Thursday, April 29, 2010

Anathem: A final verdict

I finished Anathem a few days ago, but it's taken me until now to find the time and the right combination of words to describe my reaction to it.

On the one hand, it would be really, really easy to just point you toward this online review, which will make it clear to anyone still in doubt, whether or not this is a book they'll enjoy. And it doesn't even have any spoilers to speak of, so you can read in complete safety.

But I'm going to assume that the people who read my blog do so because their interests are similar to mine, and that means my opinion on the book might matter to them. So here it is: overall I enjoyed Anathem, but I enjoyed the first half a lot more than the second half; and I found the climax, in particular, fairly annoying. There's a great "Huh? Wha?" section where Erasmus is dragged cluelessly around by one of those characters you knew was going to be important early on, but you had no idea just how important - or why. Then once you figure out what's happening, you start getting your hopes up about a (for once) genuinely cool deus ex machina; and all of a sudden: poof. The threat's no longer a threat and we're down to reunions-and-goodbyes time. But at least I can take satisfaction in knowing I wasn't too far off the mark in the guesses I made during my first post about the novel....Okay, not too far off the mark in some things. One of my guesses was laughably misguided, but I won't tell you which one that was. ;-)

Well, I know it's good form to start any critique with pro's and then move on to the con's, but I seem to have blown that one completely out of the water; so let me play catch-up. Here are some of the things I really enjoyed about Anathem:
  1. Erasmus is a great character to tag along with because (like Y.T. in Snow Crash) he's incredibly smart and has a lot of winning qualities, but he can also be adorably clueless at times.
  2. Lio, Cord, Ala, and Yul are also engaging characters; and I have a totally unsupportable hunch that Samman would make an awesome drinking buddy.
  3. Arbre is a fascinating world to wander around in: enough like our own that you don't feel completely lost, but different enough that you can be fascinated by the little surprises.
  4. Neal Stephenson loves to mess with your mind. For instance, when one newly-introduced character shows his ass and then goes roaring out of a parking lot in a rage, another pair of characters comment that it's like the first guy never watched a movie with a villain or learned the term foreshadowing. So then you, as the reader, are left to wonder whether Stephenson is foreshadowing this character's villainy in a particularly funny way, or whether he's just doing the Fish Slapping Dance on you with a red herring. Don't expect me to give you the answer. ;-)
So anyway, overall, Anathem was a cool read even though it didn't live up to my earliest expectations. It'll definitely make you think, if you're the kind of reader who likes being made to think. And if you're not, then what the hell are you doing hanging out here?

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