by Neal Stephenson
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Fraa Erasmus is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the "Saecular" world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities, and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent's walls. Three times during history's darkest epochs, bloody violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet always the avout have managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. Erasmus, however, has no fear of the outside - the Extramuros - for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago. Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fras and suurs prepare to venture outside the concent's gates - opening them wide at the same time to welcome the curious "extras" in. During his first Apert as a fra, Erasmus eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn't seen since he was "collected". But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the perilous brink of cataclysmic change. Powerful unforeseen forces threaten the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros - a threat that only an unsteady alliance of Saecular and avout can oppose - as, one by one, Raz's colleagues, teachers, and friends are all called forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a worlds-shattering responsibility, Erasmus finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of everything - as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of an unfamiliar planet...and far beyond.
Stephenson Does it Again
Neal Stephenson, author of some of the best cyber fiction ever has done it again. After his last trilogy into the science fiction of history (and not the history of science fiction btw), he's again gone back in time and written science fiction as it would have been. He has no shortage of words and uses them to develop stunning characters to my geek-heart's delight. In the last trilogy, Stephenson focused on the unfolding science of the Age of Reason and the effect that those in the scientific community had on slavery. In Cryptonomicon Stephenson focused on the effect of science (and more specifically the effect of cryptography) on determining the outcome of the second world ward. Stephenson's work is not really science fiction in as much as it is scientific fiction. Again, in this work, he zero's in on a critical time in history and the effect science had upon it. But it's not for those with a problem with attention span, at about 40 hours.
One, Two, Three, and Four Stars ... Depending ...
I bought this expecting and hoping for something along the lines of Stephenson's other works: Snow Crash ("SC") and The Diamond Age ("TDA"). If this describes you, be forewarned that Anathem is nothing like either. I have listened to Anathem in full twice and I want to emphasize the following: if I had rated this audiobook within the first two hours, I would have given it one star; after six hours, two stars; by the end of my first full listen -- three stars. I'm tempted to give it five stars after the second full listen, but cannot because of my exposure to SC and TDA, which are in all respects better than Anathem, at least insofar as an audiobook goes. It takes several hours for Anathem's reader to hit his stride and at first, it feels like he is reading a story. In this way, Anathem differs markedly from SC or TDA, where one feels immediately teleported from the first sentence. I believe this is more an issue with the text itself rather than the reader, because once the reader has some material to work with, he does a good job of voicing the various characters. It's just that Stephenson takes a good three or four hours to get up and running and as a result, Anathem's start is a little rough. Another thing that left me nonplussed, was Stephenson's extensive yet somewhat arbitrary use of invented vocabulary. He prefaces the book by telling us that he will be using "miles" and "carrots" to make reading easier with respect to Arbre's analogues of Earth's same, but that he must invent words for certain things on Arbre for which no analogue exists. It is hard for me to understand however, why pickup trucks, video cameras, and cellphone/computing devices need new words, while roads, telescopes, and radios keep their Earth names. This probably works better in a physical text because one can refer to a glossary -- but in an audiobook it can make the first couple hours a real slog, as if one is visiting a foreign country with a bit of a vocabulary deficit. While this sense of dislocation may have been intentional to accent the otherworldliness of Arbre, it is mostly an impediment to the story. I realize that this review sounds incredibly negative at this point. I can easily say that the story itself is classically Stephenson in the way it brings together numerous interesting ideas. I also fully enjoyed it (second time through) and feel it was a worthy investment as I will certainly listen to it again. Just be prepared, it may take two listens to "get". At least it did for me.
The next Classic author
Neal Stephenson, I am convinced, will be the next author whose stories appear under the catagory of "The Classics". As far as I am concerned, reading this book, and most every other one of Neal Stephenson's should be mandatory; like the works of Charles Dickens... only interesting. This story is similar to "Canticle for Lebowitz" (I probably mispelled that...) in a way, only turned on its head. It focuses on a world where the role of a monk or priest is instead filled by a logician. It somehow manages to be wildly entertaining and interesting, while not becoming boring or pedantic, despite the complexity of the material. Please, read this novel. You will be extremely grateful that you did.