Neal Stephenson writes ambitious books. I got hooked with Snow Crash(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), an amazingly imaginative book about near-future virtual worlds; Zodiac(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) is required reading for anyone interested in chemistry and the environment; I had mixed feelings about Cryptonomicon(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), but only because it was two books in one, and only one of those books was excellent; The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) was a fabulously weird exploration of a New Victorian culture with nanotechnology; and
I ate up his big trilogy, The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), The Confusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)
, and The System of the World(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)), which I consider his best to date — historical fiction bubbling over with a fascinatingly skewed perspective on the Enlightenment. He’s definitely one of my favorite authors. He’s an acquired taste; he often seems to abandon the narrative of his book to go noodling about with strange ideas, and it can be frustrating if you read a book with the goal of getting to the end. On the other hand, all of those little distractions and detours seem to culminate in fireworks, so as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, they’re great.

Now he has a new one out, Anathem(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to finish it. I’m about halfway into it, and it’s a difficult read (most of his books are), but no fireworks. It definitely has an interesting idea at the core, but it doesn’t seem to be one that translates into an interesting novel.

The premise is that it is a story of an alien culture where the philosopher-mathematicians are set aside and isolated from the general population, living in monastery-like “concents” where they live a life focused on ritual and contemplation of their work, undistracted by the outside world of saeculars or even the interests of the applied science and technology class, the itas. The life of these mathematicians very much parallels the life of monks in our world, except they aren’t religious at all — they’re even called “avout” (rather than devout) to emphasize the agnostic nature of their existence. Every once in a while, the outside world intrudes: there are regular events every decade, century, or millennium when the doors of the concents are opened and avouts briefly mingle with the extramuros, or world outside, and in times of need the saeculars will evoke individual avouts, calling them to work in their specialty in the world beyond the concent. Anathem is about a small group of avouts who are suddenly called to carry out a little peregrination after astronomers notice something peculiar in the sky.

As I admitted, I’ve only made it halfway through so far, so perhaps there is some excitement coming up, but I have to admit: the lives of scholastic hermits are excruciatingly boring. No offense intended to any mathematicians reading this, but I think even you would find these math monks tedious, since the excitement (I presume) of their discipline is only described vaguely and indirectly, since no actual math is directly described in the text (there are a couple of appendices that describe some proofs). Of course, this is a small blessing to the rest of us, because perhaps the only thing more dreary than describing the lives of obsessed mathematicians would be a book describing the actual mathematics of a collection of obsessed mathematicians. It does not, however, enthuse the reader to contemplate how easily this book could have been rendered even more uneventful and abstract.

So far, in my progress through the book, we have explored this strange world of Stephenson’s and been introduced to the life of the avout, and a small group of central characters. They have been evoked, and are crossing over the North Pole on their way to a remote continent, where, somehow, they are going to solve (I presume) they mystery of a pattern of lights observed in orbit around the world, which for some so-far unexplained reason, has unsettled many influential people among the saeculars. Not much has happened, actually. It’s a fine exercise in science-fiction world-building, especially if you are fond of dessicated academics, but as stories go…it’s a little less than enthralling.

I should mention that being halfway through it means I’m on page 450.

Like I said, I’m beginning to doubt that I will make it to the end of this epic journey. I am parched and fading, and there aren’t even any fireworks. I may bring it along on my next plane trip, but even there I fear it will only promote more napping while airborne.

The book has another flaw, which you may deduce from my summary. Stephenson is making up words like a Pentecostal on a meth/caffeine/LSD cocktail. I can understand why he’s doing it — it’s to give his philosophomathematicians an atmosphere of the cloister and the cathedral while not freighting them with any kind of religious sense — but it makes the whole book even more wearing. I got this book for fun (fireworks!), it’s already turning into a hard slog, and on top of that, I have to learn a whole new language in order to understand it? Ouch. Even the title is one of his odd hybrid words!

Randall Munroe seems to be feeling the same way I do.


This book is only for True Fans™ of Neal Stephenson, and even at that, I suspect there will be much shuffling of feet and averted eyes when it comes up for discussion at the SF cons.


  1. says

    Every once in a while I’ll take a chance on my favorite bookshop owner’s recommendation, based on her opinion of what I would like and my past purchases and discussions over the last 15 or so years. (That’s the way buying books used to work, kiddies.) So I got Anathem a week ago. I haven’t gotten halfway yet, but it’s got to be right up there with Silas Marner or The Mill on the Floss for excitement. But I’m going to stick with it.

  2. Baroque Fan says

    Which story line in Cryptonomicon did you like?


  3. SC says

    Burgess managed to pull it off with A Clockwork Orange, but that’s an outlier. Has to be done cleverly.

  4. pcarini says

    I liked Cryptonomicon, and have been meaning to read the The Baroque Cycle. I’ll bump it further up my list based on your recommendation. Based on my reading (limited to Cryptonomicon) I don’t find Stephenson’s long, rambling books as entertaining as Pynchon’s long, rambling books.

