Nerd World Book Club: Anathem, Parts One Through Five

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I read pretty slowly. That’s partly because I am literally a slow reader: for some reason inputting text through my eyes is just not a rapid process. But it’s also because I’m Time’s book reviewer, so I have to burn through a couple of books a week as part of my job (which is basically the greatest job in the world), so if I’m reading something just for fun it tends to get back-burnered all the time, till I can no longer remember what it was about in the first place.

But I’ve been reading Anathem anyway, because I can’t put it down, and holy crap it just got good. I wasn’t going to blog about it anymore, because it’s super-boring for those who aren’t reading the book, which is probably most of you. But I was reading it on the subway this morning and the top of my head practically blew off. So I have to say something about it.

Massive spoilers, through the end of Part Five, follow:

I found this book exceptionally hard to get into, harder even than Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, and that had a pretty steep learning curve. For about the first 150 pages I didn’t really care about Erasmas, and more importantly I had no idea what the hell was going on. I didn’t get what fraas and suurs and bolts and auts were. Basically I felt like Stephenson mighta had a decent book here except maybe next time he should think about writing it in English.

Then a switch flipped somewhere. Suddenly I grokked the whole structure of the concent, how it’s divided into tenners and hundreders and whatnot, and how its relationship with the saecular world works. I got why he had to set this thing on another planet, so he could make up a whole custom-engineered world history that would then demonstrate the book’s underlying argument about the Hylaean Theoric World and all that. It stopped bothering me that everybody was speaking Stephenson’s weird mathic slang. Instead it started bothering me that everybody in my real life wasn’t speaking it.

(One day I’m going to slip and tell somebody not to go all Kefedokhles on me, and that will be a dark and embarrassing day.)

And I started picking up on some of the nice Stephensonian toys that he leaves lying around in the margins of the book, like the library grape, and the page trees, that are just there because he’s wicked clever. And I actually started caring about some of the individual fids, once I could figure out who was who. Though I still haven’t really figured out what all the philosophical/political differences are between the various orders they join. (And I started cracking up at the fids’ ultra-nerdy humor, like that IFOSA/HIFOSA exchange between Tulia and Jesry.)

And then, once I got all comfortable and oriented, he starts tearing it all down with those insane mass Vocos. (It reminded me of the end of Ender’s stay at Battle School, when the teachers start throwing away all the rules, and the kids begin realizing that something really serious is going down outside their little sealed world.) Impugn my manhood if you must, but I was genuinely touched when Ala got Evoked just as she and Erasmas were starting to figure their stuff out.

And then Erasmas gets evoked … with seventeen others. Including a Millenarian. When the door in the Thousanders’ screen opened I just about went Hundred with excitement. Probably the single most awesomely dramatic moment in all of Stephenson’s fiction. I’m just sorry that Erasmas has to leave the concent. I feel nostalgic for it already.