Anathem

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Fraa Erasmus is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the Saecular world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs bloody violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet always the ...

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New York, NY 2008 Hard cover First Printing, based on Printers key, stated first edition. New in fine dust jacket. First edition. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 935 p. ... Contains: Illustrations. Audience: General/trade. "Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside "secular" world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent's walls. Read more Show Less

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Anathem

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Overview

Fraa Erasmus is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the Saecular world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs bloody violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet always the avout have managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity more austere and less dependant on technology and material things. Erasmus, however, has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

       Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fras and suurs prepare to venture outside the concent’s gates--opening them wide at the same time to welcome the curious “extras” in. During his first Apert as a fra, Erasmus eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was “collected.” But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the perilous brink of cataclysmic change.

      Powerful unforeseen forces threaten the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros—a threat that only an unsteady alliance of Saecular and avout can oppose—as, one by one, Raz’s colleagues, teachers, and friends are all called forth from thesafety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a worlds-shattering responsibility, Erasmus finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of everything—as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of an unfamiliar planet…and far beyond.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Inside the protective walls of the 3,400-year-old Concent of Saunt Edhar, Fraa Erasmas and the other avouts lead austere days of tranquil contemplation. For almost countless decades, these cloistered mathematicians, scientists and philosophers have enjoyed a peaceful, mathic stability far removed from the violence and uncertainties of life among the Extramuros, but as the raas and suurs prepare for a rarely held rite that will lead them beyond the concent sanctuary into that seldom-visited realm, Erasmas and others come to realize that they have entered a sphere where their survival itself is at stake. Now in paperback. This thousand-page work by the author of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle reignited controversy about this cult post-cyberpunk novelist.

Booklist (starred review)
“A magnificent achievement. ”
io9
“Suddenly, novels of ideas are cool again.”
San Francisco Chronicle on ANATHEM
“It’s almost impossible to not be impressed by Anathem; there’s simply too much erudition, wit, craft and risk-taking.”
The Oregonian (Portland) on ANATHEM
“Blending quantum physics, phenomenological philosophy and various other fun hobbies...Stephenson’s enthusiasm to share his theories and explanations is infectious...think “The Name of the Rose” crossed with “Dune”...genuinely fascinating brain food.”
Publishers Weekly

This audiobook goes the extra mile, giving listeners something the printed page-turner can not. Fans of the cult author will enjoy his vocal cameo appearances when he calmly reads definitions from a non-Earth dictionary at the start of many chapters. Another added bonus is the music between chapters that was composed specifically for this production; working with Stephenson and early drafts of the novel, David Stutz beautifully captures the complex traditional, coded choral music described therein. Moreover, the extras do not obscure the remarkable performance by William Dufris, who reads as if he knows the 900+-page text by heart. The story is told by a monastic scholar, and Dufris-with a twinkle in his proverbial eye and a sense of awe in his voice-is the perfect match. His intelligent rendering of the cast of characters is a delight for the ears. A Morrow hardcover (Reviews, July 28). (Oct.)

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Library Journal

On the world called Arbre, time runs in counterpoint: the ponderous flow of ritual and study behind the doors of the great "maths," or monasteries, against the constant flux of cultural change in the world outside. Devoted to scientific rather than religious practice, these sanctuaries maintain an austere and ceremonial cloistered existence for decades, even centuries, before opening briefly to see what has changed. Every so often, major outside events break the great cycle and force the maths to change. Fraa Erasmas, a not especially distinguished member of one of these cloisters, finds himself at the center of one of these events and, as so often happens, ends up trying to save the world. Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) is not afraid to spend as much time as it takes to explore everything that interests him, whether it's the geometry of cake cutting or the particulars of a 1000-year-old collection of assorted garden furniture. In less skilled hands this might be tedious, but here the layers of world building are the foundation for an enthralling tale that, even at over 900 pages, is over almost too soon. For some fans, this may be a welcome return to sf after his epic historical trilogy, "The Baroque Cycle," but readers with an interest in science and philosophy will also enjoy it-there are dozens of famous ideas and theorems half-hidden throughout the novel. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/15/08; includes a bonus CD with music composed for Anathem.]
—Jenne Bergstrom

Kirkus Reviews
A sprawling disquisition on "the higher harmonics of the sloshing" and other "polycosmic theories" that occupy the residents of a distant-future world much like our own. Stephenson (The System of the World, 2004, etc.), an old hand at dystopian visions, offers a world that will be familiar, and welcome, to readers of A Canticle for Leibowitz and Dune-and, for that matter, The Glass Bead Game. The narrator, a youngish acolyte, lives in a monastery-like fortress inhabited by intellectuals in retreat from a gross outer world littered by box stores, developments and discarded military hardware. Saunt Edhar is a place devoted not just to learning, but also to singing, specifically of the "anathem," a portmanteau of anthem and anathema. Polyphony can afford only so much solace against the vulgar world beyond the walls. It's a barbaric place that, to all appearances, is post-postapocalyptic, if not still dumbed-down and reeling from the great period of global warming that followed "the Terrible Events" of a thousand-odd years past. Our hero is set to an epic task, but it's no Tolkienesque battle against orcs and sorcerers; more of the battling is done with words than with swords or their moral equivalents. The hero's quest affords Stephenson the opportunity to engage in some pleasing wordplay a la Riddley Walker, with talk of "late Praxic Age commercial bulshytt" and "Artificial Inanity systems still active in the Rampant Orphan Botnet Ecologies," and the like, and to level barrel on barrel of scattershot against our own time: "In some families, it's not entirely clear how people are related"; "Quasi-literate Saeculars went to stores and bought prefabricated letters, machine-printed on heavystock with nice pictures, and sent them to each other as emotional gestures"; and much more. Light on adventure, but a logophilic treat for those who like their alternate worlds big, parodic and ironic.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch on ANATHEM
“A tour-de-force of world building and high-concept speculation, wrapped around a page-turning plot.”
San Francisco Chronicle on ANATHEM
“It’s almost impossible to not be impressed by Anathem; there’s simply too much erudition, wit, craft and risk-taking.”
The Oregonian (Portland) on ANATHEM
“Blending quantum physics, phenomenological philosophy and various other fun hobbies...Stephenson’s enthusiasm to share his theories and explanations is infectious...think “The Name of the Rose” crossed with “Dune”...genuinely fascinating brain food.”
Grand Rapids Press
“Stephenson writes in twists and turns, double-backs and cul-de-sacs, winding tunnels and fast-moving tracks. It’s a Rube Goldberg sort of book: intricate, sometimes difficult to follow but always fascinating to read.”
Sunday Sun (UK)
“Stephenson displays his ingenuity when it comes to mixing science, sociology and satire with swashbuckling adventure. Anathem marries extensive scientific and philosophical dialogues to cliffhangers, hi-tech warfare and derring-do.”
Leicester Mercury
“Anathem duly marries extensive dialogues on quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness to literal cliffhangers, hi-tech warfare and derring-do.”
Details
“[R]iveting idea porn.”
Orlando Sentinel
“[R]avishingly brilliant, outrageously ambitious…ANATHEM is thought-provoking fun, at turns a post-graduate seminar of philosophy and physics, and a rousing yarn with characters you care about.”
London Times
“Anathem is a brilliant, playful tour of the terrain where logic, mathematics, philosophy and quantum physics intersect, a novel of ideas par excellence, melding wordplay and mathematical theory with a gripping, human adventure.”
Columbus Dispatch
“[O]ne of Stephenson’s best novels…a captivating blend of culture clash, deductive reasoning and pure action.”
Washington Post
“Reading Anathem is a humbling experience.”
Popular Mechanics
“The cult legend’s newest book, Anathem, [is] destined to be an instant sci-fi classic.”
Austin American-Statesman
“In Anathem, Stephenson creates a religion for skeptics and nerds.”
The Examiner (Ireland)
“Anyone who has read Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle will be familiar with his ingenuity when it comes to mixing science, sociology and satire with swashbuckling adventure, and ANATHEM duly marries extensive dialogues on quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness to literal cliffhangers, high-tech warfare and general derring-do.”
Edmonton Journal (Alberta)
“Learned, witty, weirdly torqued, emotionally complex, politically astute, and often darkly comic…ANATHEM is an audacious work by a highly intelligent imagination, a delightfully learned text.”
Eugene Weekly
“Anathem is a challenge: Make yourself one of the avout. Make yourself a scholar, and try to understand the world a little differently.”
Time magazine
“What ever happened to the great novel of ideas? It has morphed into science fiction, and Stephenson is its foremost practitioner. A-”
San Francisco Chronicle
“It’s almost impossible to not be impressed by Anathem; there’s simply too much erudition, wit, craft and risk-taking.”
The Oregonian (Portland)
“Blending quantum physics, phenomenological philosophy and various other fun hobbies...Stephenson’s enthusiasm to share his theories and explanations is infectious...think “The Name of the Rose” crossed with “Dune”...genuinely fascinating brain food.”
Boston Globe
“A daring feat of speculative fiction…ANATHEM offers the reader a luscious arrangement of words, jokes, and speculations.”
Time Out London
“This is a book about science and philosophy which demands the full concentration of the reader -a worthwhile, smart, exciting read.”
Word (UK)
“As with Stephenson’s previous work, plot and character are wrought to the highest standards of literary fiction but they’re scarcely as fascinating as the worlds he conjures up. If there’s anything more readable than ANATHEM it should probably be banned.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A tour-de-force of world building and high-concept speculation, wrapped around a page-turning plot.”
South Florida Sun Sentinel
[R]avishingly brilliant, outrageously ambitious…Stephenson embarks on a mission of world-building, and he is thoroughly successful at it.”
Winnipeg Free Press
“He mashes up genres with the flair of Thomas Pynchon and the intellect of William Gibson.”
Booklist (starred review) on ANATHEM
“A magnificent achievement. ”
South Florida Sun Sentinel on ANATHEM
[R]avishingly brilliant, outrageously ambitious…Stephenson embarks on a mission of world-building, and he is thoroughly successful at it.”
Popular Mechanics on ANATHEM
“The cult legend’s newest book, Anathem, [is] destined to be an instant sci-fi classic.”
Edmonton Journal (Alberta) on ANATHEM
“Learned, witty, weirdly torqued, emotionally complex, politically astute, and often darkly comic…ANATHEM is an audacious work by a highly intelligent imagination, a delightfully learned text.”
Grand Rapids Press on ANATHEM
“Stephenson writes in twists and turns, double-backs and cul-de-sacs, winding tunnels and fast-moving tracks. It’s a Rube Goldberg sort of book: intricate, sometimes difficult to follow but always fascinating to read.”
Austin American-Statesman on ANATHEM
“In Anathem, Stephenson creates a religion for skeptics and nerds.”
Eugene Weekly on ANATHEM
“Anathem is a challenge: Make yourself one of the avout. Make yourself a scholar, and try to understand the world a little differently.”
Details on ANATHEM
“[R]iveting idea porn.”
Orlando Sentinel on ANATHEM
“[R]avishingly brilliant, outrageously ambitious…ANATHEM is thought-provoking fun, at turns a post-graduate seminar of philosophy and physics, and a rousing yarn with characters you care about.”
io9 on ANATHEM
“Suddenly, novels of ideas are cool again.”
Leicester Mercury on ANATHEM
“Anathem duly marries extensive dialogues on quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness to literal cliffhangers, hi-tech warfare and derring-do.”
Sunday Sun (UK) on ANATHEM
“Stephenson displays his ingenuity when it comes to mixing science, sociology and satire with swashbuckling adventure. Anathem marries extensive scientific and philosophical dialogues to cliffhangers, hi-tech warfare and derring-do.”
Washington Post on ANATHEM
“Reading Anathem is a humbling experience.”
Time magazine on ANATHEM
“What ever happened to the great novel of ideas? It has morphed into science fiction, and Stephenson is its foremost practitioner. A-”
The Examiner (Ireland) on ANATHEM
“Anyone who has read Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle will be familiar with his ingenuity when it comes to mixing science, sociology and satire with swashbuckling adventure, and ANATHEM duly marries extensive dialogues on quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness to literal cliffhangers, high-tech warfare and general derring-do.”
London Times on ANATHEM
“Anathem is a brilliant, playful tour of the terrain where logic, mathematics, philosophy and quantum physics intersect, a novel of ideas par excellence, melding wordplay and mathematical theory with a gripping, human adventure.”
Columbus Dispatch on ANATHEM
“[O]ne of Stephenson’s best novels…a captivating blend of culture clash, deductive reasoning and pure action.”
Word (UK) on ANATHEM
“As with Stephenson’s previous work, plot and character are wrought to the highest standards of literary fiction but they’re scarcely as fascinating as the worlds he conjures up. If there’s anything more readable than ANATHEM it should probably be banned.”
Winnipeg Free Press on ANATHEM
“He mashes up genres with the flair of Thomas Pynchon and the intellect of William Gibson.”
Locus
“A masterpiece...mind-bogglingly ambitious...readers will delight in puzzling out the historical antecedents in philosophy, science, mathematics, and art that Stephenson riffs on with his customary quicklsilver genius...it’s one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve ever read, and also one of the most engaging.”
Best of 2008 List - Slate
"The world Stephenson builds is richly visual, its complicated social politics are convincingly detailed, and its cool and conflicted heroes struggle with thrilling intellectual puzzles while they are tested in epic physical adventures."
Gary K. Wolfe on ANATHEM Locus
“Clever and intricate...truly ingenious...it’s brilliance is undeniable.”
Paul Witcover Locus
“A masterpiece...mind-bogglingly ambitious...readers will delight in puzzling out the historical antecedents in philosophy, science, mathematics, and art that Stephenson riffs on with his customary quicklsilver genius...it’s one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve ever read, and also one of the most engaging.”
Best of 2008 List Slate
“The world Stephenson builds is richly visual, its complicated social politics are convincingly detailed, and its cool and conflicted heroes struggle with thrilling intellectual puzzles while they are tested in epic physical adventures.”
From the Publisher
"This audiobook goes the extra mile, giving listeners something the printed page-turner can not. Fans of the cult author will enjoy his vocal cameo appearances…[and] the music between chapters that was composed specifically for this production… [William Dufris's] intelligent rendering of the cast of characters is a delight for the ears."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Dufris is stalwart in his engagement with the characters, the plot, and the development of the cosmology. He brings out the characters' personalities and creates a sense of wonder as the complexities unfold."—AudioFile

"Given its complexity of its language, Anathem poses a real challenge to audiobook producers. Fortunately, the narrators are up to the task. William Dufris performs the bulk of the novel, and he shifts easily from the erudite jargon of the book’s dialogues to its memorable emotional climaxes.... Dufris brings every character to life as if they were in a speely, the Arbre equivalent of film."—SFFAudio.com

Booklist on ANATHEM
“A magnificent achievement. ”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Anathem:...an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas).

Any writer who wants to create a sense of verisimilitude about an imaginary setting must wrestle with how to convey both the similarities and differences between the created milieu and the real world. In his previous novels, Neal Stephenson has faced this test while attempting to convey an amazingly deep array of ideas and situations. From the hip nearish future of Snow Crash to the nanotech-encrusted The Diamond Age, and even in such "historical" novels as Cryptonomicon and the three volumes of the Baroque Cycle, Stephenson's challenge has been making the alien real enough so that he can then explore the implications of various philosophical or technological issues, providing entertainment to the reader at the same time as he engages in a complex dialog about our present and our future. In Anathem, a stunning sprawl of a novel set on the planet Arbre, clever new solutions to the problem spring up in every paragraph, on every page -- without which not a single line of dialogue, a single character study, would convince the reader one iota.

Among the most impressive of Stephenson's accomplishments in this area is how quickly the reader adjusts to terms like aut and fraa and suur from the quote above. An aut is a ritual. A fraa is a male "avout," a suur a female avout, and avout roughly means "monk." For example, Anathem's narrator is the 19-year-old fraa avout Erasmus, and he lives in a "math" that is thousands of years old. The maths are more or less monasteries for scientists and philosophers, protecting accumulated knowledge from the rise and fall of civilizations outside their walls. A Saunt, or saint, is not a religious martyr but rather a "great thinker," a lovely inversion. In another brilliant tactical move by Stephenson, the S?cular world outside of Erasmus' math during the events related in Anathem is as sophisticated as our own today. This creates important opportunities for contrast between the two cultures.

The mystery that emerges from Stephenson's meticulous world building involves nothing less than a threat to the planet. It's a truth that slowly comes into focus as Erasmus shares seemingly surface details about his life, his surroundings, and his mentor, Fraa Orolo. These early sections of Anathem are mesmerizing, the discussions among the avout both mind-blowing and hilarious. Some of the finest scenes in the novel occur as Stephenson expertly takes the reader through the rituals of Erasmus' math. (It is difficult to think of another writer who could make a long description of a clock-winding ceremony so fascinating.)

Soon, though, Stephenson expands the scope of Anathem to include the rest of Arbre -- indeed, the rest of the cosmos. Erasmus, Fraa Orolo, and others notice disturbing deviations during routine observations of the night sky. Their subsequent investigation puts them in grave danger as they acquire forbidden knowledge. As a result, Fraa Orolo and Erasmus in turn are expelled into the S?cular World; however, while Orolo's departure is the result of an anathem, Erasmus' expulsion may well be part of a plan to aim a weapon at the heart of a mysterious enemy.

Ita: (1) In late Praxic Orth, an acronym...whose precise etymology is a casualty of the loss of shoddily preserved information that will forever enshroud the time of the Harbingers and the Terrible Events. Almost all scholars agree that the first two letters come from the words Information Technology, which is late Praxic Age commercial bulshytt for syntactic devices. The third letter is disputed; hypotheses include Authority, Associate, Arm, Archive, Aggregator, Amalgamated, Analyst, Agency, and Assistant.

Stephenson's ability to create and deploy convincing terminology makes Erasmus' story possible. But it's his playful sense of invention in fleshing out his world, bringing to mind his youthful exuberance in Snow Crash, that gives Anathem most of its energy and makes it largely a joy to read. Calling a truck a "fetch" is merely clever, but elements like an extended discussion between students and instructor about S?cular perceptions or the avout -- "iconographies" -- is in a different class altogether.

In the Muncostran Iconography, for example, a scientist is thought of as "eccentric, lovable, disheveled theorician, absent-minded, means well." The Pendarthaan Iconography, by contrast, portrays scientists as "high-strung, nervous, meddling know-it-alls who simply don't understand the realities; lacking physical courage, they always lose out to more masculine S?culars." The undeniable satirical quality of these iconographies is wedded to a practical purpose: avout who come into contact with the outside world need to understand which stereotypes, which belief systems, represent a threat to them or their maths. This initial discussion of perception and belief recurs repeatedly, a continual probing of the nature of reality and the power of the mind to construct its own version of it.

Throughout Anathem, Stephenson displays a genius for creating details that multi-task by being clever and funny and functional. This is particularly important during the middle of the novel, in which Erasmus travels across a continent to reach a rendezvous point for an expedition that may lead to answers about the threat from the heavens. The pacing that worked so well in the math seems somewhat slower during Erasmus' journey, the theoretical conversations more ponderous. The insertion of oddly absurd yet believable elements, like "Everything Killer" weapon systems and an internet that runs on "bulshytt" and "bulshytt elimination," helps make this slower pace more palatable.

Bulshytt: (1) In Fluccish of the late Praxic Age and early Reconstitution, a derogatory term for false speech in general, esp. knowing and deliberate falsehood or obfuscation...

The overall level of bulshytt in Anathem is relatively low. In one sense, of course, the entire novel is bulshytt of the kind expected from professional liars: game playing at a level so high that in some places the author's imagination alone keeps the whole audacious contraption spinning in the air long after it should have cracked to pieces against the floor.

But what negative bulshytt does exist occurs because Erasmus is a deliberate, detail-oriented narrator with a somewhat understated approach. The reader is given the sense that this is part of his training, and in the context of his math this restraint works well. However, when Erasmus is out in the wider world this quality lends Stephenson's prose an "and-then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened" quality. Erasmus maintains the same tone, whether he is describing being buried in the snow while traveling over the north pole of Arbre or narrating his narrow escape from an angry mob with the help of some truly butt-kicking "ninja" monks.

The liveliness of the ideas surrounding Erasmus' adventures often masks this defect but cannot, for example, disguise the increasingly superficial nature of his romantic relationship with Ala, a suur avout with a pivotal role in the plans being made against the enemy. His reactions to their separation, and to the dangerous prospect she faces, become flatter and flatter, even as Ala's own initial complexity dissipates, perhaps losing out to Stephenson's fascination with ideas. Further, Ala's habit of becoming emotional not only undermines the idea that Erasmus' restraint is culture based but also makes her stereotypically "female."

