Initial Thoughts About “Anathem”

The Spoony One | Jan 12 2009 | 

You might consider it somewhat unprofessional for a guy to review something before he’s finished it, but seeing as how Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem is well over a zillion pages long, I’ll only be able to finish it if modern science triples the human lifespan. Seriously, at 940 pages, you could bludgeon seals to death with this sombitch.

So far, I remain unimpressed. They say madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, and after agonizing through a thousand pages of The Baroque Cycle, I don’t know why I’m surprised. Let me put it this way: does any story take a thousand pages to tell? Maybe the Lord of the Rings saga (and that’s counting the Silmarillion: a book you would still find boring even if Morgan Freeman were the guy reading it to you). But c’mon. There are whole anthologies of books that don’t rack up a thousand pages, and they tell complete, entertaining stories.

I don’t know when Neal Stephenson lost all sense of editorial restraint, but god damn, man, get to the fucking point. I’d call him “long-winded” but the chapter with Tom Bambodil was a little long-winded. It was a little extraneous. Neal Stephenson needs to shut the fuck up. I want to be entertained, not lectured. A thousand pages, Neal? This is getting into Wheel of Time levels of rambling, do-nothing bullshit. But hell, at least in the Wheel of Time there was some interesting stuff going on. Sieges, wizards, prophecies, sword-fighting, revenge, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. What happened in Quicksilver? A guy sailed on a fucking boat to issue a dissertation on who invented calculus.

You mean to tell me that Neal looked at Anathem, a book so dense I can actually see small particles of matter breaking off my sandwich and orbiting the dust jacket, and decided there wasn’t a single thing he’d cut to make the story flow better. Not the chapter where two monks wander around a city, doing nothing but talking about how bored they are? We couldn’t cut the endless dictionary entries? Oh yes, nothing screams effective plotting like interrupting every three pages with a dry list of definitions from an imaginary dictionary.

And that leads me to my major complaint against Anathem: the future-speak. I don’t think I’ve ever been as annoyed at frelling made-up future-words as I am here. No, I’m not talking about curse words like “frak” and “smeg,” instead, Stephenson chooses to set his book on an Earth-like world called Arbre, and since it’s like Earth, but not quite, everyone uses different words for stuff. Only problem is, he basically redefines half of the nouns in the English language by calling them something else. So a “movie” is now a “speely,” a “camera” is now a “speelycaptor,” monasteries are “mynsters,” monks are “fraas” and “suurs,” saints are “saunts.” There are Burgers (that aren’t made of beef), Tetrarchs, vlors, slashberries, Deolaters and slines.

It gets to the point where it’s like the book is written in code, where every word means something else, and all I can wonder is why Stephenson didn’t just write the book in English instead of making it a mental chore to decipher his book. I understand that in any fantasy world you’re going to have to make up some new terms, but this is ridiculous. You’re talking about common, ordinary things. It’s not interesting to write a book where you insist on calling a banana a “jaunezippiefruit” just because it’s a different world and they don’t have bananas, just banana-like things. And yet, clocks are still clocks, a portcullis is still a portcullis.

I suspect he’s trying to illustrate some kind of syntactic disconnect between the isolated monastic community and the world outside their cloisters, but it just doesn’t work. The monks are speaking Ye Olde Dumblish, and the people outside are speaking New Dumblish. Nobody’s speaking English, so there’s no middle ground. Congratulations, Neal, you’ve duplicated the monks’ sense of alienation, in that I’m completely alienated, frustrated, and I don’t want to read your retarded book full of pidgin sci-fi words. Eat my mivonks with Jovian boogle-hoops, smeghead. Grok that?