Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stephenson's Anathem

Michael Dirda Reviews New Sci-Fi Doorstop

I managed to get my hands on an advanced copy of Neal Stephenson's new novel, the 937=page Anathem. And I managed to read it (mostly during weekends) over the last month. Naturally I've been interested in reading any reviews, though I didn't expect many mainstream ones considering this is a science fiction novel, or as Stephenson prefers, a speculative fiction novel. I'd call it a novel, but then that wouldn't fit with our desire to label everything.

Getting to the point, I came across a mainstream review of the book: Michael Dirda of the Washington Post pans the novel:

Alas, I can't even lope slowly alongside the herd. Oh, Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved? Enjoyed? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago -- much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull.

That's an awful thing to say about a novel as formidable as Anathem, but there's no getting around it. The made-up language is rebarbative (though often clever), the plot moves with elephantine slowness, and much is confusing (the process of decipherment actually drives the book, as characters and the reader Try to Figure Things Out), and every so often we just stop for a long info-dump or debate about cosmology, philosophy, semantics or similar glitzy arcana. For the most part, Stephenson's prose lacks any particular grace or beauty (at least to my ear), and while he can be mildly satirical at times, these precious moments are few. On the other hand, the descriptions -- of buildings, machines, events -- seem to go on for millennia. Sex is referred to, but never actually seen.

As much as I would like to disagree with Dirda - after all I read the novel for free and it's damn long - I can't. Stephenson deserves praise for his vision, but when a novel has a page count close to War and Peace's, you expect the author has written something that pushes you to finish. Instead I felt exhausted when I turned the last page, and I'm not sure I would grab another of Stephenson's doorstop novels.


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