If you have been the brave, attentive reader of The Reading Journal that I presume, you know that I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson. You can review most of his work in my review of (CRTL-Click on the link) Neal Stephenson.
Now, having said that, I did have trouble finishing his last effort, The Baroque Cycle, Stephenson's massive three-volume fantasy-cum-swashbuckler-political thriller-mathematics history lesson bounce through 18th century Western Europe. I ended my review of Stephenson with Volume 1 (which I loved) with the prophecy that Volume II was on its way and it was "probably worth it". Volume II was -- sort of. Volume III however, nearly killed me and by the time I had choked my way through it, I was done with Stephenson for a while. So, when Anathem came out to some terrific raves, I succumbed to the temptation and ordered both the book and the Kindle version. When this massive 935-page tome hit my mailbox I was convinced that Stephenson had caught a bad case of authorial-extension disorder -- that terribly debilitating malady that strikes some writers causing them to substitute volume for quality. Think of it as "Dickens Disease", though Dickens had an excuse -- he got paid by the word.
I hated the first 25 or so pages (perhaps it was the first 50 -- hard to tell on the Kindle) -- where Stephenson commits all the sins (as far as I am concerned) -- he introduces a whole new planet, a new language with new meanings but close enough to what you understand for it to be monumentally confusing; he gives things weird names (like in a bad sci-fi story); he spends pages describing arcane features of a society's architecture (this for me a torture - my ability to conceive of three-dimensional space is limited at best); and worse -- he begins to describe the integration of philosophy and meta-physics. To top it off, he introduces the novel with a review of a made up 7,000 year history and starts the reader off with trying to understand the practices of his made-up religious order. I was ready to throw in the towel.
But Stephenson is nothing if not a practiced artist, so I stuck with Anathem and I am glad that I did. Anatham finally succeeds for me in creating a different world in a different place. and the world of Fra Erasmus is very definitely different. The "mathic" world is separated from the "saecular" world. The world of higher math and philosophy has morphed into what we would see as quasi-religious orders - different orders with different orientations towards math, physics, and philosopy and the integration thereof. The orders live in a concent (co-ed monastery) and are removed and separate from the outside world. Stephenson ultimately succeeds in delivering these separate worlds/lives to us - thought the use of new words to describe things is always something akin to irritating.
Once every 10 years (or once every 1, 10, 100, or 1,000 years depending on which "order" you belong to) the concent is opened for 10 days and the "mathic" and "saecular" worlds are allowed to co-mingle. It is on the eve of one such 10 year "apert" that our story begins and we get to know Fra Erasmus.
Fra Erasumus was "collected" to the order 10 years ago as a child - and now as a teenager he is about to get his first look in a decade at the world he left behind. It is the beginning of a grand adventure - one that puts him, his friends, his order, and his world in the midst of a global drama with potentially cataclysmic consequences. It is Stephenson's skill as both a story-teller, researcher, and futurist that kept me engaged and interested (after I got through the architecture) and after a while, I was simply fascinated.
Like his work in The Diamond Age, Stephenson is a master at combining history and future - creating a world at the same time familiar and wildly different, combining real science with science-fiction, and creating characters that we can identify with mostly - but not totally. Anathem turns out to be a terrific mystery story, an intriguing exploration of philosophy and mathematics, a pretty cool sci-fi concept (or perhaps more than one) with good dialogue, real humor and warmth, and some decent action. Also, it contains a couple of really good twists that are both entertaining and surprising.
Warning - you must be patient -- this story takes a while to grab you. Now, to be honest, if you don't like sci-fi, or have no interest in math, science or philosphy you might find Anathem to be dull and uninteresting. A number of other reviews have remarked that Stephenson is not for everybody and that is certainly true. But if you liked The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon or are a big fan of William Gibson or perhaps even Larry Niven (e.g., Ringworld), give Anathem and Neal Stephenson a try.