Neal Stephenson: Anathem

Read by William Dufris

I don’t know how to talk about this story. It’s a long almost leisurely journey from beginning to end. Even when tensions were high, the mood was rather subdued, but not dark or dull. Before I get any further, I’m going to tell you that I liked it and I’m happy that I experienced it via audiobook. And it was an experience. A pretty amazing experience.

The book is a chronicling of a snowballing of events in one guy’s life and how philosophy, religion, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and language played a part. Very sciencey-fictiony, very. I don’t know how to talk about the story without giving stuff away, so I’m just going to talk briefly about the book itself.

Similar to The Goblin Emperor which I recently completed, language and linguistics were themselves a character and upheld their own narrative in Anathem, but while they were a minor character in the former, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying they were a main character in the latter. The setting is not Earth, but a planet called Arbre. It is similar to Earth in that certain practices, governmental and social structures, and concepts are recognizable, but not always in the same context. So I had a lot of fun figuring out what some of the words meant or how they related to words or concepts used in real life.

The title, for example, is a blending of the words anathema and anthem. The reading begins with an overview and explains, among other things, that it’s Arbre, not Earth, and that they chose the closest words in connotation and denotation to represent corresponding concepts. Arbre immediately brings to mind arbor/arboretum and that makes me think trees>plants>dirt>earth>Earth. This is how my mind processed most of the word choices. Others were more immediate and others still were more complex.

The word analemma comes up and we (some of us) know it as a chart of the sun’s position in the sky viewed from a fixed location over the course of a year. Ours ends up looking like a narrow number 8, but the way it is used in the story and later described doesn’t readily conjure up the same image. However when you consider that it’s Arbre, not Earth and that their sun could conceivably behave in a different way, you can accept that it could be any shape. I could go on about that, but I don’t really want to; I don’t think I could do it justice right now.

But I enjoyed this book and it hit a number of my geek points. This may sound strange, but there was a lot of information being pushed around and listening to it was kind of like listening to chill music or like how some people take comfort in listening to radio static or active channels just for the noise. I took it all in and the story didn’t escape me, but it was unlike any other audiobook I’ve encountered thus far.

Four down, 48~ to go.

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