Review: Anathem

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AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing this review is going to be a challenge. I mean, how do I write a piece of commentary that adequately relates all of my thoughts and feelings about Anathem, Neal Stephenson’s masterwork of epic science fiction storytelling? I’m not sure yet, but I’m going to give it a shot.

First off, you may notice that I only gave the novel 4 stars. That’s simply because I base my star rating on how much I enjoy a novel, not necessarily on its quality or literary value. Although I recognize Anathem for what it is, a brilliant piece of literature, independent of genre, I must admit that there are simply other novels that I have enjoyed more thoroughly, including Stephenson’s own cyberpunk classic, Snowcrash.

With that said, let me start by saying that there were many elements of this novel that I did thoroughly enjoyed. To start with, I really liked the characters. Erasmus was an excellent protagonist that I could easily relate to and he was complimented with excellent secondary characters.

I also loved the world that Stephenson created. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such rich and detailed world building in a science fiction novel before. The universe was incredibly interesting and shockingly familiar, and that familiarity made the story all the more intriguing. I couldn’t wait for more secrets of the universe (or should I say multiverse?) to be revealed. It was fascinating to learn how all of the worlds and races were interconnected.

In addition to the broader universe, the localized monastery was so intricately imagined, I was nearly dumbfounded. Needless to say, at some point, I stopped trying to figure out how the damn thing was laid out. It was far too complex for me to wrap my head around without a blueprint of some sort.

That is actually probably one of my few complaints. Although I loved the extreme detail of the architecture, I just couldn’t follow it all. I don’t know if that’s the fault of the author or my own lack of imagination, but it was a little frustrating at times when I would realize that I just had no idea how Saunt Edhar looked. I even tried a Google search and was shocked that I couldn’t find an image! I guess I wasn’t the only one who was perplexed.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time I was confused. I don’t believe that I’m unintelligent, but my math education ended with pre-Calculus and, while I grasped most of the mathematical principles from the novel, it was sometimes a bit much to follow, especially considering that I listened to the audiobook, usually while driving.

I’ve listened quite a few audiobooks now and I’ve found that some novels translate really well–the drama and pace being perfect for an oral performance–and some don’t work as well. Although I thought the novel was narrated very well, it was just a bit complex for an audio only experience. There were passages that I would have liked to reread and points when I would have like to pause and consider something. That is possible with an audiobook of course, but not nearly as convenient. It’s also quite hard to go back and refer to something from a previous chapter.

I think the biggest issue with listening to the novel, rather than reading, it was missing out on seeing the unique spelling of the novel’s vocabulary. I knew that there were spelling differences based on the narrators pronunciation, but I really wished that I could also see how the words were spelled. It felt like I was missing an important part of the novel.

Overall, the plot was excellent and well executed. There was plenty of drama, mystery, and suspense, despite the fact that there was little actual violence.

I would heartily recommend Anathem to any science fiction reader. It really was an excellent novel and I’m sure it will be long regarded as a classic.