I’m a big fan of Neil Stephenson, and enjoyed much of his massive Baroque Cycle. And I read it. If you don't know, that's pretty high praise from me: I am easily irritated and give up on a lot of books.
But I didn’t read all of it. And that is the secret to reading Stephenson, and, particularly, his latest, Anathem: when things get tedious or confusing, just skip them.
Anathem is set in a subculture on an alien world settled by something indistinguishable from human beings. This subculture is a cross between monasteries and research universities, with some element of Classical philosophical schools thrown in. But as an Avout, you live your entire life within these Concents (there is a lot of technical terminology, all cleverly defined).
The book starts unpromisingly: a detailed description of winding a gigantic clock. Then there is a fair amount of background exposition, until something like a plot starts developing about 150 pages in. I almost threw in the towel, but the fact that it was Stephenson kept me going. Eventually things started to happen.
But while the massive Baroque Cycle had reasons for its heft, there is absolutely no excuse for the length here. The book is grotesquely too long.
It took me half the book to figure out the solution, so I’m going to save you quite a few hours by telling you what to skip. The best part of the book is near the end, and you want to get there while you still have all your teeth and can still stand up unaided.
So here’s what you do:
Whenever a bunch of intellectualoid characters are gathered in a room, or a vehicle, or some other defined space and start talking about something, skip it. Just start flipping pages, until someone does something. You can tell from whether there are a lot of quotation marks. Sure, there are a couple of occasions where you might miss something plot-related, but not very often, and you can pick up what’s going on pretty quickly. Grit your teeth and do it. You’ll thank me, unless you're one of the people who think that's the best part, in which case you're not going to listen to me anyway.
Here’s what you will miss if you do that:
- A lot of intra-and-inter-concent politics, none of which prove to have anything to do with what happens. It feels a bit like Stephenson thought that was what the book was about, found something more interesting for it to be about, but couldn't bear to give up on all his work.
- A lot of Platonic/Aristotelian cognitive style discussions which aren’t any clearer when described as Procians and Halikaarnians.
- Some discussions of religion by characters who never seem particularly religious.
- Many other somewhat relevant intellectual notions, like the quantum mechanical basis of thought, many worlds hypotheses, etc. etc.
The encyclopedia definitions incorporate most of what you need to know.
Here’s what you won’t miss:
- Characters. There really aren’t any, and they certainly aren’t developed in these philosophical dialogues. Reading more won’t let you know them any better. Even in the first few hundred pages, which is set in the school, you don’t get a sense of any of them. Don’t worry about it.
- Plot development. Most stuff in the book just happens. Knowing more doesn’t make the events make much more sense.
- Any notion of how this world actually works. I certainly never figured it out. It doesn’t really matter, because Stephenson dumps all that Avout/Concent stuff partway through, brings everyone together for a gigantic meeting, and after that it’s just a bunch of ubergeeks figuring things out, organized by some superbrilliant council whose authority everyone accepts, and all the smart kids get assigned to the Big Mission. You’ve been here before, lots of times.
When you’ve jettisoned the overhead, you actually have a pretty good First Contact novel, involving some academic plotting, a trip across the ice cap, an erupting volcano, and a fun journey into space with a well-realized set of decoy operations. Not worth 1000 pages, but certainly OK at 500, using my method.
The next best thing to an editor is a guide like this one. Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain!