Anathem is a book that not everyone is going to understand. The guy from XKCD certainly didn’t, implying that the chances of a book being good were inversely proportional to the number of made up words it included. So in Mr XKCD’s universe, Dune sucked, while books without invented words, like, I dunno, Mills and Boon, are top notch! In the Anathem universe, it is pretty clear what side of the concent walls Mr XKCD would live on.
Stephenson introduces a large number of created words to describe his world. Some people have had a real problem with this. I found it bound me to the world even tighter – just like words like Bene Gesserit, Kwizach Hadderach and Sardukar bound me to Frank Herbert’s dune. The book includes a glossary, but you have a good general idea what the word means by its context. Each new word is there because there isn’t a direct mapping between a concept in our world and a concept in Stephenson’s (an example is Bullshyte which refers to the half truths that marketers and politicians use when talking – something we don’t really have a word for). Stephenson is clever and his use of words is also clever, but some lazy readers want to be spoon fed. If you want to be spoon fed, you’ll hate Anathem.
The setup is a world in a parallel universe where all the smart people are rounded up and put into monasteries. These monasteries are called concents. The civilization outside the walls of the concent rises and falls like the tide and the people that live inside have gotten pretty good at predicting how long it will be until the next big fall by noting things how reliant everyone outside is on gadgets (JeeJahs) and how their literacy drops correspondingly. It has been several thousand years since this civilization first reached a point roughly equivalent to where ours is now. It has oscillated between the medieval and technological since. One of the reasons all the smart people is locked away is to stop the development of weapons that will completely wipe out civilization. Essentially you can only knock yourself back so far when you’ve made sure that dudes that would come up with stuff like singularity bombs are safely tucked away in a monastery without access to stuff like electricity. Except that, like in Dune where they got rid of smart computers, the dudes behind the concent walls have developed the mental acuity of mentats.
Stephenson is famous for his digressions and Anathem digresses across philosophy, science and mathematics like a whirling dervish with middle ear problems. If you aren’t into philosophy, science and mathematics, you are going to hate Anathem. My undergraduate degree is in philosophy of science, so following this wasn’t problematic, but I can imagine how people who haven’t encountered these topics might find the text a bit hard to wade through.
But if you are interested in this sort of stuff and you loved books like Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, System of the World and Diamond Age you’ll realize that Anathem is Stephenson at the peak of his abilities. All his previous books have been working towards this. If you like the other books more than Anathem I suspect its because you saw the shiny stuff like Hiro Protagonist the elite samurai hacker delivering pizza but somehow missed the protracted discussions of sumerian mythology and epistemology. All the stuff that is in Anathem is in the earlier works, its just that some of the earlier works had Michael Bay window dressing.
The only word to describe Anathem is brilliant – and I mean it in the sense of it being a work of genius rather than “dude, that’s awesome!”. It is a book that requires a lot of its reader – but, if you are the sort of reader that is willing to intellectually commit to a book – you’ll find it thoroughly rewarding. The only reason that I’ve said “River of Gods” is my favourite of 2008, and not Anathem, is that River of Gods is an immersive experience, Anathem is primarily an intellectual one.