When Stephenson’s Anathem came out a couple of years ago, I was extremely excited. Sibling-the-Elder bought me a copy and just as soon as I had a few minutes, I was going to charge into it.
It is now 2011 and I’ve just finally finished it. This was the first book that I’d read start to finish on a Kindle, a DX that I borrowed from work. My ringing pronouncement on the e-ink format? It was okay. I really disliked not having page numbers, missed being able to flip back and forth easily, and just didn’t feel like I was making progress. I didn’t realize there were fully explained calca at the end nor a collected version of the dictionary terms that are scattered through the book until I got there. I would have preferred to read the calca in context and several times I wanted to bounce back to the beginning for a look at the calendar but wasn’t at ease with it. The text would go from vertical to horizontal if it didn’t like the angle I was sitting at, which I found annoying, and ultimately, it still felt like screen time. It does weigh less than the hardcover though and I haven’t had to charge it.
Despite its physical weight (the hardcover is nearly 3 lbs) and length (960 pages), Anathem is one of Stephenson’s more accessible texts. Creating an alternate world, he poses questions about religion, math as a different kind of religion, monastic living, secular versus religious power (though he poses it as secular vs math–so, secular vs science), youth succeeding to responsibility, nuclear weapons, and how we as humans would deal with an alien presence.
At the most basic level, Stephenson presents you with a coming of age tale: beginning to question one’s abilities, losing trusted mentors, first love, learning to rely on friends and recognize that they too are coming of age and skill. But his world building goes far beyond that, poking not so gentle fun at the general populace and fixation on entertainment and a drug that keeps on always happy and distracted. Only those who raise their own food are immune from the “All’s Well” permeating the regular diet and keeping one distracted. Combined with the recent dietary lectures I heard at AAAS*, it was one of those things that make you think about going home and throwing out everything in the pantry and trying again.
Though at some point I’m sure I read a summary or cover flap, I went into the story without any clear memory of those, which let me read without expectation. I really had no particular idea where Stephenson was headed and I can’t say I was anticipating a number of the things that happened. While there was the somewhat standard Stephenson “let me world build for you for a while before we really get rolling”–it wasn’t to the same depth as it was in the Baroque Cycle, where I slogged through 300 pages, hoping and praying that eventually he’d get to something resembling the adventures I was hoping to find. But with that trilogy, I was dealing with an introduction to a 2700 page epic–instead of this mere 1000 pages.
But Stephenson continues to capture my attention and transport me to his world. Leisure reading time is at a premium right now and I saved Anathem for the morning and evening commute. As this is at most hour of reading per day, it took me a lot longer than it might have otherwise. But once settled into a seat on the train, I crawled right back into Arbre and the world of the avout. There were multiple trips where I got off at my place of work and looked around, wondering where the maths of our time were–for they were more than our mere universities, though there was a component of that as well.
Stephenson chose to create some of his own vocabulary for this world and I’ve already found it creeping into everyday use. Coming back a cluster of coworkers, I brightly inquired if they were having a convox–not realizing until about five minutes later that I’d used a word that doesn’t exist in everyday American English. And over dinner with the Philosopher**, who has also recently finished Anathem, I took exception to something he said and led off with “Let us assume for the sake of argument…” and began a traditional Dialog. Though I can’t say I planed him, that I managed to pull an avout conversation into a discussion of the use of the word “on” probably has forever labeled me a Stephenson FanGirl in his eyes***.
By the end of the book I was exhausted. While accessible and an interesting adventure, one can only take so much quantum mechanics before breakfast or at the end of a long day. And I was starting to feel bad about myself, here it was taking me weeks to get through this book. I’m a fast reader! What was wrong with me? (Note that I had to keep reminding myself I was reading this tome for usually no more than an hour a day.) Now that I’m finished, I’m amazed how much faster “regular” books seem to go.
Of course, I’m also eying Mongoliad again, remembering that I’m 20 chapters or so behind….
*Pay no attention to the AAAS blog posts sitting in draft….
**Who needs to start writing his Master’s Dissertation
***Not that being a FanGirl is a bad thing at all.