Anathem is a mixed bag of a book, a real doozy if you will. On one hand, Stephenson has managed to deliver one of the most intelligent and eloquent series of ideas I've ever had the privilege to read. On the other hand, I think it's best to be up front about the plot not starting until you're 150-200 pages in. This is a book with middling characters, some downright awful pacing, and some of the most indulgent tangents i've ever read. This is also a book that I feel smarter for reading, and managed to snowball into something that I could not put down until I finished it. I think this is very much a you-have-to-read-it-yourself book, I can see why opinions vary wildly depending on the reader. To anyone looking to read this for the first time I can safely say that you are not wasting your time, and if you can look past the obvious flaws there is a fairly large nugget of gold in here.
I usually try to start a review with a summation of the book, but Anathem is very strange in that what it is about factors heavily into the plot; to describe the premise is to spoil the book, so instead i'll try to describe the world. Anathem takes place on an Earth-like planet called Arbre; Arbran civilization is much older than ours on Earth. Their society is organized around Mathic Concents and the Saecular world a system that has been in place for ovcer 3000 years. The Concents are scientific monasteries/hermitages where the “avout” live in isolation from the outside world. These concents take the form of massive clocks, and the avout who live within are separated by their maths (orders). Depending on the math they join, either a unarian, decenarian, centanarian, or millenarian, the avout can only leave the concent when the gates of the maths open for 10 days during apert every 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years respectively. We join a young decenarian avout named Erasmus on the eve of his first apert.
Let's talk about strengths because this book has quite a few. There has to be something said for the worldbuilding, this is an aspect that I value heavily and while the world of Anathem is a little austere and generally non-techy it is captivating, complete, and atmospheric. Somewhere in between the giant clock compounds and the in-universe dictionary (to which you will probably need to refer) I did start to lose my patience with the depth that's provided but that's complaining about too much of a good thing. More than anything Anathem's biggest strength is its delivery, there are a set of ideas that Stephenson wants to explore, and by god he explores them. This book is a physics, philosophy, art, and rhetoric class rolled into one, this book is definitely meta at times too. Finally, I have to shout out the humor because it definitely helps to break up the dense idea salad Stephenson is serving. This book is funny, and it's not afraid to riff on itself either. Whether it's giving all the tech silly names or commenting on the absurdity of a capitalist economy, or jokes buried in the footnotes/dictionary there's a light-hearted touch that carries on through the bulk of the novel.
This is my first time reading a Stephenson work cover to cover but I've been exposed to a number of excerpts from Cryptonomicon and a number of his short stories. I only mention this because of his style; Stephenson is fond of extremely complex plots & heavily detailed passages and if that sounds headache-inducing here's your first warning to pull the ripcord. Accordingly, Anathem has a very intricate plot that's centered around two schools of thought (I will be using their earth names): Platonic realism and Nominalism. To grossly simplify, Platonic realism is the idea that things outside of the body exist objectively, while Nominalism posits that anything outside the body is simply what we have observed, interpreted, and labeled. The book takes its time developing these concepts, and it does so with that patented Stephenson attention to detail, so to the reader: be patient and attentive.
Anathem is not flawless. It precluded itself from a perfect 5 when I had to learn a completely new vocabulary in the first 15 pages. I know I said that you can never have too much worldbuilding, and it is true that once you decipher the vocabulary it does serve to enhance the story (and in many cases deliver the humor) but there are almost 260 made-up words in this book and it's a burdensome ask. I don't think I would have had as much to complain about if the characters in this book were done better. Outside of their role in the story, they were flat and uninteresting, especially when compared to the emphasis placed on the ideas. It must be said that the characters are not the focus of this book.
What is really holding Anathem back is its pacing. For a plot to not get underway within the first 100 pages is inexcusable, there is very little to hook a reader aside from the worldbuilding early on. The mathic world is fascinating but I can see a lot of people putting this down after one or two, of seemingly endless philosophy lectures or the 10 pages of clock winding early on. Once the plot gets going Stephenson liberally applies the brakes every other chapter with one thought experiment detour after another. In my opinion, the constant distractions ultimately pay off, and understanding the ending is predicated on these philosophical detours. I may have fallen prey to the sunk cost fallacy but as I learned more I had more questions, and that slowly snowballed until I had to know what was going on. I could easily see it the other way.
I came away positive on this book, I saw it said somewhere else but I think I agree, “Anathem is the best book I would never recommend”. 7/10 (Closer to a 3 than a 4)