Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3

anathem Anathem

Author: Neal Stephenson

Reader: Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, William Dufris, Neal Stephenson

Short Review: A pretty good but overly long book from one of my favorite authors, read less-than-ideally. This alternate future tale depicts a world where the intellectual elite are forcibly cloistered in pseudo-monastic communities around the world where they’re free to think and learn but denied access to many technologies and to “saecular,” (i.e., non-intellectual) society. The protagonist Fraa Erasmus is layered and likeable, but the book could stand to lose a couple of hundred pages and the narration isn’t as good as it should be. In this instance, I think I would have preferred the paper book to the audio book.

Long Review: This book has gotten a lot of attention on the web. Stephenson is a very important, very good sci-fi writer, and his work is particularly popular among web monkeys like me. He wrote The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, i.e., oh-my-god-the-best-sci-fi-book-everrrrr. My heart breaks to criticize him. He’s brilliant, and he writes great women and interesting plots, and he clearly knows more about science than I do, so I won’t criticize him there. But, sometimes, he needs to be reigned in. It feels like he just plain wasn’t this time. I don’t shy away from long books. I love long books, as long as their length is merited. This time around, Stephenson came up with a huuuuuge concept and fleshed out every little bit of it. I wish he’d paired things down.

Stephenson has a habit of going on tangents that get a bit out of hand. Some of the tangents, like the those about mythology in Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, amuse me to no end. In Anathem, some of the tangents were less appealing to me because they tended to be about mathematical theory, but in an alternate reality where each theorem has a different name. It just got to be a bit much. But, I’m a mythology buff and not a math buff, so another reader could have the opposite reaction.

Most of the major characters in this novel are compelling and likable, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Erasmus, Orolo, Ala, Lio, Jad, Sammann, Cord, and Yul are the kind of people who should populate more books. So many sci-fi and fantasy writers can only write plot, and fill their plots with little more than thumbnail sketches of people. Stephenson gives a lot of thought to his characters. He ends up constructing personalities we want to continue to follow, ever after hundreds of pages with them.

My biggest complaint about this book is the narration. William Dufris, who does the lion’s share of the narration, uses some inflections and has reading habits that really, really annoy me. In moments of tension, Dufris uses volume changes and breathiness to impart emotion rather than, you know, emotion. The result is swaths of text that are hard to understand because his attempts to emote just end up being hard to hear. Over and over, I’d be happy with the narration for ages and then I’d smack right into another instance of over-wrought, odd readings. It made my ears itch. And because this is a very long book, each instance bothered me more than the last, and each made me like the audiobook less. In all fairness, the spaces between these instances were generally good. I’d be fine with Dufris for an hour or two, and then I’d want to throttle him, and then my annoyance would pass and I’d forgive Dufris until . . . Remember, this is 32.5 hours of listening. Even if Dufris was annoying for only 5 percent of that time, that’s a lot of time with itchy teeth.

There are other narrators, who largely serve as the voice of a dictionary, introducing new words at chapter openings. Tavia Gilbert read from the dictionary several times, and her voice is wonderful. I will seek her out in other audio books. Neal Stephenson also reads some of the definitions, and I vastly preferred his narration to Dufris’. Whenever Stephenson would read a portion of the book, I would latch onto his voice and wish he’d continue for the rest of the work.

All in all, this is perhaps my least favorite book of Stephenson’s, and I’m not happy with the main reader. It is the longest audio book I’ve listened to, and I knew that the whole time I was listening. I couldn’t forget its length. Far too often, it felt like a lengthy homework assignment rather than an enjoyable passtime.


  1. Tavia Gilbert wrote:

    Lanea, I’m flattered by your kind review of my very small part of this epic work, and I’m pleased you’ll seek out my narration work in the future!

    Warm regards,
    Tavia Gilbert

  2. Rob Oakes wrote:

    I couldn’t agree more. I started the book as an Audible download, and ended up buying the hardcover. This isn’t the type of book that translates well to audio. It’s too long, and frankly too involved. While still listening, I often needed to re-listen to a give dialogue or conversation to ensure that I understood the premise. It’s much, much, much more obnoxious to rewind then and re-listen to an audiobook then it is to flip back and re-read a section.

    Even when reading it, however, I still found the book to be incredibly frustrating. Neal Stephenson is an incredibly clever person. He’s recombined the whole of human history into a theory of everything. But more often than not, I found the devices to be just clever. While he would occasionally cross over into brilliant, that didn’t happen as often as it might have.

  3. Paul Walden wrote:

    I have tried three times to listen to this audio book – and I keep loosing complete and total interest in what is going on. I normally do very well with complicated, dense material that continues on and on – for instance, I really quite enjoyed the audio book of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – but, for the LIFE of me, I can’t, I cannot, I can NOT get past an hour or two of listening to this one.

    It is quite a pity. This is supposed to be one of the landmark sci-fi books in recent memory and the only time I have for sci-fi consumption these days is either on my daily commute, while I am am running / biking or when I am folding laundry. I don’t have the time for a physical book anymore.

    As I shelled out the – what – 40 bucks for it already, I will most likely try and try again, but is that really what we want from our high level talent? A story that is so impenetrable as to require multiple attempts to get deep enough for the true juices to show?

  4. lanea wrote:

    Paul, this may be one of those books that just plain works better on paper. The kernel of the story is wonderful, but Sttephenson definitely expects his readers to work hard right alongside him. I normally love his books, but this one seemed to need more editing.

    And while I understand how busy we can all be, I’d stridently encourage you to keep reading old fashioned paper books. I love audiobooks, but I don’t think they replace paper books. And I don’t want them to.