    The graph from xkcd makes sense. The original Dune would be to the right on that graph, but it beats the odds.

  5. Richard Harris says

    ….perhaps the only thing more dreary than describing the lives of obsessed mathematicians would be a book describing the actual mathematics of a collection of obsessed mathematicians.

    Nahhh. One of my course books, “Highway Design & Construction”, would beat that for dreariness. I’d feel myself nodding off after a couple of paragraphs, guaranteed.

  6. says

    I like Neal Stephenson, too, despite all the words. The Baroque Cycle, however, awaits my attention.

    Although I love the later novels of C. J. Cherryh, I found her initial forays into sf too heavily laden with weird made-up words that were a burden to hack through (although, of course, they were essential to the plot because they embodied alien concepts similar to but not exactly like human concepts). And they had too many syllables, too. Thank goodness she dialed it back.

    I do, I admit, get a kick out of ham-handed coinages that no sensible person could possibly take seriously. One sf author had his characters sipping “synthekaff” (if I remember the spelling) and we were given to understand that in the future people would have to imbibe some kind of artificial coffee. Does anyone believe that our descendants would ever use such a multisyllabic word to describe a daily beverage? If real coffee got replaced (except, perhaps, as an expensive luxury item), the replacement would acquire a short and simple name. If the sf author had had his people slurping “kaff” (and maybe complaining about the good old days when their grandparents could enjoy real “coffee”), then I’d buy it. But no one would ask for “synthekaff”.

  7. AntimatterSpork says

    It looks like you either haven’t gotten to the big reveal yet, or you are just not mentioning it to avoid spoiling it for people who haven’t read the book yet, and I don’t remember at what point the characters start to get an actual idea of what’s going on, but there are more fireworks in the end.

  8. Lunacrous says

    I loved Snowcrash to death, but Neal Stephenson is a man in dire need of a better editor.

  9. co says

    I’m in about the same spot in the book you are, PZ. The “calcas” in the back of the book are almost insultingly elementary, but I appreciate that they’re not embedded within the storylines themselves.

    I have got past the point where I had to look up an unusual word every time he’s used it; by this point, they mostly make sense in context, and have stopped being wearing to me.

    I think I’ve read most of Stephenson’s books and stories, except The Cobweb, and have enjoyed them all. This one is *different* thus far, but not unenjoyable.

  10. says

    I’m having a different reaction to it. I really love Anathem, so much I’m hesitant to sit down and read for longer than the duration of a bus ride for fear the book will be over too soon.

    In the best traditions of Science Fiction that give the reader a new way of looking at their own lives and culture, Anathem points out dangers in a quiet or private secular society living among a much more religious one. It also points out the dangers of both Ivory tower intellectualism as well as anti-intellectualism.

    I think this is a book that atheists and free thinkers should read, though I do recognize that the author could have made it easier to do so.

  11. says

    I am a Stephenson fanatic, and I finished Anathem in about two weeks. I agree that the “theorics” – as Stephenson would call them – are fascinating, but I agree with you PZ. I was just waiting for a fucking swordfight!

    You really leave his books with an appreciation for his decidation to researching and explaining very complicated ideas in a more or less entertaining manner, but it is increasingly at the cost of storytelling.

    Nevertheless, I think you should read on. When I put the book down, I was proud of myself for finishing it, and I actually did have some inclination to brush up on my Husserl and Godel, even if I didn’t have my adrenaline pumping.

  12. says

    I haven’t had a chance to get it yet, but it sounds like I’ll love it. Boring Lives of Mathematicians, I am a boring mathematician! Awesome! I think I’d like to be one of them avout types…

  13. SC says

    Neal Stephenson is a man in dire need of a better editor.

    William T. Vollmann is another.

  14. Scote says

    “Randall Munroe seems to be feeling the same way I do.”

    One word: Dune.


    Too many made up words–and, still suits are, oh nevermind…

  15. Sili says

    Never actually finished The Mill on the Floss. Saw a dramatisation and sorta missed the point of the whole thing. Then again, I don’t think I ever ‘got’ Middlemarch.

    Never finished Moby Dick either, but I put that down to forgetting the book either in Oxford or the laundrette – I forget which.

    Though, when I forgot The Book of Ebenezer LePage on the plane, first thing I did was get a new copy. Of course, stuff actually happens in that – even if it perhaps doesn’t have much of a plot per se.

    Back on topic(ish), I vaguely recall the name of the author, but it just makes me think of trains for some reason.

    Thank you for explaining xkcd, though.

  16. tkozak says

    I’m not going to drop any spoilers but I will say there are serious fireworks coming.

    On the subject of invented language, the XKCD plot is a good rule of thumb but as others mentioned there are plenty of exceptions. I found the words in Anathem to be extremely easy because they’re all loosely based on Earth words (fraa/suur from Latin frater/soror, etc). Personally I never had to look up a single word.

