Select one of the keywords
Anathem    by Neal Stephenson order for
by Neal Stephenson
Order:  USA  Can
Macmillan, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, Paperback, CD, e-Book

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Anathem, Neal Stephenson masterfully paints in words (perhaps too slowly for some) all the details of daily monastic life on an the planet Arbre, so that readers live that life along with his characters. The audiobook is read by William Dufris, Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, and Neal Stephenson himself - and they do a wonderful job of conveying a range of personalities and ages, especially the young group of friends surrounding the narrator Erasmus. The audiobook is enhanced by original music (composed by David Stutz) that adds depth and solemnity.

Civilization in this world came close to collapse thousands of years before, partly due to developments in nuclear technology and genetic engineering. Afterwards, scientists were collected into concents (monastic communities without the religion) overseen by the Sęcular Power. Human knowledge was kept separate and controlled. The long introduction to concent life that begins Anathem immediately brings to mind A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.. Listeners quickly become attached to the young avouts of the concent of Saunt Edhar, especially to fraa Erasmus, a critical thinker who's always in trouble and who reveres his aging mentor Orolo.

Chapters begin with dictionary definitions (as in anathem, a blend of anthem and anathema) that illuminate the culture and expose its subtle differences from our own. When anathem is sung for Orolo (who has been secretly investigating a spaceship orbiting their world, and is thrown out of the concent naked), a grieving Raz is determined to find out why. Very soon and very suddenly afterwards - just after Erasmus and suur Ala fall in love and plan to form a liaison - Ala is taken from the concent for secret work. Raz and his friends find out more about the spaceship. Then Raz is ejected from the concent also. He and his companions (including revered Thousander Jad) have been told to make the long journey to Saunt Tredegarh.

On Jad's orders, Raz and his sister (who has accompanied the group) and others search for Orolo, crossing the north pole and journeying to Orithena. This is when the action ramps up fast as Raz encounters adventures he would never have anticipated in his previous sheltered life. At Orithena, he finds an ancient order (the Lineage) and a concent that really isn't. And he's briefly united with Orolo again before the aliens (now called Geometers and including factions who are clearly at odds with each other) attack.

Raz does finally end up in Saunt Tredegarh - site of a conference involving both avout and the Sęcular Power - with his closest fraas and suurs. He learns that the Geometers are not only from offworld but from several entirely different cosmoses. The conference is infiltrated by a linguist from the spaceship, Jules Verne Durand, who offers to help Arbre. Following a plan developed by Ala, the avout split into small cells and leave the concent before it is attacked. Raz's cell (which includes some of his fellow fras) has been assigned the task of boarding the Geometers' ship (in space). They are not, however, told the full plan. And, once they orbit Arbre, their dreams seem to bleed into reality. They wonder what is really happening - and who is in control.

Though Anathem is not for everyone - dense as it is in science and philosophy and with an often very slow pace - Stephenson does an incredible job of filling in all the minutiae of life on Arbre, and makes readers feel they're living it alongside Raz and his fellows. He stirs together a fascinating blend of another world (with aspects that resonate with our own); a coming of age (of Raz and his fraas and suurs); and a first contact (with humans from other dimensions). Neal Stephenson fans - and indeed any SF reader (or listener) who's up to the challenge of his complex storytelling - will revel in Anathem.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more SF books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews