About a hundred pages into Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem, I didn’t think I’d be able to make my way through it. In addition to being overlong (do I really need such a detailed knowledge of a building’s staircases?), the book requires the reader to memorize — or at least recognize — many terms unique to the fictitious world and an entire alternative history. The book contains a timeline in the front and a glossary in the back.
Now that I’m about a third of the way through the book (past page 300), I’m finding the lengthy prologue to have been worth it. Stephenson has crafted an action mystery grounded in philosophical thought.
Notably, Stephenson, or at least his protagonist, is a Platonist. I knew this even before starting the book, because I happened to note in the back (page 937) an acknowledgment of “a philosophical lineage that can be traced from Thales through Plato, Leibniz, Kant, Godel, and Husserl.” That’s not exactly a line that typically gets me excited, at least in a positive way. I don’t know yet quite where Stephenson is going with all this, but it makes for interesting reading. Themes of Leibniz are especially well integrated into the story.
A word of caution: a few years ago, I heard Stephenson talk about a previous book, and I recall him saying something to the effect that he wrote to get his mind into a particular sort of worldview. So it may not be obvious where Stephenson stops and his characters begin. That said, Stephenson’s interests are largely revealed by what he chooses to write about.
The science-fiction setup is straightforward, but unfortunately I cannot mention what it is without ruining the mystery of the first few hundred pages. I will note merely that this is a book that requires a bit of patience.