It took me a long time to read Anathem
but it's taken me even longer to write the review. Well, sort of, I haven't spent all of this time writing, just thinking about writing. But now, enough is enough, it's time to write and say what I think about Stephenson's latest, however incoherent the thoughts.
The first thing you notice about Anathem is its size and weight, a hefty book, and yet smaller than the combined Baroque Cycle. Nothing new then, given Stephenson's last few books. So let's forget about that.
Upon starting Anathem I was very worried that he'd gone clockpunk, with a long and intensely detailed passage about the workings of mechanical clock. But it isn't clockpunk, it's just the usual attention to detail. Often Stephenson has written books with wild tangents, so whilst the attention to detail is entertaining it is also off-topic (this was most noticeable in Cryptonomicon). Anathem feels more focused, there are pages of debate or explanation or description, but they are important to the plot. And, wonderfully, Anathem is full-on Science Fiction, no debate needed here as to whether it's eligible for a Hugo.
The plot itself takes a while to get going, but it's a crucial amount of time that sets the scene, and lets you live in the world, before things start happening. The third quarter dragged a bit for me but the last quarter has an awesome set piece and some events that will probably be the spark for many debates.
Combined with in-depth discussions of physics, meta-physics and philosophy are many wonderful observations and nuggets of wisdom; the sort of passages I read several times, and then thought about. Passages that felt relevant to me and my life. All of which I have of course now forgotten, but I still get the urges to leaf through the book and look them up.
Despite the science, Anathem also contains some nice characters and genuine emotion. Against all the odds there is even a wonderful, emotional ending. Yes, a proper ending!
All in all it feels a more conventional novel than anything Stephenson has written for a while.
Whist I really did enjoy it, and loved being lost in its many pages, it doesn't quite live up to the best of The Baroque Cycle, in particular The Confusion. But it's Neal Stephenson and it's Science Fiction, so you should read it.