    It’s very similar to the technique Gene Wolfe used in his Old Sun series where he just uses unfamiliar archaic terms – you know more or less what is meant from context alone.

  17. UKGP says

    Check out the Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe, for made up words used well. I think Stephenson owes a debt to Wolfe,and perhaps Jack Vance as well. I think in Anathem, he’s shooting for a different-but-recognisable feeling with the vocabulary. I saw this at once when I started the book, and found this familiar and comfortable because of past reading, and it gave me the feel for what was going on before I worked it out.
    Anathem is very dense in ideas. The story is told as concepts unfolding as much as actions progessing. It is a challenging read, requiring (I think) a knowledge of the history of science, and it leaves you at the end with the satisfaction of climbing a 3000-foot hill

    The book is almost worth it for Diax’s Rake alone, “Never believe a thing simply because you want it to be true”

    The real action comes at the end, and it is very much the nerd-as-hero, as in the Cryptonomicon.

    Not for everyone, but it’s the greatest pleasure I have had as a reader in eight years.

  18. David Marjanović, OM says

    The alt-text of the xkcd comic didn’t get through:

    “Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I’m looking at you, Anathem.”

  19. Matt7895 says

    Your ‘probability book is good’ graph fails upon a reading of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, or anything written by William Shakespeare. All three of those highly-acclaimed authors invented new words… or as you would say, ‘made up’, and their books are considered classics.

  20. anthropicOne says

    Thanks TPX @ 20. I was getting worried when I read PZ’s post. I got my copy the day it came out but was too busy to start it. I plan to dig in this weekend.

    Happy reading!

  21. marginalia says

    Stick with it! There is a big reveal, as an earlier commenter noted, and in its context all the ridiculous semi-homonyms make sense.

    Of course, the book is so slow in its earlier half that I think the tail end seems crazy exciting just by comparison. Loved it anyway.

  22. travc says

    PZ (and others), I humbly encourage you to pickup “Interface” by Stephenson and George (originally published under the pseudonym Stephen Bury). Really should have read it abound January, but it is still insanely topical. But be quick!

    The driver of the story is a presidential election, and the cast of characters includes an uber-Frank Luntz type, a presidential candidate, and his daughter who happens to be a neurologist.

    I read it in 1 sitting.

  23. says

    Shakespeare, it is said, gave us the very coinage “household words”, as the first attestation of it is in Henry V’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech. I suspect that the difficulty a groundling in the Globe Theatre had in understanding what a “household word” was is less than that a modern experiences in puzzling out avout or synthekaff.

  24. SteveM says

    Your ‘probability book is good’ graph fails upon a reading of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, or anything written by William Shakespeare. …

    And those are rare authors indeed, thus proving the graph, not contradicting it.

  25. says

    I think the XKCD Law of Neologisms needs to be amended for cases where the coinages are strictly tongue-in-cheek. I’m thinking here specifically of the Warhammer 40k-license (I know, I know) Ciaphas Cain novels. Well, “recaff” and “tanna” fall under the foreign-but-reasonable category, but then you get the foodstuff known as “soylens viridians” and also the nauga, a creature prized for its hide…

  26. says

    Your ‘probability book is good’ graph fails upon a reading of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, or anything written by William Shakespeare.

    First of all, it’s a joke from a comic strip. Second, taking it seriously (just for the fun of it), the vertical axis is probability. This is not synonymous with certainty. A handful of books do not constitute a counterexample when the rule is probabilistic.

    Third, however many Shakespearean coinages we have floating around in our lexicon, words have also changed meaning since Will’s day, and not necessarily in ways which make the plays easier to understand. (The “Weird Sisters” in Macbeth are not “weird” merely because they are grotesque, but because they are the personifications of Wyrd — Fate.)

  27. bric says

    By a strange coincidence (or was it something else?)I just finished Anathem a couple of hours ago. I enjoyed the first and last thirds a lot, but the bit in-between sometimes feels almost like real-time description, and you can see a lot of the plot points coming from far off. Still, it’s translation of earthly religious and philosophical movements and ideas is often witty, and you can play spot-the-influence which is always fun – I’ll add Gravity’s Rainbow and The Name of the Rose to the above. Definitely worth sticking with; unfortunately you can’t skip any bits as the clues are well spread out . . .

  28. Olorin says

    I loved “Snow Crash” and ate up “Cryptonomicon.” But then “The Baroque Cycle” ate me up. Didn’t even finish “Quicksilver.” On reputation, however, I’;ll try “Anathem.”

    Stephenson is right up there with Umberto Eco in the dizzying diversion department. “Foucault’s Pendulum” with it’s insinuation that perception might be able to create reality. “The Island of the Day Before,” where the reader must constantly determine whether he is reading Eco’s story or the story being written by the main character. If you’;re just starting, then of course the only entry point is the multi-level self-referential “Name of the Rose.”

