Thursday, July 01, 2010

JD's Take: Anathem (Neal Stephenson)

Anathem is a big, think, dense book. There's no getting around it, so I'll just open with that. It's around a thousand pages long, thick enough to serve to reach the pack of the high shelf in your kitchen, and dense enough that you could pass it off as "intellectual" if you're feeling self-conscious about all the science fiction you've been reading. Don't let it intimidate you! This one is worth settling down with for the long haul and giving a good mulling-over. Don't worry, I'll try not to borrow Stephenson's loquaciousness for this review.

The first fifty pages or so were difficult for me. Not because of the denseness of the text, but because I thought Stephenson was trying to pull one over on me. The story takes place in a medieval-feeling monastery on an alien world, though we quickly learn that the world outside the monastery walls is more technologically advanced than the cloistered world within them. As the narrator, a monk named Erasmus, introduces us to life in the monastery we are necessarily introduced to the philosophy of the people who founded it. I've got a solid background in philosophy, so I immediately picked out the elements of Plato, Thales, and other early greek thinkers. However, they were presented with slightly different metaphors, new names, tweaked personal histories. I really thought for a time that Stephenson was trying to pull one over on me, trying to pass off the works of great historical thinkers as his own!

Fortunately, I kept reading. Before long, it occurred to me that rather than trying to co-opt the philosophers ideas, Stephenson was writing a primer on ancient thought and philosophical advances across the centuries, but couching it all in a fascinating new setting and some science fiction[0]. Clever! I settled down to enjoy myself. It was only much, much later that I realized what Stephenson was *really* doing, and by then I was already completely sold on the book both as a narrative and a source of interesting ideas. I won't spoil it for you any further, I'll only say: give it some time. If you don't know any philosophy, enjoy discovering it in an interesting way! If you do, you'll have fun seeing what he did with it.

So, that was my complaint with the book. I've heard another from a friend who didn't give it enough time: too much unnecessary new vocabulary. Yes, there are new words for simple things. Truck, phone, student, TV, monastery. These all get new words, and I can see where a casual reader would get frustrated having to learn vocabulary just to understand the story. It's a valid complaint, but you'll quickly become used to it (he's good at defining with context) and stop paying attention to it at all once you settle in... and there *are* good reasons for it. Partly it's just to emphasize that the culture you're reading about isn't of Earth. The rest I'll let you discover, but I have to emphasize this again: this is a book that you need to really invest some time and mental energy towards, not some throw-away space opera yarn.

Complaints out of the way, I loved this book! It was crammed with fascinating ideas from the very old (like Plato) to the very new (like quantum mechanics). The story that plays out on top of these ideas (I assure you, it's not the other way around) is well told, interesting, and occasionally completely gripping. The world is deep and fascinating, and I'm more than a little sad that I have to stop half-living in it now. The characters tend towards the flat, and there are times when it's easy to lose track of who a particular name corresponds to. There are exceptions to this, of course, and it's not nearly bad enough to be a show-stopper, just a weakness.

So, bottom line: I highly recommend this book. Next time you're feeling like you need something a little meaty, pick it up and make sure to give it some time to ramp up. You'll be well rewarded, both narratively and intellectually.

[0] In the acknowledgements, Stephenson mentions that the conceit of the book prohibited footnotes. That said, he created a truly excellent online reference for the sources of the idea seen in the book: Bravo.

[Lisa’s Take] Shadows of the Apt Book 2: Dragonfly Falling (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

Disappointment, thy name is Book 2. After how much I enjoyed Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling was kind of a sucker punch to my enthusiasm. I started the second book in the Shadows of the Apt series immediately after completing book 1, with no room to breathe in between. This was a very big mistake. Easily the first 30% of the book was spent re-capping events from the previous book in excruciating detail. Not just little reminders to trigger your memory, but full-on rehashing of conversations, characters, and events. Every time I picked up the book I was annoyed – which is not a state of mind to enjoy anything.

The events of Dragonfly Falling pick up immediately after the end of Empire in Black and Gold, and the story quickly broadens both the scope of the characters and the breadth of the conflict. The reader is introduced to several new characters and new powers come into play in the war as a whole. Personally, I did not find this change in scope appealing, as I’m more a fan of character-fantasy than epic/war fantasy. The characters that I liked from the first book got less attention, and the characters I didn’t like got more face time. In particular, I was disappointed with Salma’s character development (he started out as one of my favorites, but the whole “Grief-in-chains” thing ruined him for me) and I was very, very bored of Totho’s whiny love-lorn drama by half way through the book.

An additional problem I had with Dragonfly Falling was that it felt like Tchaikovsky kind of ran out of new ideas for the world. In book one he had a 100% new world to explore and he gleefully ran around talking about all the incredibly cool and creative stuff in that world… but then in book two realized he had already explored everything, and there was nothing new left to talk about. He did manage to introduce a few different ideas, but they were all related to the old ideas –nothing truly original came into play.

Thankfully, after a thoroughly mediocre first couple hundred pages, the last third of the book picked up quite a bit. Totho got less whiny, Tchaikovsky quit summarizing past events, and Thalric continued his trend from the first book of being quite interesting. The book ended on a good note, and I even managed a healthy enjoyment of the more epic aspects (battle after battle after battle).

On the whole, all my complaining aside, I enjoyed Dragonfly Falling enough that I want to pick up the third installment and see where it goes. I’ll probably take a break of a few months before book 3 so I don’t run into the over-summarizing issue again, and I do hope the series returns to the excellence of the first book.