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Anathem
Neal Stephenson
Narrated by William Dufris, with Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, and Neal Stephenson, unabridged
Macmillan Audio, 34 hours

Anathem
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's background shows clearly in his writing. He was born in Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. His own studies included physics and geography.

Stephenson is the author of Zodiac, Snow Crash, and the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age. He also writes with his uncle J. Frederick George under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Stephenson currently lives in the Seattle area with his family.

Cryptonomicon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Anathem
SF Site Review: Anathem
SF Site Review: Snow Crash
SF Site Review: Quicksilver
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Interview: Neal Stephenson
SF Site Review: Cryptonomicon
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Diamond Age

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sarah Trowbridge

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"Do your neighbors burn one another alive? ... Do your shamans walk around on stilts? ... When a child gets sick, do you pray? Sacrifice to a painted stick? Or blame it on an old lady?" Thus begins Neal Stephenson's monumental new novel of ideas and adventure. Fraa Orolo is posing these questions to an artisan from the Saecular world who -- against orthodoxy -- has been summoned inside the walls of a monastic-style community (the "concent") to perform a hasty, unscheduled repair. Immersed in this encounter between denizens of separate societies, the listener begins to know a world that is, by turns, strangely familiar and suddenly unexpected. An introductory "Note to the Listener" assures us that this world, Arbre, is not Earth, allowing us to marvel at the similarities and puzzle out the differences.

On Arbre, the fraas and their female counterparts, the suurs -- collectively, the "avout" -- are sequestered from the outside world, but not in pursuit of religion. Here, it is the mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers who have shut themselves away in devotion to their discipline. The only possessions an avout can claim are his/her bolt, chord, and sphere: the first two usually employed as garments, and the third proving equal to a startling range of uses, from seating to lighting. All three are vestiges of a now-restricted "praxis" (or technology) known as "newmatter." Each co-educational concent is made up of several sectors, or "maths," each operating on a different schedule dictating its exposure to the world outside, or "extramuros."

Fraa Erasmas, the story's narrator, is a member of the Decenarian math at the concent of Saunt Edhar. As the story opens, he and his contemporaries are preparing for Apert, the ceremonial opening of the gate between their math and the outside world. As Decenarians (or, more informally, "Tenners"), they have waited ten years since the last Apert. Erasmas, now just eighteen, joined the concent by way of having been "Collected" on the occasion of the last Decenarian Apert, and eagerly anticipates the ten-day period of exploring what has changed, and what persists, beyond the walls of Saunt Edhar's.

Anathem is part coming-of-age story, part space opera, part alternate history, part quantum mechanics tutorial, and a completely awe-inspiring creation. Fraa Erasmas, or Raz, and his companions are witty and engaging, and the Arbre they inhabit is a fascinating place. Stephenson allows the listener to learn gradually and intuitively about Arbre, its past and its present, through contextual clues rather than via lengthy exposition. The scene is set on a more or less ordinary day inside the concent, and the sprawling saga unfolds bit by bit, as Apert comes and goes, and the excitement of the short-lived cross-pollination with the extramuros world gives way to a sequence of unexpected occurrences within the walls of Saunt Edhar's that shake up Raz's orderly existence and ultimately throw into question everything he thought he knew, including the very nature of reality and consciousness.

Anathem listeners enjoy a delightful bonus that is not part of the print reading experience: short interludes of a cappella choral chants specially composed to accompany the book play at the beginnings of the story's thirteen Parts. Seven unexpurgated tracks of the Anathem music are available for listening at www.nealstephenson.com/anathem/music.htm. On the other hand, the printed book offers an advantage unavailable to the audiobook listener, in the form of a back-of-the-book glossary comprising all of the Dictionary entries that dot the narrative, as well as a number of additional definitions. In a story as dense with unfamiliar terms and challenging concepts as Anathem, the listener may benefit, as I did, from having a copy of the printed book on hand and consulting the glossary from time to time. The book contains further bonus content in the form of three supplemental "calcas," or math problems, presented as short illustrated dialogues between characters from the book. These support concepts that are significant to the story, and may prove useful aids to readers unaccustomed to the strenuous mathematical thinking that is second nature to the avout.

Despite the billing of the four readers as if Anathem were a multi-cast recording, William Dufris is the main voice of the piece, performing all of the narration and characters' voices. Oliver Wyman reads the introductory "Note to the Listener," and apparently nothing else. Tavia Gilbert reads no more than a handful of the Dictionary entries that preface the Parts of the book and punctuate the text periodically within the Parts. Author Neal Stephenson reads the majority of these Dictionary entries. While the additional voices add spice and variety to the listening experience, it is Dufris's masterful storytelling and voice characterizations that bring this incredibly complex book to life and make it the wonderfully rich and satisfying listen that it is.

Copyright © 2009 Sarah Trowbridge

Sarah Trowbridge reads (and listens) compulsively, chronically, and eclectically. She is a public librarian in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.


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