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by Neal Stephenson; narrated byWilliam Dufris

One might suggest that Stephenson’s last work, the aptly titled “Baroque Saga” went too far into the eriudite and too far from its narrative. The same complaint might be made of Anathem, with its extended conversations about different philosophical ideas and understanding of the relationship between space, physics, and philosophy. But I wouldn’t make that complaint.

Anathem tells the story of Fraa Erasmus, a monk in a “math”– a sort of monastic order for scientists devised to keep the science-minded from mucking up the world as they’re apt to do when they get too feisty with their toys (c.f. Jurassic Park). The world goes all topsy turvy when a spaceship from somewhere far away (or perhaps another cosmos?) shows up and causes trouble.

Some thoughts:

  • Definitely hard core Stephenson. Excellent if you enjoyed the following bits of his previous novels: the science in The Baroque cycle, the organ stuff in Cryptonomicon, or the stuff about ancient languages hacking the brain-stem in Snow Crash. This book has a lot of that. I dig it, but I can see how you might not. It’s got less of the adventury wicked cool stuff than books like The Diamond Age or Zodiac.
  • The idea of the long term plan, the maths with their decenarians, centenarians, and millenarians (whose gates open for cultural exchange every decade, century, and millennium, respectively) tweaks me, as do the technological tricks he came up with to allow for such structures — the bolt, cord, and sphere, the mechanical devices that allow for the gates to open, and so on. The carefully crafted world and history that create that world flow through the book with every page. Lovely.
  • For me, the book’s new language and ideas worked well, in spite of the xkcd rule.
  • I would be interested to know whether the book’s first half drove off most of the people who wouldn’t have appreciated its second half. Does the gauntlet of philosophy make the second half more enjoyable?
  • His detailed and slow creations of the characters make their interactions in the second half work really well. The distinct ways each person speaks and acts become amusing and delightful as the story enters its final phase, but even in the most exciting moments, it maintains its contemplative distance.
  • I remain a sustained and solid Stephenson fan. Good stuff.

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