    If your goal is interesting alternative history. try on Harry Turtledove—for some years. he used a pseudonym, because he thought people would not believe his real name. He has written several cycles of books that detail plausible alternatives to world history over the past two centuries. All of his books are long and detailed, and show some actual historical characters in bizarre roles. Upton Sinclair as president of the US??? General Armstrong Custer as the leader of the American conquest of Canada??? One of his most entertaining scenarios occurs in “Second Contact.” which takes place in 1942. In the midst of World War II, alien spaceships arrive to conquer the Earth. Unfortunately, their 800-year-old intelligence on human technology served them ill, and the humans are able to limit the conquest to Asia, Australia, and Africa. Then the fun starts. The aliens had never invaded except when it was a pushover, and they have no negotiation skills. The humans are frequently able to take advantage of them. The aliens are essentially reptiles but with a bizarre sex life. Humans are able to throw the aliens’ bisexual forces into chaos when they find that ordinary ginger produces uncontrollable mating behavior among them. One of the leading alien generals defects to the human side, and several human children are raised by the aliens. The wealth of Turteldove’s imagination seems inexhaustible.

  29. says

    I know I shouldn’t let this get on my nerves, but still. . .

    Regarding that graph.

    Lord of the Rings.

    Nuff said, methinks.

    Do people need a refresher in what “probability” means?

  30. says

    Dogjam you, Antimatterspork, dogjam you all to aloha.

    It looks like you either haven’t gotten to the big reveal yet

    Now I have to finish the thing. There better be a dazzler in there, or I will hunt you down and make you eat the 485 pages I have left to read.

  31. Zetetic says

    I have never read anything by Neal Stephenson, but not for lack of trying. I took the advice of friends and tried to read Cryptonomicon. I only got about 120 pages into it before I stopped reading, and that took me several days because I kept wanting to throw it across the room or light it on fire. It’s unusual for me to feel that destructive toward a book, as I tend to regard them as the closest thing to sacred that there is. Cryptonomicon, on the other hand, is perhaps the best example of simply horrible writing I can think of.

    I’m no stranger to long, rambling novels. As a teenager I read the unabridged versions of Les Miserable and War and Peace without flinching, and actually loved both of them very much. But Hugo and Tolstoy are great authors. Neal Stephenson needs an editor that isn’t afraid to smack him upside the head and force him to rewrite his drivel. Stephenson seems to believe that if something is worth the use of one adjective it could stand to use another seven; and if one metaphor would be nice, perhaps he should use five instead. It’s no wonder the book is so long – I’m sure it could be reduced by half simply by limiting the purple prose.

    Also, his characters were completely unsympathetic. The only storyline I even vaguely cared about was the one about the Marine. The physicists seemed to me like dysfunctional social misfits, which I think is terribly insulting to all the physicists I know. I’m engaged to one, and I’d hate for people to think he’s anything like the ones Stephenson writes about. (I know some of the characters are based on real people, but even if they were dysfunctional social misfits, the author should find a way to make me care about them.) However, strangely enough, most of the physicists I know really like this book, so perhaps I should revise my opinion of physicists…

    In short, there are simply too many good books out there for me to sit and waste my time with Stephenson’s dreck.

  32. Dustin says

    Cryptonomicon was good, but that was when he started to develop what I call The Michael Chrichton syndrome. After a while, these guys get to the point where they think anything they put on paper is fit to be read. I haven’t been able to get through anything written after Cryptonomicon. Zodiac is still my favorite.

    Also, you have a Ray Kurzweil banner at the top of your page.

  33. Chris J says

    I was lucky enough to get the book at a small local store in Ann Arbor. One of the few where Stephenson showed up to do a reading and a signing. I got past the parts that he did a reading in, before he came out. Up to that point I wasn’t impressed, but after hearing him read it, I can’t wait to get back to the book. It really brought new life to what I thought as boring. I’m going to start over, but I was only about 20 pages in.

  34. Fedaykin says

    In defense of authors who like to make up words, some of the best fiction comes from people who made up new words (and sometimes entirely new languages) as part of their world. Examples, of course, are Lord of the Rings and Dune.

    As with all things though, it’s how those words are used that are more important than their existence.

  35. lylebot says

    Um, you guys realize that the y-axis is a probability, right? There are no exceptions, just instances that keep the probability from being zero.

  36. Benjamin Geiger says

    I somewhat enjoyed reading Stephenson’s work. However, I concur that he needs a better editor. Am I the only one who got the impression that, about two thirds of the way through Cryptonomicon, he thought “screw it, this needs to end, and I don’t care how”?

    I haven’t finished the Baroque Cycle (I bought them for $4). They’re sitting in a coworker’s office. I don’t think he’s finished them either.

    PS: Why does he expect us to be so intrigued by the masturbatory habits of his characters? Mental Image. Do Not Want.

