Paperback Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem represents my second encounter with the genius of Neal Stephenson (third, if you count my aborted read of Quicksilver), and I can honestly say that while the reading experience does not get any easier, there is the same sense of satisfaction accomplishment waiting at the end. More dense, less accessible, and somehow not as interesting as Cryptonomicon, it's a book that almost violently defies categorization.

I find it a really difficult book to review. The university-educated, critical reading, spectacle-wearing intellectual who lies deep within me wants to award it five stars for its sheer audacity, limitless depths of esoteric concepts, and laudable efforts to make math interesting. It really is a book to be admired as much for what it sets out to accomplish as for the skill behind it. However, the tired, overworked, long-haired geek in search of entertainment who resides a bit closer to my surface is struggling to award it any more than two stars for the brief, fitful glimpses of story hidden between the concepts. There's a really exciting novella buried here, but it would take an entire concent another millennium to unearth it.

More than anything else, I guess my problem is its all just so boring. Plot developments are so few and far between, it feels like the story never moves ahead. There's a lot of talking, a lot of thinking, a lot of writing, and a lot of calculating going on that, quite honestly, I would have been content to have seen left off the page. Yes, it's interesting and, yes, I can honestly say I learned a few things, but they were hard lessons. By the times the aliens actually appear, I'd honestly forgotten that there were aliens in the book, and by the time we get to the revelations about Fraa Erasmas . . . well, I'd stopped caring.

It took me nearly a year of on again/off again reading to get through it, and it was more a sense of obligation that kept dragging me back than any real desire to get back into the story. The book never really grabbed my attention, and simply didn't offer my any incentive to keep reading. I feel bad, because there's a nagging voice in the back of my head that keeps telling me I should appreciate it more, but appreciation is not the same as enjoyment, and therein lies the rub.