Friday, October 23, 2009


We have met the aliens, and they are us. That's what struck me about Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which it's taken me a whole year to read. I had gotten almost halfway through (396 pages in) when I stopped for a while, simply because this is a novel that requires you to read it in large sections, great contemplative swathes of time. Since I'm measuring out my life in coffee spoons, loads of laundry, miles driven, and papers graded, it was hard for me to make the time to read, an extremely frustrating state of affairs. So what was the answer to the question of how to finish it? The excellently performed audiobook, read by Dufris, Wyman, Gilbert, and Stephenson himself. That gave me at least two hours twice a week to re-immerse myself in the twists and turns of the continent-spanning adventure story, underlaid with seeming digressions like an 80-page conversation about the nature of the universe, and culminating in a trip to outer space.

Anathem is one of the novels held up to ridicule by this xkcd comic, but I was as much interested in the words as in anything. They're from alien tongues, mostly from one called Orth, that developed along lines similar to English. Discussion of merely the title word, Anathem, involving both "anthem" and "anathema," takes up an inordinate amount of time in some reviews. My favorite word is the one the main character, Fraa Erasmus (or "Raz") uses to describe the phone/blackberry devices carried by everyone outside his "concent" (similar to a convent but for academic contemplation rather than religious): "geegaws." The degree of onomatopoeia tickles me every time I hear it, to the extent that I now think of cell phones, at least in the back of my mind, by that name.

The main characters of Anathem, the ones you sympathize with and root for, are aliens, living on the planet Arbre and investigating an orbiting alien spacecraft which turns out to be a joint effort originally from four different planets, one of them identified as "Laterra," or--as it turns out--Earth. But that fact is less central than you might expect, providing only one of many opportunities to examine Arbre and its inhabitants from one perspective and then another. One of my favorite parts is the public questioning of Erasmus by a skilled Rhetor, Fraa Lodoghir, whom Erasmus and many of his fraas and suurs suspect of having "the power to alter the past" with words.

More complete reviews of Anathem attempt to summarize the plot or discuss the relationship between science and religion that Stephenson says was based on observation. More interesting to the movement of this immense (935 pages) story are the recurring theoretical conversations about multiple universes, summed up most cogently by Erasmus' teacher and father-figure, Orolo:
"We developed a theory that our minds were capable of envisioning possible futures as tracks through configuration space and then rejecting ones that didn't follow a realistic action principle."
It is this seemingly theoretical conversation that underlies the action of the novel, culminating at first in what looks like the death of the main characters on p. 826 (the end of one of the audiobook cds) and then alluded to by the rest of the main characters for the last hundred pages.

The novel ends with a kiss, and the promise of a new generation in a world made more perfect by the recent actions of the characters. I couldn't have been more satisfied by the ending unless it had been a little longer. Sigh.

Have you ever read something so immense and absorbing that you were disappointed to come to the end?


Alison said...

Not so much a comment as a question: are all Stephenson's neologisms like the ones you describe (either words that are similar to English words or, like "geegaws," actual English words with a different meaning)?

Jeanne said...

Most of them are similar to English words. I liked "fetch" for what seems to be a pickup truck.

Alison said...

Nice! It reminds me of my sister when she was little. She had a tendency to invent similar (and often more-apt) names for common items. For instance the "hello-phone."

I really love geegaws for cell phones and other miniature electronica. That term probably gives them closer to the appropriate priority than the slang words we use (my "brain," for instance).

Betty said...

I just finished the first of the Mary Russell novels (at your recommendation) & I found myself so sad that it was over. Fortunately, there are numerous more so I won't have to leave that world for good!

Also, audiobooks are sometimes the only way I can get through certain novels, especially lengthy ones, and depending on the reader, they often make me enjoy the book more than I would have if I had read it silently.

kittiesx3 said...

Dan Simmons' Hyperion series was one I hated to see end. Three volumes in all, and each one is massive but they weren't enough. I wanted more.

Kristen said...

The books that I am truly saddened to have end are pretty few and far between but they are all the more special for their scarcity.

FreshHell said...

Yes, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I love a long, huge book to get lost in. And I am sad when a really good one is over.

lemming said...

Still sad that Teh Hobbit is so short every time I read it.

No, to answer your next question LOTR isn't the same. It's good, but it's not the same. :-)

Read a fascinating biography of the cartoonist Charles Adams this summer, which I was truly sorry to have end. Does a work have to be fiction to fit your category?

J.T. Oldfield said...

that's one of my favorite xkcd comics!

Cschu said...

There are lots of books I hate to see end. I like it when the ending lingers, letting you savor a bit more of the story and enjoy the characters when they are not in some sort of grave peril. LOTR and Anathem were especially good for this.

Ben and I read your review together (he read out loud) and enjoyed listening to your comments about a book we had both read.

Jodie said...

I'm glad to hear a positive opinion of this one finally! Last year I read Stephenson's gigantic 'Quicksilver' and was sorry to come to the end of it (luckily it's part of a trilogy). I've been wondering whether to try his sci-fi stuff, but have heard so many bad things about this one so far.

Jeanne said...

Betty, and the good thing about the Mary Russell novels is that she's still writing them...

Elizabeth, sounds like another series to add to my list of things to read eventually.

Kristen, yes, I don't say this lightly, that I was sad there was no more.

FreshHell, another book to get to, it sounds like!

Lemming, I can see why you feel that way about the Hobbit. I'm always supremely satisfied by the 3 or 4 different endings to LOTR. And no, I don't see why this should be limited to fiction.

J.T. It's one of the two favorite xkcd comics I have taped up in my kitchen. The other one is the graph of intelligence and inanity of statements correlated to proximity to a cat ("you're a kitty!")

CSchu, wow. I hope my prose is up to being read out loud.

Jodie, I didn't read The Baroque Cycle. But I loved everything that came before that--Zodiak, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon.

kittiesx3 said...

Jodie, I can't speak for Stephenson's fantasy novels but like Jeanne I've read pretty much all the rest. The only complaint I have is that in some of his earlier works, I get the feeling that he got tired of the story or the characters or something and just ended the book rather abruptly. But I've enjoyed the plot etc in all of them up to that point.