    PPS: I second the comments on Burgess and Orwell. Pullman *almost* manages to (ahem) pull it off, as well.

  37. Nick Gotts says

    Another possible exception to Monroe’s conjecture is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – hard to read until you get going, but brilliant, and disturbing. Although it’s not individual words he invented, but a whole dialect of post-nuclear-war English.

    I got stuck in the middle of the only Neal Stephenson I’ve tried: Quicksilver. I was very much enjoying it until I got to the syphilitic soldier – which seemed like a pointless, and pretty much endless, digression.

  38. dubiquiabs says

    I think there may be another outlier in xkcd’s graph. Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” was most enjoyable, in spite, and sometimes because, of his neologisms (actually more like archeologisms). Some of the invented idioms are ‘priceless’, eg: “doing the juicy”.

  39. dubiquiabs says

    @ Nick #43

    You could have saved me some electrons & pixels if you’d posted that a bit earlier, you know!

  40. says

    I think there may be another outlier in xkcd’s graph.

    Once again, the vertical axis is not “goodness of book”, but “probability book is good”. If you tell me, “Of all the books which make up ten or more words, only one in a thousand is good”, and I present you with one good book which makes up ten new words, I haven’t disproved your claim, because nine hundred ninety-nine horrible ones could be yellowing in the remaindered bin.

  41. Nick Gotts says

    I think the head of government being called the “Pry Mincer” (it’s set in England) was my favourite riddleyism.

  42. Joel Grant says

    In re: goodness and probability.

    So far, the only data points we have identified are good books (lets include many philsophy books, e.g. by Martin Heidigger) with lots of made up words.

    Are there lots and lots of bad books – crappy SF, for example – with umpsalotta word inventions?

  43. Mariana says

    I am also curious to know which story line in Cryptonomicon you liked, PZ. I absolutely loved the entire thing, although I do agree that he badly needs an editor to clean out his purple prose. But the stories themselves and the *hilarity* totally make up for it.

    I thought Snow Crash was juvenile, so go figure. There were a few good witticisms here and there, but, on the whole…silly.

  44. scooter says

    do these monks with the gullivers full of numbers, do they get a malinky bit of the ol in-out, like everybody else, or do they have to do their own droogs, like Bog monks, or do they bring in the young malchicks like the regular Bog priests for a real horrowshow time ?

  45. Count Nefarious says

    Well, what about The Lord of the Rings? I don’t think anyone will deny that its many made-up words add to its greatness.

  46. stand says

    Make sure you look at the alt text on the xkcd linked to here. (i.e. hover your mouse over the image and wait for the text balloon to pop up)

  47. SC says

    Second, taking it seriously (just for the fun of it), the vertical axis is probability. This is not synonymous with certainty. A handful of books do not constitute a counterexample when the rule is probabilistic.

    First, I agree with the sentiment behind the graph. But now I’m curious (and just awakening from a nap, and apparently to lazy to think it through myself): If the relationship is put in probabilistic terms, what evidence would serve to counter the argument, statistically-speaking?

  48. scooter says

    I believe most of the wyrd words in Shakespeare were actually an incorporation of the common slang of the day.

    Many of the plays were written for the masses, and well attended. The Theater on the Thames was also an excellent place to pick up hookers, drugs, and of course they served alcohol.

    Apparently there was plenty of heckling and improvisation throughout, as well.

    They were also drag shows, come to think of it.

  49. Count Nefarious says

    But now I’m curious (and just awakening from a nap, and apparently to lazy to think it through myself): If the relationship is put in probabilistic terms, what evidence would serve to counter the argument, statistically-speaking?

    Strictly speaking, the graph would be impossible to verify, for all practical purposes. It’s continuous distribution, which can be approximated by a discrete distribution, but the approximation will always be inexact. Even constructing a good discrete distribution would be very difficult. For instance, to evaluate the probability of a book with 100 made-up words being good, you would need to take a large sample of books with 100 words. You could put them into bands (of say books with between 90 and 100 made-up words). But then it would become harder to get an approximation of a continuous distribution.

    However, I suppose one way of falsifying the cartoon would be to take a load of specific “strips” and test them. For instance, test the probability of goodness of books between x and x + 10 words. If these don’t approximately match up, the cartoon is wrong.

  50. Count Nefarious says


    “…you would need to take a large sample of books with 100 words.”

    That should be “100 made-up words”.

  51. Count Nefarious says

    Argh! More errors!

    “For instance, test the probability of goodness of books between x and x + 10 words.”
    Should be “made-up words”.

    “If these don’t approximately match up, the cartoon is wrong.”
    I meant “match up with the probability given by the graph”.

    Sorry about taking up so much space.

  52. Pierce R. Butler says

    Is it too much to hope for that the title signals a ruthless skewering of Ayn Rand tucked in amongst the neologorrhea?