Still, these flaws seem minor in the context of the triumphs on display here. As Stephenson writes in his introduction, Anathem "is best read in somewhat of the same spirit as John L. Casti's 'The Cambridge Quintet,' which is to say that it is a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present." In this sense, then, Anathem is a worthy successor to the ambitious Baroque Cycle. Such a reading of Anathem doesn't excuse some of the baggy-ness of the 900-page novel, or the impassive qualities of Erasmus; but the ideas are so attractively presented, the context so perfect for their exploration, that it's hard to find too much fault.

In the last act, Anathem also provides some unbelievably intricate space adventure -- some of it attaining the audaciousness of a Roger Moore–era James Bond movie -- wedded to spectacular scientific extrapolation and speculation about alternate universes. This action-oriented reprise in-the-flesh of the abstract hypotheticals discussed during the novel's first half has the satisfying feel of watching blueprints turn into aesthetically pleasing real-world objects.

Perhaps, then, what Stephenson has accomplished with Anathem is the ultimate synthesis of techno-fascination/Geek-SF sense-of-wonder with the far more ancient general quest for knowledge about the world, and what lies beyond our grasp of it. --Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning fiction writer with novels published in over 20 countries. He writes nonfiction for The Washington Post Book World, among others. He has also collaborated on short movies with rock groups like the Church and edited anthologies such as Best American Fantasy. His short story "The Situation" was recently featured on Wired.com. Read more at http://www.jeffvandermeer.com.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061474095
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/9/2008
  • Pages: 960
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem; the three-volume historical epic the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World); Cryptonomicon; The Diamond Age; Snow Crash, which was named one of Time magazine's top one hundred all-time best English-language novels; and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

Biography

In Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash, human beings can immerse themselves in a computer-generated universe, and computer viruses can infect human bodies. This blurring of the boundaries between silicon and flesh seems characteristic of Stephenson, a writer whose interests in technology and engineering are inseparable from his skills as a storyteller.

Here is a novelist who talks about the "data management problem" of writing a historical novel, and who apologizes for not responding to fan mail by explaining that he has an "irremediable numerical imbalance between outgoing and incoming bandwidth."

Indeed, Stephenson seems to have a computer metaphor for almost every aspect of the writing life, even when he's not using a computer to write. He wrote the manuscript for Quicksilver in longhand, using a fountain pen. With this slower method of putting words to paper, he explained in an interview with Tech Central Station, "It's like when you're writing, there's a kind of buffer in your head where the next sentence sits while you're outputting the last one."

"Paper," Stephenson adds, is "a really good technology."

As the author of Snow Crash, Stephenson became a cult hero to cyberpunk fans and an inspiration to Silicon Valley start-ups. His Metaverse was the Internet as cutting-edge carnival, a freewheeling digital universe where a pizza-delivery driver could become a samurai warrior. "This is cyberpunk as it ought to be, and almost never is," wrote David Barrett in New Scientist.

Stephenson followed Snow Crash with The Diamond Age, which Publishers Weekly described as "simultaneously SF, fantasy and a masterful political thriller." Stephenson then broke out of the science fiction genre with Cryptonomicon, a 928-page doorstop of a book that drew comparisons to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Cryptonomicon interweaves two cryptography-themed plots, one set in the 1990s and the other during World War II. "What cyberculture needs right now is not another science-fiction novel but its first great historical novel, and Cryptonomicon is it: an intimate genealogical portrait of the 20th century's computer geeks, great and small, and of the technosocial landscape they have more and less knowingly shaped," wrote Julian Dibbell in The Village Voice.

Hefty though it is, Cryptonomicon is a quick read compared to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which begins with Quicksilver and continues in two more volumes, The Confusion and The System of the World.

In Quicksilver, a historical novel set in the 17th century, Stephenson explores many of the roots of modern science, mixing meditations on calculus, chemistry and cryptography with a cast of oddball characters (and many of the real-life historical figures, including Isaac Newton, turn out to be very odd indeed).

"At first it feels like Stephenson is flaunting how much time he spent at the library, but the lure of the next wisecracking history lesson becomes the most compelling reason to keep going," wrote Slate reviewer Paul Boutin.

So how did Stephenson manage all that historical data?

"I started with a bunch of notebooks, just composition books, in which I would write notes down in chronological order as I read a particular book, or what have you," he explained in an interview on his publisher's Web site.

"Those are always there, and I can go back to them and look stuff up even when it's otherwise lost. Then, I've got timelines and timetables showing what happens when in the story. I've spent a while monkeying around with three ring binders, in which I glue pages here and there trying to figure out how to sequence things. It's a big mess. It's a big pile of stationery. Many trips to the office supply store, and many failed attempts. But in the end, as long as you can keep it in your head, that's the easiest way to manage something like this. You can move things around inside your head more easily than you can shuffle papers or cross things out on a page and rewrite them."

The three-pound processor inside the author's head, as it turns out, is a really good technology.

Good To Know

Stephenson comes from a family of scientists: His father is a professor of electrical engineering, and his mother worked in a biochemistry lab. Both his grandfathers were science professors. Stephenson himself majored in geography at Boston University, because the geography department "had the coolest computers."

