I tried really, really hard to like this book — after all, I sunk 48 hours of my life listening to it. And I’ve loved every other book I’ve read/listened to by Neal Stephenson. But in the end — I just couldn’t get into it. I finished it, but by the end it felt like a chore.
“If you can’t test it, it’s not theorics — it’s metatheorics. A branch of philosophy. So, if you want to think of it this way, our test equipment is what defines the boundary separating theorics from philosophy.”
Anathem takes place on a planet that’s not Earth — but shares a lot of the same characteristics. The protagonist — Fraa Erasmus — lives as “avout” in the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Avouts choose to live without technology or possessions, in a place secluded from the world where they can study philosophy and math their whole lives. They’re basically monks in monasteries, if you replace religion with science — and allow for co-ed occupation. Depending on their concent, avouts can leave once a decade, century, or millennium to move about with “extras” (normal people) for a period of days. When Erasmus’s teacher, Fraa Orlo, uses illegal (for avouts) technology to discover an alien ship hovering about the planet, Erasmus’s whole world changes.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about Stephenson’s novels — particularly Cryptnomicon and Reamde — is when he goes off onto a tangent for a few pages about some random subject. Memorably, in Cryptnomicon , he does this concerning the proper way to eat Cap’n Crunch, and the affects of masturbation vs. actual sex on the male mind. He does these random tangents in Anathem, but they tend to involve philosophy and math in a way that just made me zone out. I don’t mind math (I actually liked some of the code-based stuff in Cryptnomicon), and I enjoy philosophy, but I just couldn’t get into it here. Maybe if Stephenson had based it on Earth — even some future or alternate version — it could have worked better for me. But between the math/philosophy, and all the nonsense words he throws in here (almost all of which HAVE a correlation on Earth — just say cell phone!) — I just couldn’t do it.
Also, his other books are just way funnier. This one could have used some more humor, for sure. The only comic relief we get comes from Erasmus’s sister and her boyfriend, and they appear in maybe 1/5th of the novel overall.