  53. says

    Well, I am a mathematician, and I loved it. On the other hand, I’m fascinated by all things concerning Newton, yet found the trilogy inflated, pretentious, turgid, prolix. And the pace was gastropodan. I couldn’t force myself to finish the third book.

  54. MizBean says

    Stephenson has a very early work called “The Big U” which is utterly high-larious. It’s a satire of college and includes some of the best nerd characters I’ve ever read. Quite biting and dark. “Roy G Biv!”

  55. tkozak says

    this is @ UKGP, regarding Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (which I also referred to in my earlier post but wasn’t thinking straight and referred to the Old sun instead, oops).

    Those books do not generally contain made-up words, or at least very few I could find. If you head to the dictionary you will find that most of them are archaic English or possibly Latin. I think the only ones that are really imaginary are Alzabo and Avern.

  56. co says

    Roy G Biv! I kid you not, I read The Big U the first time and got to the climax with Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven playing in the background. Unintentionally. Epic.

  57. myob1776 says

    Well, I’ve read Anathem two times now, which is par for the course as far as I’m concerned for all of Stephenson’s novels (yes, I twice-slogged through “The Baroque Cycle”). It’s a darned good read once you get about 120 pages into it, though I would have preferred a more ambiguous ending. He packaged it up a bit too neatly for my taste.

    That said, he did his usual great job of integrating his topics du jour into his narrative. His characters were generally interesting, though I still think he doesn’t create terribly interesting women characters. Did Cord remind anyone of Amy Shaftoe? And would it have killed him to have Enoch Root make a token appearance?

  58. rejiquar says


    I went to that same small a2 bookstore signing as another poster. Was kinda surprised when he said he’d never read Gene Wolf, since I thought the flavor similar too…I liked Cryptonomicon, but the sexism in the baroque cycle stopped me dead in the first book (spouse liked ’em). Thought _Diamond Age_ was fantastically inventive, but again, loathed the weird, sexist undertones.

    I rather liked Anathema. I didn’t find the made up words hard to follow, and not being very good at math, liked the calcas ‘cuz they were easy enough for me to follow. —But both spouse and I thought the plot kinda crashed about 3/4 way through, changing from a sort of Stapledonian Last and First Men to space opera-ish need to get out of the plot corner. And the thing is, Stephenson admitted this at the signing, so it wasn’t my imagination.

    So I’m the opposite of the posters wanting more excitement and action-adventure. I found the action-adventure parts an irritating distraction from the discussions, and moreover, the sexist episodes tended to happen during the “exciting” bits, another reason not to like ’em.

    Yeah, Cord did remind me a bit of Amy Shaftoe, but there wasn’t one decent woman mathematician in Anathema and the part where the colorless girlfriend gave up her chance in the Edlarian math jest so’s our hero could have the spot instead was aggravating.

  59. says

    I see the problem here: it’s about astronomy, not biology :-) Maybe we should get Phil to review it!

    Baroque Fan (#5), are you Not-Quite-A-True-Fan-But-Close of Neal Stephenson or PZ?

    ca (#12), “not unenjoyable” is quite the recommendation. I’m not picking – I actually like it AND find it useful; it’s enjoyable in a different than expected way.

    As David Marjanović referenced, (#22), I highly recommend paying attention to the alt-text tag of all xkcd comic images.

    Thus spake PZ, (#35): “Dogjam you, Antimatterspork, dogjam you all to aloha.” It’s because of the existence of these gems, and the other referenced comments (and more), that I spend an inordinate quantity of time reading all of the comments. Thank you. All. – g^2

  60. Matt H says

    I am a Stephenson fan (made it through the Baroque Cycle, loved it) and finished Anathem about a week and a half after it was released. It’s a fun book but it does take a hard turn into space opera about 3/4 of the way through that is unexpected. Of course, it also plays into the multiverse theme that permeates the novel; I wondered about the degree to which it was a McGuffin vs really related to the plot, and I haven’t made up my mind yet…

  61. Steve_C says

    Loved Snowcrash. I got about a third of the way through Quicksilver (that was a bit if a hard slog) and forgot my book at a B&B and haven’t felt the need to buy it again… I do want to finish the Baroque cycle though.

  62. Pierce R. Butler says

    You want some Anathem? How about an Anathem Wiki (“Note: this wiki may and probably does contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.”) with “114 articles since September 2008”?

  63. CocoaLab says

    @scooter (#50)

    do these monks with the gullivers full of numbers, do they get a malinky bit of the ol in-out, like everybody else, or do they have to do their own droogs, like Bog monks, or do they bring in the young malchicks like the regular Bog priests for a real horrowshow time ?

    Um, yes. So far (I’m on page 256) we have been introduced to several different kinds of “liasons” that are permitted between the avout, and it seems that depending upon which order is concerned, most varieties of sexual and romantic praxis is catered to.

    On the whole, as a True Fan™, I am rivetted, it is classic Stephenson. I love the way he is too ambitious and “purple” by half, he does with such bravado I forgive him entirely.

