For the last week, I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem. I don’t even know where to begin, but it doesn’t always happen that the book I’m reading distracts me from everything else, and I can’t remember it happening in a long time.
I’ve been reading a great deal of non-fiction the last few years. I don’t know why, exactly, it’s just been what has appealed to me. But this book…I was somehow drawn to it from the moment I saw an ad for it in the New Yorker a couple of months ago. I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it in the store, but when I went back to the bookstore after Christmas, and it was half-off, I figured I’d get it. At nearly 900 pages, plus three appendices and a glossary, it’s hefty, but that has never intimidated me.
I’d never read any of Stephenson’s books before, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I was (and am) absolutely blown away by this book. I’m a long-time reader of science-fiction, and I wonder if this is one of those books that may transcend mere genre fiction and head firmly in the direction of literature. There are a few others that I think of in this category–Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is the first that comes to mind, as does Robert Heinlein’s immortal Stranger in a Strange Land.
As a composer, “successful projection,” (to borrow a phrase from Vincent Persichetti) is often achieved when a piece creates a world that draw the listener in and compels them to stay. Stephenson has done much the same thing here. The world he creates is vivid, and wonderfully close enough to ours to be relevant, familiar and cautionary all at once. The beauty of good science-fiction is that it presents things as they might be–it is really under the same constraints of believability that all fiction labors under.
The characters begin in splendid isolation, in a university-cum-monastery whose doors open only at certain intervals to allow them to mingle with the outside world. The flow of information is restricted–an interesting idea, as the glut of low-quality in our society is already a problem (and I would include this blog in that category). The academics inside the monastery grow their own food and live a very ascetic life, owning everything in common, but also study advanced mathematics and physics, astronomy and, presumably, most of the other trappings of science.
Through the book, as the result of outside events, one wall after another is pulled down, sometimes literally, and our academics are thrust into the wider world with little more than their wits and their acquired knowledge, all theoretical. What follows (in the second half of the book) is yet another variation on a very old science-fiction subject–contact by an alien civilization. It is quite possible that the characters are prepared by their previous isolation (and its end) to deal with these events in idealized, rational ways; the second half of the book is a playing out of the ramifications of the first half.
This is not an easy book… Stephenson has a wide-ranging historical scope, and you will need to understand quite a bit of science-fact, along with a little philology (in that sense, the book is similar to Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) and the conventions of hard-sf writing. The author does not lead you by the hand and explain every little thing (this would get quite tedious), so I found myself checking the glossary from time to time.
I can’t overemphasize my enthusiasm for this book. It’s story burrowed into my brain this last week, and I haven’t been much interested in anything else since about last Wednesday–it was a pain to leave it at home when I went to work (if I brought the books I read for pleasure to work, I would rapidly be unemployed). I can’t remember the last book that pulled me in thus–the last few years, when I have picked up fiction, it has often been Harry Turtledove, whose style is atrocious and forces me to pull myself through the text to find out what alternate history he has worked out; I may be done with Turtledove. What I need to figure out is whether I am drawn to this book because of its interest in the things I am interested in–academia, science, religion, music, cosmology–or because it is just a good book. That is why I’ve decided to do something I hardly ever do with books I’ve picked up just for pleasure–now that I’m done, I’m going to reread it. I can’t even remember the last time I did this with a novel; I was probably in middle school. I know that in 900 pages there are things that I missed, and things I need to revisit in light of the entire story, though.