Anathem – Neal Stephenson

On the world of Arbre, which is very much like our own, Fraa Erasmas is an Avout, a young member of the Edharian order at the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Avout like him retreat for years, decades and longer into Concents, which are somewhat similar to medieval convents, but instead of being focused on religion they are focused on science. The Avout stay in the Concents in order to study and understand the physical world, unaffected by what happens in the Saecular world outside, and also because of historical events that make the Saecular world uncomfortable with giving the Avout too much power. The story begins at Apert, a regular opening of the gates. In Erasmas’s case Apert occurs every ten years since he is in the Decenarian part of the Concent. Soon after apert, Erasmas and his colleagues discover a mysterious object in orbit, and the efforts by the power that be to hide this knowledge from the Avout. What follows is a meandering quest to find the truth.

Anathem is a difficult book to describe because there is so much going on. While the story itself is not very complex, it takes us on myriad tangents and discussions. The nature of the Concents, places where Avout can concentrate on finding the truth in a rational scientific manner, means that the Avout are encouraged to engage in Dialog, structured debates. These are recounted at length in the book and the reader must pay attention to what are in essence intellectual discussions on the nature of truth, while at the same time absorbing the extensive fictional mythology and history of the world of Arbre, not to mention dozens of words in a made up vocabulary. The first third of the story is fairly narrow in its scope, but then suddenly events instigate major changes in the lives of Erasmas and his colleagues. The conclusion involves some very strange happenings indeed.

Anathem is an exploration of many themes and concepts, most notably deep time and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is also the story of a young man who wants to do the right thing by his mentor, a motivation that leads him down many unexpected roads. Erasmas’s fate is further complicated by the fact that, perhaps inevitably for a young man of his age, he is hopelessly in love with a girl. This last facet in particular helps the reader connect to the protagonist, even as the young Fraa has to explore things which will strain even his strong grasp on analysis of the natural world.

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

SevenevesIn a very near future, the Moon is destroyed, suddenly and without warning. Within a few days, scientists figure out that the seven pieces will impact each other again and again, breaking into ever smaller pieces until after two years the process reaches a sort of critical mass. Then, so many large meteors will impact the Earth’s atmosphere that it will broil, annihilating all life on Earth in an event named the “Hard Rain”. Desperate measure are implemented to launch as many people as possible into space before the end. It is estimated that it will take 5000 years until the Hard Rain abates and Earth can be made inhabitable again.

Seveneves is a very long novel divided into three parts. Part one details events from the destruction of the Moon to the Hard Rain. Part two chronicles the struggle for survival after the Hard Rain and the nadir of human population, as well as the momentous decisions at this point. Part three jumps five thousand years into the future, with Earth being repopulated and the human race split into seven races. It is an epic story focusing on themes of resilience, survival and most of all what it is that makes us human. What are the traits that make us who we are? What drives us to conflict, cooperation, competition and rationality? Seveneves asks the question: Can such traits be altered in the human race through genetic tinkering, and what would happen if they were?

In the beginning of part three, there is a feeling of disjointedness with the rest of the story, but after a while this somewhat separate story with entirely new characters starts feeling like an appropriate bookend to parts one and two, with a perspective on ancient events down the long lens of history, and with the results of the experiment at hand.

The text is littered with info-dumps, mostly about space technology. Detailed explanations about orbital mechanics and the physics of free-falling chains abound. I personally found this content very interesting, but I can understand that not all would. The prose flows easily from page to page, filling the reader with a real desire to find out what will happen on this great odyssey. For it is truly an odyssey, an epic of monumental proportions drawing the entire human race, with all its history and heritage, down to a single point, literally a single room, and then chronicling its resurgence.

4½Rosbochs

Reamde – Neal Stephenson

A former drug smuggler turned Internet gaming magnate. His adoptive niece. A Russian gangster and his bodyguard. A Chinese computer virus writer. A Hungarian hacker. A British spy. An Islamist terrorist. A tea-selling girl from the Chinese hinterlands. These are some of the characters that inhabit Stephenson’s wide-spanning action thriller Reamde. It is almost impossible to briefly summarize the action, but suffice it to say it involves an attempt to extort money from players of a massively multiplayer role-playing game, a band of international terrorists, and a sprawling extended family from Iowa.

This is a big novel, weighing in at over a thousand pages. Due to Stephenson’s detailed and entertainingly understated descriptions, there are two action scenes which easily take up two hundred plus pages each. The action sprawls from the Pacific Northwest to the Chinese port city of Xiamen as several parties initially chase a conspiracy to extort money, then stumble upon something much more serious. The last quarter of the book is one long and convoluted chase scene, a killer payoff if there ever was one.

The many characters are complex, with rich back stories and believable quirks. The personal journey of the girl Zula, unwilling victim of not one, but two sets of abductors, is a fine base for the many branches of the story. She is a complex and strong character with two very different heritages, the first as a refugee from Eritrea, and the second as the adoptive daughter of a rural Iowan family. Her uncle Richard, the (former) black sheep of said family,  is equally interesting, and an archetypal corporate maverick.

While the main story is well paced and fascinating, Stephenson’s genius lies in his description of detail. Like a good comedian, he seeks out the hilarity in what on the face of it are ordinary situations. For example the disorientation felt by Americans in the sprawling Chinese city of Xiamen is brilliantly described, as are the similar sections where foreigners from other countries end up in the backwaters of Washington State and Idaho. Tangents and datadumps are often long, but Stephenson’s ironic and understated style make them both interesting and entertaining. Some parts of the book take place party in the virtual world of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer online game. These sections could easily have been cheesy and impenetrable to those not familiar with such games, but are written in an easy to understand fashion without reveling in geekiness. As such, they are easily accessible even to the game illiterate.

Interface – Neal Stephenson & Frederick George

This novel is about a presidential candidate with a chip in his head connecting him to a computerized polling system. There’s much more to the story than that of course, and it was a bit of fun, with some really great characters. If you love everything that Stephenson has written, you might enjoy this too.

The copyright for this one is from 1994 in the name of Stephen Bury (Frederick George is Mr. Bury’s pseudonym). My theory is that Stephenson rewrote some of the book. You can pretty much tell where Stephenson has had a hand in the writing, and this makes it uneven in quality.

Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson

This is the prequel to Cryptonomicon, although they are only vaguely related. The story focuses (as far as I can tell from the first hundred and fifty pages) on the heated debate between Newton and Leibniz on the nature of calculus. Or rather, on the notation that should be used to explain it. You don’t have to be interested in mathematics (no formulae so far), but it helps. The other interesting part is how the backdrop is shaped by events following the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England and the ongoing struggle between Gathered and Established churches (Puritans and Anglicans, to put it rather simplistically), as well as the birth of the scientific method. Like Cryptonomicon, this is seemingly a collection of anecdotes loosely strung together into some sort of plot.

Stephenson’s style is, as always, florid and imaginative. The cool and gritty edge of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon is still there, but it has mutated into a sort of 17th century format.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing very dull and long-winded. This book can’t seem to hold my interest. I gave up on page 241, which is just over a quarter of the way in. I don’t think I will be reading the other two books in the trilogy either.

In the Beginning… Was the Command Line – Neal Stephenson

Non-fiction from Stephenson. This is the story of the PC as written by a cyberpunk author. Stephenson, not unexpectedly, turns out to be a Linux fanatic. He comes at the events from unexpected angles, making the book quite a bit of fun for the enthusiast. However if you are not a “computer person” this probably won’t interest you.

Zodiac – Neal Stephenson

This novel is about an “ecoterrorist” named Sangamon Taylor and his weird and wonderful adventures. Laugh-out-loud funny and with some fabulous jabs at large corporations. Highly recommended.

The Big U – Neal Stephenson

Stephenson’s debut novel, about a gigantic and quite weird university. While the first third is mildly enjoyable, the rest of the novel devolves into an intricate mess of a plot. Written in an early version of Stephensons signature style, this book shows signs of the greatness to come for this author. Having said that, I advise you to avoid this one.