson himself) only delivering the commentary notes at the start of chapters. The fact that the book is told from the first person adds to its translation to the audio medium. I will note, however, that I didn’t feel that Dufries got the tone of Erasmus quite right. He was too earnest, too excitable, too much like an apple-pie eating 20th century American teen and not quite enough like a young man who’d spent his life in the hallowed halls of a monastic university. This being said, however, this didn’t stop me from being drawn totally into the world Stephenson created, and so this criticism should be taken with a grain of salt.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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6 Responses to Anathem, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow and Company, 2008){ Audio Version Macmillan Audio, 2008: Narrator: William Dufris, with Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert and Neal Stephenson)

  1. JoJo Jensen says:

    Great review! One of my favorite parts of your reviews is that you also review the audio book narrators style. It’s hard to listen to a book when you can’t deal with the narrator.


  2. Redhead says:

    “As I listened to this, I could not help but wonder how Stephenson managed to get this book published”

    Ha!! I felt the same way when I read Cryptonomicon, which was my first Stephenson. I constantly went back and forth between wanting to throw the book across the room in disgust, and telling anyone who would listen what an incredible book in was. Massive infodump, sprawling everything, prose that demands patience, and an ending that makes it all worth it, that pretty much sums up Stephenson.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I love how you describe it! I’m presently listening through Quicksilver, and feeling the exact same way. My first book of his was Snowcrash, which is a totally different feel to his other works. Much more action adventure cyberpunk, with only a touch of Eco-esque gamatric numerology thown in (now there’s a phrase you don’t use every day).

  3. Brian Dunbar says:

    “As I listened to this, I could not help but wonder how Stephenson managed to get this book published”

    I suspect that if anyone but Neal Stephenson had presented this his publisher, or if this was a first novel, it would _not_ have been published.

    And we’d be poorer for it.

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