I fell head over heels in love with Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon when I read the first chapter online. And I ordered it right then and there and tore through it when it finally arrived a few days after from Amazon. It remains one of my all-time favorite books to this day.
So when the baroque cycle, Stephenson’s ‘masterpiece’ arrived some years later, I obviously pre-ordered it well ahead of time and hunkered down as soon as Quicksilver—the first of the three volumes—arrived… And then nothing. Not a damn thing. There was just no spark, and I was mortally disappointed. I still have all three, beautiful hardbacks, sitting on a shelf, eyeing me from time to time, trying to coerce me into giving them another go, but so far I simply haven’t had the courage.
Instead I went back and read his older and very ’90’s’ cyperpunk classic, Snow Crash, which is just a rollicking ride of madness and mayhem, so much so that I don’t even know if I think it’s good or not; simply that it’s pure bubblegum.
So anyway, over the holidays I finally finished his latest science fiction epic, Anathem, and finally. Just what the doctor ordered.
And I’m not normally one for ‘bricks’; that is, fantasy and science fiction books above the 400 page count (which regrettably includes most books in those two genres). I’ve always loved the idea of the epic journey into imagined worlds, and really, who can argue with books like Dune or Lord of the Rings? But in reality, there’s a very real reason these genres aren’t considered high culture; because most of the books suck.
And over the years, I’ve found that one rather good indicator for me personally on whether or not a sci-fi book is worth picking up, is its length. The shorter, the better. Sure, not the most scientific method in the world, but I was surprised just how well it works when put into action. I’ll take Philip K. Dick over Peter F. Hamilton (Pandora’s Star was the tipping point) any day of the week.
But that’s not to say that all long books are bad, obviously; and if nothing else, Anathem is brilliant proof of just that. Because man, is it ever a brick! It’s so much a brick that I wouldn’t have minded it if Stephenson had halfed it into parts one and two; that way I wouldn’t have to wreck my hands trying to hold it.
But it was worth a broken hand or two, to swoon over this, epic philosophical space operaesque love-letter to thinkers and great minds everywhere and down through the ages, which in short is about another planet on which science and philosopher monks discover something which has wide-ranging consequences, all the whilst strange words are used liberally.
It took me a few hundred pages before I really ‘got’ it. It starts slow, meanders a bit, not entirely willing to show its hand, but then suddenly takes off and doesn’t let up until the end (with the exception of the messal’s, which are slightly long, I’ll admit).
And it is really, in many ways, a monumental book. Not only because it is well told, inventive and interesting, but because the mere idea of writing a book about great thinkers in itself must have been a rather difficult task, even for someone as well-read and thinkerish as Stephenson. But the payoff is a culture and civilization which is at the same time utterly alien, yet relatable and real. And that is a fine line to walk without falling into the pits of ‘overmuch’ and ‘yawn’.
In a sense, I guess Anathem reads a bit like the futuristic offspring of Snow Crash and Quicksilver. Part bubblegum, part pretencious. Kinda like The Matrix. It gets a big ol’ thumbs up from me, even if I wouldn’t have minded some more character insights and interplay; but overall, it was just the kind of novel I’ve been looking for.