Monday, September 07, 2009

The Year of Good Books: Anathem

When people find out what a huge nerd I am, they often ask me what my favorite book is. I try to give them an answer of something I've read in the last five years, and the sequence has been "The Lord of the Rings", "The Power of One", "The Poisonwood Bible" and now, "Lamb". Unfortunately, it's been 5ish years since I read "Lamb". Fortunately, I just finished "Anathem".

Unlike my other previous favorites, "Anathem" is going to be anathema to a large portion of my friends -- it's 1000 pages, it's sci-fi (or "speculative fiction"), and it's filled with invented words and historical figures that are fully justified in the scope of the novel but that will annoy the living shit of some of my friends (*cough*LB*cough*). But for those that stick with it, it's fabulous. It's filled with action, humor, and lots of big ideas (and smaller ones). Unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon's dreck, these ideas are not there to wow you with the author's knowledge -- they are the key to the book. This will be a good thing for some, and a really, really bad thing for others.

The book starts in a concent (basically a monastery for mathematicians) just before its decennial 10-day opening of its gates to the outside world. The narrator, Erasmus, is about to go from being a fid (novice) to a full fraa (monk, minus the celibacy). Around this time, Big Stuff happens. Lots of it. Credit to Stephenson that he blends legitimate mathematical, philosophical (it's the first time I've seen any real value in pondering the meaning of consciousness) and moral discussions with serious action and plenty of humor.

Like Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" and "Snow Crash" (both highly recommended by me), the ending is a bit rushed, but unlike his previous novels, it is an ending and not just a final period. I absolutely loved it, but it's not everyone's cup of tea. Give it a 100 or 200 pages and you'll either be sucked in or Thrown Back. If you hate it, though, I DID warn you.

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