Anathem: Worthy of the investment

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.


9 Responses to “Anathem: Worthy of the investment”

  1. Guru Bob Says:

    The Diamond Age and Snow Crash are particularly good – I was into Crytonomicon but he lost me with the other Age of Reason books…

  2. 0r1n Says:

    I found the Age of Reason stuff okay, but again I had done a subject at Uni called “The Scientific Revolution” which involved reading a lot of the Leibnitz / Clarke / Newton stuff which forms the basis of the trilogy – so that background probably helped.

    I hear he writes his initial drafts by hand – which, given how verbose he is, simply amazes me.

  3. BrianC Says:

    Hey Orin.

    I’d like to pick your brain about some courseware books if you’ve got the time for me mate.

    Email me brian[dot]carbin[at]gmail[dot]com

  4. 0r1n Says:

    Email sent. By the way, gmail’s spam filter is very good – I have two public email addresses (,, one of which has been public for 15 years and the gmail spam filter captures almost everything. Also – scrapers can figure it out when you use the [dot] obfuscation;-)

  5. Flinthart Says:

    Interesting writer. I was enjoying his work up until, and including, Cryptonomicon. But his ‘confusion’ trilogy… I made it through the first book, and halfway through the second. Not that his material isn’t interesting. Just that if he wants to write history and philosophy, let the fucker write a textbook of history and philosophy.

    For my money, Umberto Eco does a better job at fusing history, philosophy and offbeat science with his fiction. I’ll hold Foucault’s Pendulum and The Isle Of The Day Before up against Stephenson’s best any time.

  6. Damian Says:

    I still want to do an online database project along the lines of the computer they call Abulafia in Foucault’s Pendulum. People would be able to enter historical events, and there’d be a way to programmatically extract “sequences” generating conspiracy theories, “discursive threads” and a sort of jumping off point for alternative histories. So far the amount of humor/value I see it generating hasn’t overcome the “can’t be arsed” factor, but one of these days…

  7. 0r1n Says:

    I’ll certainly check out Foucault’s Pendulum and Isle of the Day – one of the reasons I bother reviewing these books is to find other great books that I haven’t read yet. Thanks for that Flinthart!

  8. BrianC Says:

    Yeah i really like Anathem. Philosphy and science make good bed fellows when you start asking the really big questions. Stephenson mixes them so well. I was disapointed with the end game though, i had hopes for a more… impactfull ending. Still quite liked it.

  9. 0r1n Says:

    I was kinda waiting for Enoch Root to turn up, or one of the Waterhouse family 😉

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