Monday, February 11, 2013

review: anathem

I'm one of those people who has no problem going back to an old book that I enjoyed the first time round and re-reading it. In fact I'm a bit of a perennial re-reader which all started with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I used to read once a year. I don't do as much re-reading anymore, mostly because there are so many new books I want to pick up and bury my head into, but when I'm between books I have no compunction about picking up an old favourite.

Which was why after finishing Blueprints of the Afterlife I couldn't help but be drawn to Neal Stephenson's Anathem. I've reviewed Stephenson before, and I enjoy his writing. He's one of the few writers who I feel can truly master a complex, intricate storyline with many different plotpoints and ideas all at once.

Anathem is a lot different from Reamde. Told in the first person, it focuses on just one character and everything going on outside his storyline, while important, is peripheral. It's heavy on the science and philosophy, though it's all reimagined into a fictional world placed "upstream", perhaps, from our own. This is about 1000 pages, and at times it's dense going the first go around especially. If you're not into having a bit of a refresher course in philosophy, mathematics and physics interspersed with your fiction this will not be the book for you. If you are? Dive in. I couldn't put it down.

Lately my reading has been taking me down a somewhat philosophical path, just by dashing philosophy into my fiction. It has me ready to pick up some serious philosophical reading next, get back to some of my roots.


  1. I'm just reading Anathem for the first time now. Good to hear you liked it too. So far I like it better than Cryptonomicon, because the single focalizer makes it much easier to keep track of what's going on. In Cryptonomicon I kept getting the characters confused.

    I also really like the idea posed in Anathem of treating science and philosophy as something that should be kept largely separate from current events and worldy influence.

    Two of my favourite pieced of philosophical fiction are The End of Mr Y (by Scarlett Thomas) and The raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. Have you read either of those? I'm curious what you'd think of them.

    1. Cryptonomicon is one book I`ve never been able to get my hands on but I've heard from a lot of people how it's much more difficult of a read than Anathem.

      The idea of separation of science and philosophy from the influence of the world is something I can't quite make up my mind on. On the one hand I dislike how diluted and dumbed down these ideas can get when they're influenced too much by current events and pop culture. Nothing bothers me as much as the fact that major bookstores consider a philosophy section acceptable when it's mostly populated by pop culture philosophy sprinkled with Nietzche and a few postmodernists there but is completely missing Aristotle, Kant, Descartes or any actual metaphysics, epistomology, logic or aesthetics. I'm sure science sections aren't much different. When the focus of the work becomes dumbing down the ideas for mass consumption any actual progress or real insights become difficult to come by. At the same time it feels like it would be an awful shame if the public didn't have access to these ideas. Plus there gets to be the whole ivory tower conundrum if the people who are interested are constantly removed from the "real world" which is actual part of why I didn't pursue an advanced degree in philosophy once I got my BA.

      As for The End of Mr Y and The Raw Shark Texts, I'd never heard of either of those. I'll certainly be keeping my eye out for them next time I'm out book hunting and when I'd be happy to share my thoughts once I've read them.