Stephenson co-wrote two political thrillers, Interface and The Cobweb, under the pseudonym Stephen Bury with his uncle George Jewsbury (whose own nom de plume is J. Frederick George). "The whole idea was that 'Stephen Bury' would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson," he told Locus magazine. "It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I've written them. It just goes to show there's no point in trying to plan your career."

In the Beginning... Was the Command Line, Stephenson's book-length essay on computer operating systems, complains that graphical user interfaces distort the user's understanding of computer operations. On his current Web site, Stephenson dubs the essay "badly obsolete" and notes: "For the last couple of years I have been a Mac OX user almost exclusively."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Stephen Bury (co-author pseudonym, with J. Frederick George)
    2. Hometown:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 31, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Fort Meade, Maryland
    1. Education:
      B.A., Boston University, 1981
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Anathem

Chapter One

Do your neighbors burn one another alive?" was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec.

Embarrassment befell me. Embarrassment is something I can feel in my flesh, like a handful of sun-warmed mud clapped on my head.

"Do your shamans walk around on stilts?" Fraa Orolo asked, reading from a leaf that, judging by its brownness, was at least five centuries old. Then he looked up and added helpfully, "You might call them pastors or witch doctors."

The embarrassment had turned runny. It was horrifying my scalp along a spreading frontier.

"When a child gets sick, do you pray? Sacrifice to a painted stick? Or blame it on an old lady?"

Now it was sheeting warm down my face, clogging my ears and sanding my eyes. I could barely hear Fraa Orolo's questions: "Do you fancy you will see your dead dogs and cats in some sort of afterlife?"

Orolo had asked me along to serve as amanuensis. It was an impressive word, so I'd said yes.

He had heard that an artisan from extramuros had been allowed into the New Library to fix a rotted rafter that we could not reach with our ladders; it had only just been noticed, and we didn't have time to erect proper scaffolding before Apert. Orolo meant to interview that artisan, and he wanted me to write down what happened.

Through drizzly eyes, I looked at the leaf in front of me. It was as blank as my brain. I was failing.

But it was more important to take notes of what the artisan said. So far, nothing. When the interview had begun, he had been dragging an insufficiently sharp thing over a flat rock. Now he was just staring at Orolo.

"Has anyoneyou know ever been ritually mutilated because they were seen reading a book?"

Artisan Flec closed his mouth for the first time in quite a while. I could tell that the next time he opened it, he'd have something to say. I scratched at the edge of the leaf just to prove that my quill had not dried up. Fraa Orolo had gone quiet, and was looking at the artisan as if he were a new-found nebula in the eyepiece of a telescope.

Artisan Flec asked, "Why don't you just speel in?"

"Speel in," Fraa Orolo repeated to me, a few times, as I was writing it down.

I spoke in bursts because I was trying to write and talk at the same time: "When I came...that is, before I was Collected...we...I mean, they...had a thing called a speely?.?.?.?We didn't say 'speel in'...we said 'cruise the speely.'?" Out of consideration for the artisan, I chose to speak in Fluccish, and so this staggering drunk of a sentence only sounded half as bad as if I'd said it in Orth. "It was a sort of..."

"Moving picture," Orolo guessed. He looked to the artisan, and switched to Fluccish. "We have guessed that 'to speel in' means to partake of some moving picture praxis...what you would call technology...that prevails out there."

"Moving picture, that's a funny way to say it," said the artisan. He stared out a window, as if it were a speely showing a historical documentary. He quivered with a silent laugh.

"It is Praxic Orth and so it sounds quaint to your ears," Fraa Orolo admitted.

"Why don't you just call it by its real name?"

"Speeling in?"

"Yeah."

"Because when Fraa Erasmas, here, came into the math ten years ago, it was called 'cruising the speely' and when I came in almost thirty years ago we called it 'Farspark.' The avout who live on the other side of yonder wall, who celebrate Apert only once every hundred years, would know it by some other name. I would not be able to talk to them."

Artisan Flec had not taken in a word after Farspark. "Farspark is completely different!" he said. "You can't watch Farspark content on a speely, you have to up-convert it and re-parse the format.?.?.?."

Fraa Orolo was as bored by that as the artisan was by talk of the Hundreders, and so conversation thudded to a stop long enough for me to scratch it down. My embarrassment had gone away without my noticing it, as with hiccups. Artisan Flec, believing that the conversation was finally over, turned to look at the scaffolding that his men had erected beneath the bad rafter.

"To answer your question," Fraa Orolo began.

"What question?"

"The one you posed just a minute ago...if I want to know what things are like extramuros, why don't I just speel in?"

"Oh," said the artisan, a little confounded by the length of Fra Orolo's attention span. I suffer from attention surplus disorder, Fraa Orolo liked to say, as if it were funny.

"First of all," Fraa Orolo said, "we don't have a speely-device."

"Speely-device?"

Waving his hand as if this would dispel clouds of linguistic confusion, Orolo said, "Whatever artifact you use to speel in."

"If you have an old Farspark resonator, I could bring you a down-converter that's been sitting in my junk pile..."

"We don't have a Farspark resonator either," said Fraa Orolo.

"Why don't you just buy one?"

