Anathem, Neal Stephenson

Morrow, 2008, 937 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-147409-5

Being a dialogue between a not-entirely-satisfied reader and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem:

Anathem: Hey, reader. Do you know what I am?

Reader: (Rolling eyes): Yeah, yeah, you’re Neal Stephenson’s latest brick-sized novel. Obviously, he wasn’t listening when everyone complained about the Baroque Trilogy. Did you know that I still haven’t read those books? When will I find the time to do it?

Anathem: But you read me! Am I not clever, or what?

Reader: You were also nominated for a Hugo Award shortly before I got stuck for three days in one of the dullest cities in Canada with nothing to do but read anything close by. So don’t flatter yourself.

Anathem: I dismiss the rest of the Hugo Shortlist. I’m smarter than all of them combined.

Reader: A propensity toward glossolalia doesn’t necessarily correlate with genius. The fact that you’re incomprehensible without a made-up dictionary doesn’t make you any smarter than the wicked storytelling of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, nor any more engaged than Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, nor any more sarcastically likable than John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale nor more interesting than the truckload of ideas in Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Childen. Try stopping being less full of yourself and we’ll talk on more amiable terms.

Anathem: But… surely you must be impressed by how I re-invent much of human philosophy and science in barely less than a thousand pages!

Reader: I hate to break it to you, but it’s been done before. Thousands of students do it every year, and they’re using the real words, not poisoning the information well of its audience with a made-up mythology. I understand that your point is to show off how intelligent you are, but that’s where our conceptions of the novel-as-a-novel may clash: Reinventing philosophy is not something I need from my pleasure reading.

Anathem: But, but, but! You always say you like fiction that make you think!

Reader: I also enjoy reading books that don’t send me back to my freshman year manuals in order to do my homework. You’re also ignoring the crucial point: I don’t mind a bit of thinking in addition to my fiction, but I mind when it displaces it. Face it: how much of a story is in your nine-hundred pages? How quickly would a more efficient author been able to tell it with a reasonable amount of detail?

Anathem: You’re being unfair! I am a beacon of intellectual rigour and ambition in a wasteland of mere entertainment! You’re just indulging in cheap contrarianism for the sake of a querulous review!

Reader: I’m perpetually guilty of contrarian sarcasm, but it comes from the heart. Look: You’re just too long and convoluted for your own good.

Anathem: Ah, but admit it; after so long spent living in my world, you’re proud of what you have achieved! You’re feeling better for the effort you’ve spend reading me!

Reader: So, what, you’re supposed to be my tough-love thousand-page buddy now? Did you see where I shelved Atlas Shrugged in my bookshelves?

Anathem: (Horrified) Not… the… humor section?

Reader: Fortunately for you, you’re too much of a stick-in-the-mud to be classified as funny.

Anathem: But I’m the smartest book you’ve read this year, right?

Reader: (Exasperated) Yes you are. Now here’s five bucks to go buy yourself a coffee.

Anathem: (Walking away) Woo-hoo! I’m the “smartest book of the year”!

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