Neal Stephenson, Anathem (Atlantic Books 2008)
I approached this book with enthusiasm (based on my love of everything by Neal Stephenson I’ve ever read) tempered with guilt (is it the best use of my time to read a 900 page science fiction novel?) and resentment (surely he could have told his story in fewer pages than that, and given us something not quite so heavy to lug around). Three hundred pages later, resentment was a dim memory, guilt had faded to irrelevance, and enthusiasm was transformed into something like exhilaration.
Imagine a cross between Harry Potter and The Name of the Rose, with a substantial dash of A Brief History of Time thrown in, and the faintest possible hint of The Da V*nci Code. A group of adolescent (that is, awfully earnest but also charmingly naughty) members of an religious order set out to solve a mystery, not of a murder but of an invasion from outer space, and uncover a secret conspiracy that’s thousands of years old – only it’s not a religious order exactly, but a vast enclosed community devoted to reason, debate and theoeticcal (theoric in the world of the novel); it’s oversimplifying to say that the invasion is from outer space, and the conspiracy … well, I’m not sure I quite grasped what was going on there, something you could never say about D*n Brown’s plots). There’s maths, there’s physics, there’s philosophy, all redolent of what we know on earth but twisted into new and strange shapes. There are space ninjas (sort of), time travel (sort of), 7000 years worth of back story, and more diverging alternative realities than you can poke a Diana Wynne Jones at. In fact, just when you think you’ve got the measure of this book, it does some kind of athletic sault (oh yes, it makes you want to do that sort of thing to language) and you’re casting about for a new measuring device. The sheer energy of Neal Stephenson’s mind is amazing. His erudition is matched only by his playfulness. His acknowledgements page more or less wrings its hands, says there’s not enough room, and refers the interested reader to 4700 words or so on the web. He can make a fifty-page conversation about the philosophical idea of multiple cosmi not just readable, but fun, though I confess that in that part of the book I was occasionally tempted to skip. But it’s hard to skip when the text is so thick with invention he coins the term Artificial Inanity to describe something that sounds very like spam, for example, and one of his ‘aliens’ says incomprehensibly alien things such as ‘say zhoost’ to signify agreement or ‘monyafeek’ to express admiration. For those who enjoy an in joke, the marvellously long-lived Enoch Root, a character from earthbound novels Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, makes an appearance here – he has a different name, but there was no mistaking him.
I marked this passage at about the half way mark, just because I liked it. Interestingly, I think it comes close to articulating what the book, beneath all the prolixity, the explosions and the mind boggling theorics, is about:
Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organisations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will behind this; not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.