  64. says

    Personal taste aside, reading half a book and posting a “review” is about like reading half of anything and calling your opinion critique. If you don’t finish the book, fine. If you read the whole thing and hate it, that’s fine too. But don’t call half a read a review. It’s misleading at best.

  65. Owlmirror says

    I think the only ones that are really imaginary are Alzabo and Avern.

    Looking in the OED, I note that…

    [a. F. Averne ‘the pit of hell’ (Cotgr. 1611), ad. L. Avernus (sc. lacus), = Gr. άορνος (λίμνη) the birdless (lake), f. ά priv. + όρνις bird.]

    orig. A lake in Campania, the poisonous effluvium from which was said to kill birds flying over it. transf. The infernal regions.

    1599 GREENE Alphon. (1861) 227 Pluto, king of dark Avern.

    While “Alzebo” is not in the OED, I would guess that it is originally Arabic, perhaps more properly “Alzeb” (or “Alzab”).

    My Arabic is practically nonexistent, but after doing a bit of fiddling with online translations and transliterators, I think that alzeb could well translate to “the wolf”.

    And, say, doesn’t Gene Wolfe like putting wolves in his stories?

  66. says

    I didn’t really ‘get’ the Baroque cycle. The book seemed to me to be about the rise of science and end of magic but the big event at the end was magic. I loved Snow Crash, Zodiac, Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon but I feel the energy and excitement in his novels is fading.

  67. Sweet Emulsion says

    Amen to that graph. Have you ever read a book by John Ringo? If you can get past the neocon philosophy and the unpronounceable alien names, they can be fun, bloody romps.
    But I can’t keep track of the characters. He told me to fuck off when I mentioned that I didn’t care for characterization of liberals as cowards. What a guy.

  68. craig says

    Well, it’s a poem rather than a book, but based on that graph, Jabberwocky would likely be the suckiest piece of writing in all of human history.

  69. Andrew says

    The biggest problem with Anathem is the insistence on traversing the entire world of Arbre through the viewpoint of an imperfect narrator. World-building is difficult enough, but world-building when your narrator is as well-informed about the world (relatively) as your reader is – well, that’s tough at best, and mind-numbingly boring at worst. Even within the “Concent”, our narrator is astonishingly innocent – understanding how to use the clothes he wears, very basic insight into the motivations of his close friends, and that’s it.

    It’s bad enough when it’s a concept the narrator is comfortable with – we get a fairly concise aside each time that happens. But when the narrator encounters something he’s not familiar with, we’re treated to at least two or three pages of investigation, observation and introspection before the narrator is satisfied he understand what’s going on – unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the reader is! Often, when the narrator encounters something new, he examines it at length until he’s comfortable with it, but not enough for the reader to understand it or square it away with what the reader already knows. So the reader gets the distinct impression every few pages that he’s been told something important or significant, but doesn’t know why, and then – whoops! Here’s another mystery.

    With so many things going on at once, the book quickly fills up into a tangle, and at the very end of the novel, when context is finally supplied for the first four-fifths of the book, the reader’s probably forgotten most of what was revealed thus far. Worse, the reader probably doesn’t care about any of it any longer.

    Still, the last hundred and fifty pages or so are quite neat. My judgment of Anathem is an excellent short story buried within eight hundred pages of world-building.

  70. says

    I loved Cryptonomicon (probably because I completely grokked all the crypto stuff, and especially the bit at the end where he plays silly games with X11 and window managers), but I only made it through Quicksilver through sheer bloody-minded willpower, and never bothered with the rest of the Baroque Cycle.

    So I guess I’ll be giving Anathem a miss as well.

  71. says

    Smidgy [31], For my taste The Lord of the Rings would have been even better without so many made-up words.

    But when I listen to recordings of Rory Gallagher, a guitarist whom my spouse considers to rival Clapton, I wait for him to stop noodling around and start singing again.

    “There is no disputing that Gus is in the East.” (De gustabus non est disputandem or, as some people will have it, “There is no disputing that there are tastes.) Tastes differ.

    PZ, you’ve found a sleeping aid—until the fireworks start.

  72. Count Nefarious says

    Smidgy [31], For my taste The Lord of the Rings would have been even better without so many made-up words.

    Sorry, I don’t buy that at all. I think the made-up words in LotR undoubtedly enriched the trilogy. It just wouldn’t feel the same if we had “demons” instead of “balrogs”, or “Elven biscuit-bread” instead of “lembas”.

  73. AnonCoward23 says

    Just for the sake of throwing out a suggestion (if you read this late post anyway): You might enjoy John Brunner’s “The Crucible of Time”. It’s a bit tedious to read, too, but in the end, it’s one of my favourites.
    It depicts a society of religious (reptilian/turtle-ish) lifeforms that slowly discovers science and begins to abolish religion. Unfortunately, the planet’s struck frequent catastrophes where everything’s going down the drain.

