Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

I read this book after a recommendation from an astronomer colleague of mine. However, I already had it in my list of books to check out. I am glad I did, my only regret is not reading this sooner.

Overall Impression
This was an excellent book. It's a bit heavy (figuratively, as I was reading on the Kindle) and takes a while to develop. There is a lot of science-y discussion, including topics from quantum mechanics, consciousness, chemistry, and some philosophy as well, most notably Plato's allegory of the cave (ie, the theory of forms). While one doesn't need to understand these things, they are part of the story and can slow down the uninitiated reader. That aside, though, the book was a great read. The plot and characters aren't too outstanding, but the setting for the story is fascinating. Stephenson creates a world that seems similar to ours, but also very much different. The terminology and history drive that point home. That alone makes it one of my favorite books thus far this year (which isn't saying a lot since we just started the year).

The plot takes a while to take off. You need to get about 200 pages into the book to start seeing important events take place. Of course, the first 200 pages are supremely important in developing the setting, the characters, and foreshadowing some of the events, so don't even think about skipping through! In a sense, it's a bit like epic fantasy in that it suffers from the 'flaw' of requiring quit a bit of time to fully comprehend the world. Like good epic fantasy, though, the book manages to make it interesting and does have some action and interesting dialog all throughout. It may seem a bit slow at first, but enjoy it for what it's worth and you'll be rewarded.

Once the plot gets going, it becomes a bit of a detective story with the characters trying to figure out why certain things happened. This leads to even more mysteries, which drives along the plot. At first the characters are all in their math but slowly they get summoned extramuros to face the challenges the world is facing and that drive the mystery of the plot. The reader is constantly playing catch up to try to understand why things are happening, particularly when philosophy is being discussed. It makes the book a bit hard to put down, though!

The story is told from the point of view of the main character- Fraa Erasmas. The fraa indicates he is a male avout in Arbre's terminology (see below). While he is very smart, as is practically everyone of important in the book, he isn't the brightest. In fact, he seems pretty ordinary and down to Earth (or should I say, down to Arbre?), which helps the reader identify with him. We also have other cool characters, though, like Cord, Yul, the ita Samman, and other avout like Lio, Jad, etc. Seeing how many of the characters are scientists, a couple of themes resonate such as science vs religion and science education in our society.

One of the coolest things, in my opinion, about the characters, is that many of them are astronomers (or in their terms, cosmographers). Every so often they'll discuss some astronomical term, like eccentricity or the analemma. There's even a part where they mention how they correct for the distortion caused by the atmosphere- basically a simple description of adaptive optics, which we use in astronomy today:

I got ready to explain how the newmatter mirrors worked, using guidestar lasers to probe the atmosphere for density fluctuations, then changing their shape to cancel out the resulting distortions, gathering the light and bouncing it into a photomnemnonic tablet.

Setting / World Building
This is were Anathem really shines. This is set in a separate world, Arbre, which is both more advanced and less so than ours. Many terms are introduced and used throughout the book, such as fraa, suur, fid, avout, anathem, etc. In fact, those terms can be a hinderance at the beginning as you struggle to understand the world. Be advised that there is a very useful glossary at the end (in addition to the definitions throughout the text). I checked the glossary when I was about 50 pages into the book. You don't really need to go through it (and I didn't check all the entries), but it helps to confirm what you think the terminology is, as well as to remind yourself of any words.

In addition to the terminology, the world also has a rich history spanning five thousand years. At first, this isn't too important, but eventually you start hearing about the Sacks, and the Rebirth, and the Reconstruction, and other historical events. At that point, say 100 or so pages into the book, I would advise checking or rereading the Note by the Author. A very useful timeline is provided there that helps you keep track of when historical events happened.

But don't let these two things hold you back: the world is absolutely fascinating. There are a series of places throughout the world were academics gather to study and discuss their ideas. These sound a lot like universities (or more accurately: monasteries), and they serve a similar purpose. However, these places (or maths) are closed off from the rest of society (the Sæcular world) through a series of gates. The Unarians hace access to the Year gate, which opens once a year for 10 days. The Decenarians, like fraa Erasmas, have access to the Decade gate, which opens only every 10 years, and again only for 10 days. Hence, the Decenarians are far more isolated than Unarians in terms of their research and cultural development. But it doesn't end there- there are gates that open once every 100 years and ones that open only once in every 1000 years. In the history of the mathic world, these millenarian gates have only been opened 3 times (well, technically the Sacks mess things up). It is great to hear how this society works and sustains itself and, just like the characters, you start thinking and wondering what goes on in the Centenarian and Millenarian maths in their long periods of isolation. That itself is a main driver of the story.

Final Thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can recommend it to fans of good world building, philosophy, and science. While some of the science and philosophy discussions can be a bit over one's head, they are still very interesting particularly as they pertain to the story line. The characters and plot are also quite good, though not the best I've seen. In general, I would read this story for the setting. While it can get heavy at times with all the Dialog and calcas, it is still a worthwhile read. The book touches on several things, such as the importance of science in the advancement of society; the separation, or not, of science and religion; and even briefly on racism and both technological and social progress.

I started writing this review about halfway through the book, when I was most excited. The ending, while good, wasn't supremely satisfying, though it fits the story quite well. I still agree with all I wrote earlier, when I was more passionate about the book.

Now is switching back to some fantasy with N.K. Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods.

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