Neal Stephenson makes you smarter

I love books by Neal Stephenson. Now, I have said it. Make no mistake - I am not objective. I have enjoyed all of them – starting from “Snowcrash”, through “Cryptonomicon”, “Baroque Cycle” and even “In the beginning there was a command line”. This book was the last drop that pushed me irrevocably on my way toward Linux and Open Source. I love his prose so much that I decided not to read “Diamond Age” so I will always have one more yarn of his to read in case of emergency. So be warned - I am a hopeless Fanboy.
I have finished reading his latest book “Anathem” - and I feel I need to share my thoughts on this wonderful book.
It is a behemoth. Counting almost 1000 pages of dense prose that deals with complicated ideas. It is certainly not as intimidating as “Baroque cycle” but one has to approach it with a healthy dose of respect. This assessment was quickly confirmed by first fifty pages of the book. It was hard and confusing. I did not give up – I am a seasoned reader of Stephenson's works, so I fully expected that a fair amount of mental work is in order. There is a heavy use of made up words and the world presented in the story is strange and exotic. Nevertheless any self respecting fan of SF should be able to go through this rather daunting beginning without too much trouble.
This work pays off. Neal Stephenson takes a reader on an incredible ride, rich in ideas dealing with philosophy, mathematics, science and history. This is what makes this book great and memorable read. Sure, I love gun blazing, fast paced stories as much as anyone else. Anathem has certainly its share of such moments but the pacing of the story is rather slow. What is important in the novel are ideas – the story and characters serve to present these ideas. And Anathem is doing this task very well.
Come to think about it – most memorable books are not necessary those with a great plot but those that left me with my jaw dropped and head buzzing. That is one thing that SF seems to be so uniquely suited for. A knowledgeable author can take our current knowledge and project it into the future trying to show how societies and humans could be influenced by technology and science. That sound fairly obvious but I have a feeling that only few authors really does it well. Think about Asimov and psychohistory - I agree, the premise was unrealistic but still it left me wondering about shaping the history and how and if dangers of the future can be averted. What about Dune? Sure the story was great, but how much time did I spend thinking about terraforming of the Dune and biology of Shai-Hulud or a question what can cause humanity to renounce thinking machines? “The Mars Trilogy” by Kim Stanley Robinson inspired me to think about alternative economies as did Bruce Sterlings “Distraction”.
I am fully convinced that “Anathem” belongs to the above mentioned category. Stephenson created within this story a framework to discuss wide array of subjects from purely scientific such as platonic world of geometrical objects, quantum theory, a nature of the Universe to more mundane – rise and fall of the civilizations and position and value of religion in the society. He was able to put a bold new spin on these subjects. Not in a form of immediately testable scientific hypotheses, for sure. I think that he delivered an approachable and fascinating treatise on some of the more wild ideas that physicists are discussing over drinks after official part of the scientific conference is over.
I will most certainly read “Anathem” again - I doubt I was able to grasp all the ideas contained in this book.
To illuminate this problem I will mention that while reading, I had a vague recollection that some of the discussions on consciousness the characters were having sonded very similar to the arguments presented in the “Emperor's new mind” by Roger Penrose. Well, as I found out after browsing “Anathem” website, Stephenson used this and many, many more books to meticulously construct his world and the story. It makes me feel deepest respect and admiration to the work that was put into creating “Anathem”. It also explains that his books are released so rarely.
I should criticize this book a bit – it is not perfect but I must add that I would not have it any other way. It is Stephenson - I like his slow, meandering style, long digression and feeling that I am learning a lot while reading.
The things that could be better are mainly characters. They well likable and interesting but not very memorable. In large part characters served to present ideas and not “human drama”. There is certainly a romance and hard choices, parts were I laughed and even when I felt like crying but there are writers that are doing this things much better than Stephenson. What he is doing best is to amaze the reader and make him think. All in all – after reading “Anathem” I felt smarter – and this is always a good sign.
And that is why I hope there will be more books by him. I will buy and read them no matter what most of the SF readers think.