New: Book Report: Anathem

Yesterday, I watched a co-worker give a "practice" thesis defense. My workplace has plenty of grad students who are just, uhm, taking a little break from school. He's one of them. I, on the other hand, am the grizzled industry veteran who didn't go to grad school, was pretty darned glad to get out of school and into business where we learned really useful stuff like 286 assembly language. Uhm, whoops. Anyhow, this guy is presenting his thesis, and as part of it he gives a demo of some software. And I growl out "Working code? I thought you said this was a thesis." And I felt bad immediately--here's this guy working so hard towards an advanced degree, does he really need me making fun of the ivory tower right now? Probably not. Anyhow, he talks about what he's been working on, and it's pretty interesting and makes it pretty clear that he's had to done some new, clever stuff. And then he starts talking about how this research might be useful. And someone else in the room pointed out "Hey, it's a thesis--it doesn't have to be useful." And I'm sitting there thinking Hey he said it, not me and who said it? Another co-worker--but he's also a part-time lecturer at a local university's computer science department. Ah, academia. Folks cloistered away in search of knowledge; it can be awkward when they brush up against the real world. Which reminds me: I read Anathem and it was pretty good.

It's scary when you look at it--it has plenty of pages, more than plenty. But it flows quickly, the pages turn. There are ideas inside. You remember ideas, right? They're supposedly why we read science fiction. Far-out ideas, not just another space opera.

On the other hand, it seems cruel to discuss the ideas in Anathem since most of them are introduced as big Reveals. "Isn't it interesting, the idea of Soylent Green being cannibal behavior--reflecting the lessening value of human life..." So reviewers talk about the beginning, which shows us a universe in which a sort of Clock of the Long Now has set up clock/abbeys at places around the world, co-existing with a society somewhere between our own and a sort of tech-instead-of-magic Dying Earth.

I ended up disagreeing with the internal consistency of the book's premise. But I had to think about it. And it was fun to think about. And it's a fun book even if I disagree with the premise. Probably that's because the book isn't just about ideas. There are some fun characters running around in there, too. Towards the end, things seem like an action movie, but it's an action movie in which you care what happens to the characters--and also the action gets weird in places due to... due to ideas which I'm not going to discuss, lest I ruin the Reveal.

Fair warning: this book introduces some strange vocabulary. If you made it through The Book of the New Sun, you won't have trouble with this book. If you do have trouble with this book's vocabulary, be aware that there's a glossary in the back. At least, the edition I read had a glossary at the back. (And even if it hadn't, of course the internet would have come through with the info.)

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Posted 2009-01-07