This gave Orolo pause. I could sense a new set of embarrassing questions stacking up in his mind: "do you believe that we have money? That the reason we are protected by the Sæcular Power is because we are sitting on a treasure hoard? That our Millenarians know how to convert base metals to gold?" But Fraa Orolo mastered the urge. "Living as we do under the Cartasian Discipline, our only media are chalk, ink, and stone," he said. "But there is another reason too."

"Yeah, what is it?" demanded Artisan Flec, very provoked by Fraa Orolo's freakish habit of announcing what he was about to say instead of just coming out and saying it.

"It's hard to explain, but, for me, just aiming a speely input device, or a Farspark chambre, or whatever you call it?.?.?."

Anathem. Copyright © by Neal Stephenson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 239 )
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(141)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 244 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 2, 2008

    Anathem - loved it

    My first Neal Stephenson book so I have nothing to compare it to, but I considered it to be quite impressive. The first 1/3-1/2 were very slow and methodical, with a great deal of character and thought development. The rest of the book was much faster-paced and dramatic. I appreciated the inital groundwork that Stephenson established and thought it paid dividends thereafter. <BR/><BR/>The book is part escapist sci-fi, part philisophical exploration, part human introspection. These happen to all be fascinating subjects for me, so I was hooked.<BR/><BR/>It is definitely not light reading. I found myself constantly referring to the appendix to remember definitions, and to the timeline at the beginning of the book to aid my comprehension. I read and re-read several excerpts that I struggled to digest the first go-around. But that's my kind of book -- I like to be challenged mentally, and Anathem nailed it.<BR/><BR/>It was over 900 pages, but I didn't mind -- wished it had kept going. Would have liked to have seen the toils of the "second reconstruction," and further character development of Raz, Ala, Tulia, Jesry, Arisbalt, Lio, etc. as they aged. I'll miss them.<BR/><BR/>I'm now a Neal Stephenson fan and look forward to reading his other books.

    14 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 3, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Too Much...

    I read the reviews on this book and figured that I would love it. I like longer books with a lot of detail and subplots. However, this book was just too intense. The main problem that I had was that the first 150 to 200-ish pages you practically have to learn a new language in order to understand the book - and these are words solely for this storyline. It wouldn't have been too bad if I was learning real English words. Once you're finished with the book, you don't need the learned words anymore. Yes, there was a glossary, but who wants to stop reading and look up a word in the glossary literally every other sentence? I think this would have been an excellent book if it were toned down a little. The plot and subplots were actually very good and the book was well written. If it weren't for the constant new words that I had to learn for the story, I probably would have given this book a 4.

    7 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Only one major flaw

    With Anathem, Stephenson has created a well-crafted story with complex characters set in a believable world. This tome is rich with relevant social commentary, engaging philosophy and ontological epistemology. The only major flaw I could find on my first reading has to do with several instances where the authors voice over-rode the voice of certain characters. The characters of Fraa Jad and Fraa Lodoghir were ultimately more wise than their author and this created some odd moments when the wisdom of a millenarian was overwhelmed by the condescension of Stephenson. Be that as it may, it is a very timely and even occasionally brilliant work which should not fail to please anyone who has wrestled with Pythagorean, pre-socratic, platonic, neo-platonic, and aristotelian philosophy as well as that of Kant, Hegel, Whitehead, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. A dose of Theology and Soteriology rounds out the minimum prerequisites.<BR/>The world of Anathem is similar to a stage on which Gene Wolfe (Book of the New Sun), Frank Herbert (Dune Chronicles) and Walter M. Miller, Jr (A Canticle for Leibowitz) discuss contemporary events and philosophical trends. A very engaging (and demanding) read. Congratulations Neal!

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2008

    This is a fascinating tale

    In the future on the planet Arbre, great thinkers are clustered behind the ¿Concent¿ walls where they control knowledge from the illogical thinking ¿Saecular¿ masses. Preadolescents who show a strong logical ability for rational thought are taken away from the masses to be educated as logical scientists or pragmatic mathematicians inside the cloisters. They learn early on their responsibilities as knowledge is power and knowledge used unwisely is dangerous thus must be coveted and protected.------------ Nineteen year old Raz showed signs of brilliance when he was eight, he was collected to be trained as a muse. He has become a ¿Tenner¿ over his decade plus of intense learning. Thus his time to go outside amongst the low life Saecular is coming an event he is allowed once every ten years hence a Tenner. However, the cloistered soon realizes a pandemic catastrophe from outer space is coming soon. Much of the older Concent members feel strongly that physical intervention is prohibited as they debate what to do. However, teens like Raz and those he associates with have not lost their need for adventure. Foolishly perhaps without adult supervision and some would say in violation of their elders, they set forth to save Arbre.---------- This is a fascinating tale mindful of Gulliver¿s Travels to Laputa, the flying island of scientists and mathematicians. The debates and discussions on history and the upcoming calamity are enjoyable to follow, but can turn tedious as long stretches purposely lack action those behind the walls are reflective thinkers not necessarily doers except perhaps the teens. Fans who appreciate a cerebral science fiction thriller with as much philosophizing as action will want to read Neal Stephenson¿s brillian, interesting but different ANATHEM.------------- Harriet Klausner

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2013

    So weird and good. Starts off a little slow, but then I was comp

    So weird and good. Starts off a little slow, but then I was completely submerged in this world. Loved it!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2014

    Requires work, but well worth it in the end

    This is not light reading and there were times during the first few hundred pages where I felt lost in the language and history of the world Stephenson has created here. But at some point, I felt like I was part of that world and the past became my past, the language my language and I became totally immersed in Arbre. I do wonder, particularly later in the book, if I could have understood or enjoyed it as much without my degree in Physics as the subtleties of the various interpretations of Quantum Mechanics play such a central role.

