First off, it blew my mind. I’m not sure where some of it went. I thought Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle were highly intelligent and very entertaining — Anathem tackles subjects I know even less about, although I have a passing familiarity with their basic definitions.
The main problem I had with the novel, the first time I read it, is that it’s wholly speculative fiction. I don’t do well with these alternate worlds with different-but-familiar words. I struggled with it in early 2009 — it probably wasn’t the best novel to take with me on holiday — but this time, I decided to go for it. Once I got over the newish vocabulary, the story really took off.
I’ve mentioned Scarlett Thomas in relation to Stephenson before (in my review of PopCo); I bring her up again because her latest novel, Our Tragic Universe, and Anathem both involve long dialogues amongst groups of people, explaining crazy concepts that help move the plot along. While I found the chitter-chatter in Our Tragic Universe dreadfully dull and unrealistic (I ended up skimming and skipping because it was making me nod off), the conversations fraa Erasmas (our protagonist) was party to were, by contrast, interesting and much more plausible.
Stephenson takes really, really difficult subjects and put them almost within my full understanding. I kind of get it, but not quite. That actually made Anathem more — not less — compelling, because I was constantly trying to gain that little bit more comprehension. Like fraa Erasmas, I was a little bit behind, but felt grateful for the privilege of learning.