I’ve become a big Neal Stephenson fan over the years. Having a taste for cyberpunk and steampunk, I naturally enjoyed both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. But what really surprised me was how much I enjoyed The Baroque Cycle.
At first I found it frustrating to read Quicksilver—I couldn’t keep track of all the characters and all the events. So I gave up even trying to follow it all. That’s when the book really opened up. I realised that, although it’s a rollicking good adventure, it’s mostly an immersive experience. As I made my way through The Confusion and The System Of The World, I started to really look forward to getting completely lost in the 17th Century.
I was genuinely sad when I finished the three books. I didn’t want them to end. So I was already anxious for the next Neal Stephenson book to come out even before I knew about the subject matter. When I heard that Anathem would be a novel of The Long Now—a subject that has been occupying my thoughts more and more lately—I started to get really excited.
Once I had the book in my hands—and, as usual with Stephenson’s books, the hardback takes two hands and a decent set of biceps—I started to devour it. It’s very different to The Baroque Cycle but equally engaging. Not only is it saturated in Long Now thinking, it even features a version of the clock. The obvious comparison to make would be with A Canticle For Leibowitz but the similarities start and end with the set up of a “priesthood” of knowledge. Anathem very quickly becomes a philosophical tower of ideas built brick by brick, chapter by chapter.
On the one hand, I was pleased by Stephenson’s consistency. Once again, he delivered the goods: a decent yarn, well told, with good—rarely great—pose. But what really delighted me was how different this tale is. Every time I thought I had figured out where the book was going, Stephenson would yank the metaphorical rug from under my feet …often at the very moment when I believed I was getting a handle on the direction of the narrative.
The book is set in its own internally-consistent invented world. The strangeness of this disappears quickly, much like the internally-consistent invented language in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. When new words are introduced in Anathem, it’s always for a good reason. For example, the concept of Occam’s razor is vital to a story driven by science and philosophy but that label would make no sense on a planet where William of Ockham has never existed. Instead we get “the Steelyard”, a different term with a different history, but capturing the same concept. This gradual layering of alternate vocabulary has a massive payoff later in the book when two simple words provide the most thrilling rug-pulling event of the whole reading experience.
As you may have gathered, I enjoyed Anathem. While it’s true that I didn’t enjoy it in the same way that I enjoyed The Baroque Cycle, it seems completely unfair to compare 17th Century apples with alien-world oranges.
Now that I’ve finished Anathem, I’m trying to avoid going cold turkey. It’s been years since I read Cryptonomicon so I figured I’d give it another whirl. I’m enjoying it immensely (again). I’m particularly savouring the story of WWII information warfare, like this little exchange on the fictional archipeligo of Qwghlm:
May I … know … to satisfy my own … curiosity … what sort of …? the Duke says, and trails off.
Waterhouse is ready for this. He is so ready that he has to hold back for a moment and try to make a show of discretion.
HFDF: High Frequency Direction Finding. A technique for locating distant radio transmitters by triangulating from several points.