The Fiction of Neal Stephenson: Challenging but Rewarding

"Anathem pulls off what most writers would never dare attempt -- it is simultaneously a page turner and a philosophical argument, an adventure novel and an extended existential meditation, a physics lesson, sermon and ripping good yarn. " – Andrew Leonard,

One of the books I’m reading this summer is Anathem by Neal Stephenson. It’s not exactly a typical paperback book you’d see people casually reading on the beach. Like a lot of Stephenson’s other speculative fiction, it’s a dense, challenging novel – not the kind of book that you’ll read once in a few hours and toss, never to read again. Rather, it’s a brilliantly written story that will reward repeat visits by readers over and over again.

Stephenson makes it clear in a preface to his tale that Anathem is not set on Earth. This is not an alternate history or a future vision, it’s another world – a planet called Arbre. Since Stephenson writes in English, he uses amalgamations of words we’re familiar with to create new words to describe elements of the world he’s created. It becomes a wonderful act of discovery for the reader as seemingly familiar but new words pop up, their meaning revealed by the context, by the glossary sprinkled throughout the story, and by the author’s skill in sparking our interest to pay attention.

There are plenty of reviews online if you’re interested in a plot description, but honestly, the joy of a novel like this is the revelation that occurs as each page is turned. Everything you need to know can be obtained from the description on the book’s cover sleeve and Stephenson’s forward. Daring readers can even tackle the story without knowing anything at all, and just let everything unfold. As I mentioned, it’s the kind of speculative fiction that will just get better and better every time you reread it. Not too many other stories can claim the same thing.

My favorite Stephenson novels are probably his most mainstream: Snow Crash and Zodiac. But his other books are also recommended and worth the time to read: The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Big U, In the Beginning was the Command Line, and his magnum opus, The Baroque Cycle, which includes Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the others, Anathem is probably the best of the bunch. For a cool teaser trailer to whet your appetite for the book even more (yes, they make coming attraction trailers for books now) click here.