Wednesday, October 29, 2008


It's been a while, and I have fallen behind in my reviewing and general blogginess. I have a number of reviews to post plus some other stuff, so the weekend may see a run on writing.

I had this book pre-ordered for months, as I am a really big fan of Neal Stephenson's work. The reviews for it have been stupendous, and based on those, I expect the book to be short-listed for the major awards. So I had great expectations for the book as I began reading it.

One of the traits I admire most about Stephenson is his power as a writer, beyond that of a storyteller. Two of the sentences I best remember for their stylishness and craftiness come from Stephenson's work. His sentences are fashioned and as a writer, I can spend lots of time considering the choices he makes in his writing. Some critics talk about the shortcomings of Stephenson as a plotter, latching on to a perceived inability to end a story cleanly, and while I can see those points, I don't really agree with them. But those criticisms resonate some with Anathem, not so much with not being able to end a story, but with some plot decisions that affect the sweep and scope of the novel.

Anathem imagines a world not very different from our Earth, where in some ways science has taken the place of religion. Stephenson makes a very writerly comment in the introduction, how the world of Anathem is not our world but he strives to make it seem familiar by using common terms—while it may not be called "carrot" on their world, he will use the term anyway since the foods are analogous. And so we see a common replacement throughout the novel. But at the same time, basing the novel on men of science as he does, he doesn't perform the one-on-one replacement for technical terms that have clear analogs also. For example, the quadratic formula is named after its discoverer on the other Earth and so the reader has to remember that name. And it grows somewhat annoying over time, even with the glossary thrown in at the back of the novel, to try to keep up with those types of connections. Why is it that some terms are okay to replace, but not others?

The answer lies, in part, in the ultimate destination of the novel, which I don't want to spoil for potential readers. But Stephenson made a conscious decision to go this route, recognizing the limitations he was setting upon himself and working with them to provide clues to the denouement of the novel. And while I was annoyed by the seeming inconsistency, the pay-off is well worth it.

In the novel, Fra Erasmus, a member of the scientific-pseudo-religious element of this world, recounts the events surrounding a major upheaval in the global culture of this planet. Of course, to establish the significance of that upheaval, some time must be spent characterizing the culture in the first place. Stephenson does masterly work in the long-term stage-setting while keeping the story moving along. There are only one or two places where the plot drags, consumed by the effort to set the stage, but those moments remain Stephensonian and thus as strong as some of the best moments for other writers.

As the novel begins, Erasmus finds himself on the cusp of some of the points to which an adult looks back and spots profound moments of growth. He is about to celebrate one of the major events in the calendar of his near-monastic order, and he has also just turned 18, an age at which a man's world changes mostly because of his more-mature perception. Not to mention girls. At this crucial point, unexpected and core-shaking changes begin taking place in his scholarly environment, which have their root causes in changes that are unexpected events that are rattling his entire world. The novel follows Erasmus as he considers all the changes and traces them back to their roots, and then sets about to solve the crises in his life.

This description makes it sound like I am describing a Heinlein juvenile, and the comparison is not totally inappropriate. The narrator is a young immature man dealing with the changes in his world as best he can. There is a lot of lecturing by mentors, with momentary asides describing what the audience is doing during the impromptu lectures. There are distinct personalities among the narrator's peers, given far more description and space than Stephenson usually gives side characters. I could even see the circumstances that drive the novel coming out of Heinlein's imagination. But when the writing starts, it's clearly Stephenson. While the style may be somewhat akin to Heinlein's, no one delves into the interesting but secondary issues as deeply as Stephenson does (including appendixes with drawings that describe some of the lectures in for more detail than is required by the main text). Heinlein never did as much world-building in a single novel as Stephenson does in Anathem, even though it could be argued that Stephenson cheated somewhat by making his world so very Earth-like (it pays off, though; I swear it!).

The end result is a strong book that goes in a different direction than the main thrust of Stephenson's repertoire this far. Some critics have described it a space opera, and there are moments that parallel space opera. But I would see it more as a scientific romance if we are thinking about subgenres. Until, that is, the science behind everything that is happening is explained, and pushes this novel firmly into the core of science fiction—stories about how science and technology affect people and culture. I don't think this is a great book, but it is a stunning writing achievement, and a joy to dissect for its decisions from a writer's point of view. And even if you are not a writer or you don't like thinking about the craft of writing, it's a compelling story, though sometimes pedantic and slow-moving. The pay-off makes those slow moments worthwhile, and the entirely non-Stephensonian ending is a nice touch. In fact, the not-so-veiled reference to Jules Verne is also a fine touch. I'll read this book again, I'm sure, and look forward to Stephenson branching out in other directions in his story-telling.

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