Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Review: _Anathem_ by Neal Stephenson

A tome of a novel that took me forever to read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Born of the same ideas that made science-fiction the highly profitable, and (some would say) the inheritor of classical literature, Neal Stephenson has kept up the genre in a time when crime dramas and fantasy worlds of dragons and vampires have far outshone the metal of machines and spaceships.

It is so much more than a sci-fi novel, however. Plato would have felt right at home amongst the concents and the fras who teach inside them. It is the Academy and the Lyceum in a future time, when matter and genetic structure can be changed, not for the profitability of it, but because by looking into the structures of a thing, the "form" in which it came from can be identified and theorized. While reading this book, one can draw from it the philosophical musings of Plato, Kant, Emerson, and others, undoubtedly.

The amazing part of the book are the Dialogues, where metaphysical arguements are completely thought out and argued in the Ancient Greek style. They talk about the conscious and soul of a person, alternate realities, advanced mathematics, language, communication, culture, music, aesthetics...very cool stuff. It's the meat of the book, not the plot line, which is definitely there, but wasn't actually necessary. I would have been content with 890 pages of the daily life of a Fra in the Concent in which they studied.

Tying Anathem in with the science fiction classics, Cifford D. Simak's Ring Around the Sun immediately comes to mind. In both these books, Earth (or Abre in Stephenson's world) exists with an infinite number of alternate realities, those made by the decisions of those civilizations. Each reality co-exists parallel to each other, and in both books, the ability to travel across those realities has been discovered and used. Whether for good or ill, it is yet to be determined.

I felt at home listening to Fra Erasamus' dialogues with other teachers, and didn't mind at all the slowness of the plot. There were some points when I had to skim past some parts, as the conversation became too tedious or the actions (especially in space) became too drawn out (of course, that's a problem I have with reading about space activities or caves or whatever, it's a literary claustrophobia, as it were.)

A wonderful book, but as I have found out, it is nearly impossible to sell to other customers, for the book is too unconventional for me to describe to people in any type of concrete terms. I describe it as reading Plato's The Republic, but in a science-fiction setting, and I get this glazed over look. But that's okay. I liked it.

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