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Anathem: A Sci Fi Novel With An Exceptional Amount Of Science

Anathem by Neal Stephenson is a difficult book to review and at times to read. It’s a thousand page book. There’s a lot to love in it, but other parts fell flat for me. Here’s my take on it without any major SPOILERS.

The protagonist Erasmus, an avout, lives a monk-like existence in a scientific monastery on a world that is Earth-like, but it isn’t Earth. There is minimal contact between the avout in their monasteries and the secular world. What made it a slog is that the reader must negotiate a plethora of strange English-sounding words. Most these words have a meaning similar to something in English, but it takes a while to figure out just what. Nonetheless, the book intrigued me enough that I kept reading.

Stephenson likes his science. Anathem has more pages devoted to science and mathematics than any sci fi book I’ve read. For me, the many problems in logic and scientific descriptions weren’t necessary for the story and often slowed it down. I’m scientifically oriented, but I found myself skimming over portions.

The narrative picks up in the middle of the book. An alien ship is orbiting the planet. The avout and the seculars join together to deal with this possible threat. As a result, Erasmus finds himself on a quest through the secular world, which he is largely ill equipped to deal with. This middle part of the novel was my favorite.

The last third, which could have been a page-turner, became another slog. The alien ship is evidently from one or more parallel worlds or existences. Page upon page was devoted to discussing this. Enough! Someone studying the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanical may find this fascinating. I found it tedious and skimmed over large sections. For me Anathem has too much science. I need character, plot, and a gripping narrative.

Ironically, despite Anathem’s strong rooting in science, I found several unrealistic aspects of the novel, which pulled me from my suspension of disbelief. Most of these revolved around the unrealistic roles of Erasmus and his young colleagues in the last third of the book.

Young Cary, Krin, and Oliver in my Truth-Teller books have an impact on the world around them, but they do it in a credible way. Twenty-one year old Luther in Truth-Teller Revenge does assume leadership of the Jacombers, but he does it in his small, religiously charged community.

For being a logically oriented novel, Anathem has other disconnects. I don’t want to give out SPOILERS, but, among other issues, I don’t think the method of signaling the alien ship would have worked.

Anathem seems written for the YA scientific geek. I’m glad I read it, but I think less science and a more realistic plot would have made it a better novel.

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How Much Science Should a Sci Fi Book Have?

The typical sci fi book should have enough science in it to tell the story, and nothing more.

Conflict, and how the protagonist deals with that conflict, drives most good stories. Science interprets the reality of the world around us. By itself, science has no conflict.

Science is a secondary character in most novels. Devoting pages at a time to a secondary character is usually a mistake. I learned this from experience. When I first submitted Truth-Teller Rebellion to Champagne Press, it came back with a rejection, but with the comment that if, among other things, I wanted to eliminate the excess description (science in most cases) I could resubmit it. Thank you Champagne Press for that second chance. An example given was the two pages I had devoted to a detailed explanation of the construction and operation of a solplane. The editor was right. My two pages on solplanes just slowed down a story that already was a little too slow.

Often, a scientific idea is the spark behind a novel. For example, what if artificial intelligences no longer need mankind? That is the basis of The Fall of Hyperion and 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, what keeps the reader turning the pages in these classics is how the protagonist deals with this obstacle, not the science of artificial intelligences.

I recently read Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I admire this book for its originality, but the science of this book slowed it down. Anathem’s thesis centers on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, MWIQM, which is roughly akin to the parallel worlds that inhabit many sci fi novels. I read the first discussions of MWIQM with care. However, there were more talking head discussions about MWIQM for pages at a time. I skipped over them all. Some quantum mechanics geeks might like these interruptions to the story, but they are a fine slice of the reading public. I suspect most readers will react as I did.

Putting science in a novel in most cases means more description. I like to get poetic with my descriptions. It pleased me that longandshortreview.com said in its review of Truth-Teller Rebellion that “Mr. Schultz’s scenery descriptions are not to be missed.” I was flattered, but that doesn’t mean I should write more and longer descriptions. When I’m writing my best, my descriptions mesh seamlessly with the dialogue and action.

Science is important to science fiction, but unless you want only hardcore science geeks for readers, keep the science short and sweet.

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