    I'd place this on my bookshelf beside Foundation and Dune without hesitation.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2013

    This is quite possibly my new all-time favorite book. I finishe

    This is quite possibly my new all-time favorite book. I finished it a few weeks ago and have been hesitant to start another book just because I'm still thinking so much about Anathem. It took me a bit to really get into it, the first 150 pages or so were a struggle as I picked up the vocabulary, but it was most definitely worth sticking with and getting into. Math, science, and philosophy are some of my favorite subjects so of course that helped draw me in, but I think even someone not as interested in those subjects could still enjoy the book. I really enjoyed how thorough Stephenson was with everything in the book, and I know it's one I'll read many more times and enjoy each one of them. It's not an &quot;easy read&quot; and probably not a great fit for someone new to hard sci-fi, but it is a great intellectually stimulating book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 12, 2013

    Just finished my second read, because it requires 2 to barely sc

    Just finished my second read, because it requires 2 to barely scratch the surface of what is going. The book is a cleverly disguised

    lesson in Quantum theories. The beginning is an entry course, which defines the terms to be used and introduces you to the world. The middle is a bit more advanced, touching on some complicated theories. The final portion is where it all comes to a head, and the advanced theories are in play. It's difficult, but worth every minute. It's brilliant, and frankly could change how you view the truth of the universe. Should be considered a masterpiece.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2013

    Nice ending

    I would give the last 200 or so pages of this book four-out-of-five stars. The problem is that there were 500 unnecessary pages before those last 200.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 17, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Anathem represents my second encounter with the genius of Neal S

    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 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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 23, 2012

    Very Good and Enjoyable, but not Perfect.

    Excellent world creation and plot setup. Story took a while to develop with all the character building. Story seemed to end quickly and could have been more thoughtfully developed like the rest of the book, otherwise I would have given 5 stars.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 4, 2012

    Stephenson is a fantastic author and this book is his best, in m

    Stephenson is a fantastic author and this book is his best, in my opinion. The ideas are what makes it so fantastic, you find yourself trying to make maps of the places and doing math to keep it all straight, not because it is unclear but because the ideas keep you going. It's like a good puzzle. I knew nothing about the story of this book going into it. I didn't even read the back of it and I would reccomend you do the same. Dive in and you will love Anathem.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 29, 2010

    Not exactly recommending it to anyone

    Neal Stephenson, in this book apparently seems to be doing a whole lot of character building and surrounding description with details that are highly superfluous. This book makes the reader believe that every single descriptor is of utmost importance only to offer the bad taste of having rummaged through the first half finding out finally that many details were not even used in the second half of the book. Having finished the entire book, I saw many loose threads of whole ideas developed up to a point, abruptly ending without any further mention. I felt that I toiled through it all only to be left with a flat taste in my mouth.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 13, 2010

    The Name of the Rose into Thin Air Beneath the Planet of the Apes: A Space Odyssey, Hidden Dragon of the Third Kind.

    Heaping helpings of self-indulgence and interesting digression can make Neal Stephenson books great, but unfortunately this one isn't great. I enjoyed the read, and if you love Neal Stephenson, you'll read this and enjoy it, but it certainly isn't a place to start exploring his stuff.

    My specific complaints -- as referenced above, the book is too all over the place. Rather than just nodding at various genres, Neal stops to wallow in each. On top of that, I found the characters very thin. If you haven't read Neal Stephenson before, you'd be much better starting with Cryptonomicon, or with Quicksilver, the first book in the Baroque Cycle. You can land here once you've run out of those, and explored some of the earlier stuff (Snow Crash, for example.)

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 7, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Time and mind drifter

    'Monyafeek' who would have thought it'd be a love story?

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2014

    Science fiction meets science theory

    A great blend of story and science, taking place on a world not entirely like earth.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2014

    This book sucks

    It is awful. Conceited. Self coscious. Do not buy it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2014

    Not a babylon five

    That took six seasons (one had 22 hours to get to 3rd) you cant cram an alternate world into the first half of a book you start easy

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2013

    Disappointed

    For someone like me who only have 5-10min free time to do reading, this book is difficult to read and get attached to the characters. Kinda disappointed as so many people rated this so highly.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2013

    Outstanding epic

    Anathem is the story of another world, of a cloistered world within that world, and of rhe courage to leave the cozy safety of that cloister to save a planet. The odds seem impossible--the protagonists, without personsal possessions, are armed only with their minds. But what minds they are.

    Anathem is an intellectual book, and moves slowly at the start, with the reader carried by Stephenson's deeply engaging style. Gentle humor and vivid imagery sustain the early development of the narrative. The reader's patience is later rewarded by gripping high adventure.

    This is not a simple read. It does not follow the standard formula of forgettable action-adventure novels. If you are looking for that, then skip this trilogy-length story. But I consider this one of the best pieces I have ever read.

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