So I was both excited and nervous about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and both because of The Baroque Cycle, which was incredibly brilliant and superb. My hope was that he could write another novel at that level, and my fear was that he’d write a disappointingly minor book, like Vinge’s Rainbows End. To give the conclusion away up front, he didn’t quite manage to match the Baroque Cycle, but there’s no possible way to describe Anathem as disappointing or minor. This is a big book in every sense of the word.
It’s also rather uncharacteristically solemn for a Stephenson novel. Snow Crash was just pure energy, Cryptonomicon was extended smartassery, and even The Baroque Cycle had a sort of manic character to it. But Anathem is slow and contemplative, evoking a sense of deep time and slow tides of history. The most thoroughly successful part of the book is the time spent in the concent (a monastery-like setting), where various scholars perform their rituals and debate philosophy. It may be slow, plot-wise, but it’s incredibly immersive and atmospheric, and it sets the sense that when the peace of that concent is disturbed, that means something.
I won’t speak any more than that about the plot (and you shouldn’t read the book jacket, which is no more spoily than any book jacket, but a book like this doesn’t deserve spoilers) other than to say that it gets a bit woo-woo in the middle and I was afraid it was going to go all Diamond Age on me, but Stephenson pulled it out in the end, to continue his recent trend of solid endings.
This isn’t a fast book to read, at nearly 1000 pages of ritual and philosophical dialogue, but… well, there are books worth getting immersed in, and this is one of them. I feel that I haven’t conveyed this adequately above, but I really pretty much loved this book, and even though I can’t recommend it to everyone (if you didn’t finish the Baroque Cycle, you’re alien enough to me on this axis that I have no idea if you’d like this, though I’m inclined to doubt it), to the people I do recommend it, I do so highly.