Dear J-

I finished up Neal Stephenson’s Anathem today — three days short of the three-week due date and faster than I’d predicted, given that I was only halfway through on Saturday.  The story picks up steam towards the end, and there’s a lot of endless philosophizing that just needs to get plowed through, unless that’s your bag and the thought process behind thought and reality gets you going.  I understand why there’s a few reviews that slagged Stephenson for producing what they considered a bloated (890 pages of main story in the hardback edition; if there’s a paperback you’re a better person than me), unreadable (like some other recent books I’ve read you’re dropped directly into the world and a new set of terms without any gentle introduction — sink or swim, people) wrack of a novel, but I also believe that they didn’t have the time it demands.

If you really want to know why I love reading stuff by Stephenson it boils down to this:  he takes care of the reader without pandering.  The hero/narrator, Erasmas, isn’t some extraordinarily infused specimen, meaning that he’s not the strongest, nor the smartest, nor the best behaved of his peers and in doing so, you believe that the extraordinary things he does do are achievable by anyone.  Contrast this to the book I’d just read before, Boris Starling’s Visibility*, which is a sloppily-done spy/police thriller set in London’s Great Fog where the confirmed-bachelor protagonist somehow ends up with the one beautiful woman who actually understands him instinctively and completely over the course of a single meal.  Worse, the centerpiece of a Cold War-era espionage novel is an encoded secret, but the code consists of nothing better than a grade-school caliber single substitution cypher, which is then decoded at great length and detail in the plot as though it was a staggering accomplishment.  Anathem does not insult you like that.  It assumes a reasonable level of intelligence and parades big questions in front of you, philosophical dilemmas and forces you to re-examine what you’re doing.

It’s not completely faultless:  without giving too much away I never felt like any of the main characters were in much jeopardy although there are tragedies along the way, and they find themselves in an impossible, one-way-mission situation later on.  Said situation is actually responsible for the best (hilarious gallows) humor in the novel and maudlin facing-death-bravely manly man actions; it comes at just the right time, when the plot threatens to bog down in endless conversations of hypotheticals and what-may-be after an exciting journey.  It’s strange, though; the first hundred pages or so I couldn’t tell where he wanted to go with the story and we’d be subjected to endless pages of life in a monastery run by math geeks.  But once it takes off, hold on:  the ride is just as memorable as all the other Stephenson books I’ve been lucky enough to lay hands on.


* Ironically, the version of Visibility that I read has a “Great Read Guaranteed” sticker on the cover; if I hadn’t checked it out from the library I’d definitely ask for my money back.


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