Neal Stephenson gets back to straight up science fiction with Anathem. At first I was a little disappointed because I enjoyed his forays into historical fiction with Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle and I was hoping for more of that. However, Anathem revisits some of the themes from Snow Crash and Diamond Age, which are two of my favorite books, and builds on them.
Stephenson literally confronts the reader with the language as virus/magic theme from Snow Crash by inventing his own vocabulary. I’ve heard some complaints about the vocabulary. It even inspired an XKCD comic. At first all of the neologisms make the reading difficult, but eventually they melt right in. It’s that transformation that brings the narrative out of the book and right into the reader’s head. I think the book could just have easily been written without the fictional vocabulary, but I believe that the process of internalizing the words is an integral part of the story and the book is definitely better for it.
Anathem also takes another look at the intertwined and cyclical relationships of technology and social order that he first addressed in Diamond Age. Both the setting and the tone will feel familiar anyone who’s read the earlier book. However, Stephenson examines more than just technology. There are long discussions of philosophy, mathematics, and science. Most of these discussions use some fictional vocabulary, but are based on actual ideas. Again, the process of arranging the fictional ideas among their real life counterparts is part of the story.
There is enough in the book that it shouldn’t be dismissed and “just science fiction”, but there is no doubt that this is a science fiction novel. In fact, Stephenson opens the book with a note to the reader that the story does not take place on Earth. At times the sci-fi seems a little forced with star ships and aliens, but not so much that it hurts the story. The bulk of the science in the book is real.
Overall, the book was a great read. I finished it in just a few days and stayed up way too late more than once when I couldn’t put the book down. I was sad when I finished because I’ll miss it. I definitely recommend this books to those who like Stephenson’s work and would even recommend it to those who think they don’t like science fiction.