  74. says

    I finished Anathem in about four sittings, and loved it.

    I was expecting the Foundation Trilogy mixed with Riddly Walker, but it was more like (the English translation* of) The Name of the Rose mixed with Podkayne of Mars.

    And PZ, if you’re going to quote XKCD, don’t forget

    (Tho in that one, he omitted logicians, who would be even further to the right.)

    * My understanding is that the original version of that book had many, many more excursions into different languages, and that was toned down in the English version, out of pity for us idiot monoglots.

  75. Rabo says

    I just finished Anathem last night. I agree that the book is difficult to get in to, but in my opinion it’s worth it. There are fireworks, and an ending I found quite satisfying.

    My copy of the book is a library book; when it’s available at a used book store, I’ll probably be ready to re-read it, and I intend to get it.

  76. CortxVortx says

    QX on the neologisms. Although they can give the story flavor, it’s frackin’ irriating to flip to the glossary (assuming one) until you remember the meaning. But when the tome is shelved and the anbarics switched off, the words don’t stick with you for many bleens.

    But that PZ has time to read hefty fiction? I find myself discombobulous and even anaspeptic.

  77. Caveat says

    I don’t know about the fabricated words thing as a measure of a book’s worth. That’s how the language evolves and when you think about it, all words are ‘made up’.

    These guys were pretty good:

    Charles Dodgson
    Giacomo Shakaspieri
    George Orwell
    John Wyndham

    …just for starters :>)

  78. Caveat says

    I don’t know about the fabricated words thing as a measure of a book’s worth. That’s how the language evolves and when you think about it, all words are ‘made up’.

    These guys were pretty good:

    Charles Dodgson
    Guglielmo Shakaspieri
    George Orwell
    John Wyndham

    …just for starters :>)

  79. caveat says

    oops, double post, had to change giacomo to guglielmo.

    Now a triple post (snorfle snoogit rastoot)

  80. Tim B. says

    The notion of cloistered intellectuals sparked off a memory of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

  81. says

    My ability to focus on the Baroque cycle has declined exponentially, rather like that graph. I read Quicksilver over a couple of weeks, The Confusion took the better part of a year and The System of the World I will probably finish sometime around the heat death of the universe.

    I appreciate Stephenson’s enthusiasm for his subjects, but he does tend to explore every single vaguely interesting tangential thread he can find, at the expense of the story I think.

  82. travc says

    I guess to each their own. I’ve read most of Stephenson’s books over the course of a day or two each (doing pretty much nothing else). As for needing an editor… Don’t even attempt to read any Lovecraft if you think Stephenson is wordy.

    I can see how his style wouldn’t be in everyone’s taste, but I relish his prose and multiple story-lines. I enjoy having to think while I’m reading. (Actually just sitting down and reading it in one go helps.)

  83. Shinobi says

    I couldn’t get into the Baroque cycle AT ALL. I tried. I tried very very hard. But I didn’t even bother buying the second two books.

    Anathem on the other hand sucked me in. I think this is largely because I am so bored at my job and in my life that I am desperate for the intellectual stimulation provided by reading a book about smart people.

    I also think I am still pretty good at handling new vocabulary, I read lots of books that do this (though not to stephenson’s extent int his one.) So after a few trips to the glossary early on I really enjoyed it.

    I think they key for me was, I usually read a book at breakneck speed, waiting for the next thing to happen. In this one I just tried to enjoy the ride, because his endings are never worth rushing towards. (This one is mildly better than some of his other endings, emphasis on the MILDLY.) I just took my time and enjoyed his prose, and that seemed to work.

    I wish I knew more people who would read this book, I would love to discuss a lot of what was in it.

  84. says

    I could never get into Snow Crash. It was like three great books all vying for my attention within the pages of one mediocre one.

    And that diagram explains perfectly my feelings about the Wheel of Time books. If your fantasy book requires a glossary, you’re trying way too hard.

  85. Caravelle says

    Of course, this is a small blessing to the rest of us, because perhaps the only thing more dreary than describing the lives of obsessed mathematicians would be a book describing the actual mathematics of a collection of obsessed mathematicians.

    Awww, you should read “The man who loved only numbers”, it’s a biography of Erdös by Paul Hoffman. That should reconcile you with obsessed mathematicians. I don’t know if I would have liked the guy, but it’s a great read.

  86. Jim A says

    I would say that the Baroque cycle, while very good, could have used some editing. It read like he did alot of research and tried to put every interesting thing that he read about in the book. In general, he tends to wrap such a good story around a completly unbelievable central conceit that you just don’t care about the implausability of it all.

    n.b. #2, Is your name a tribute to the series by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge? Good stuff that.

  87. Will Von Wizzlepig says

    PZ, you really ought not to post a summary of the book without a warning that spoilers follow.

    I really liked the book. Also enjoyed discovering several of the things you mention in the story on my own as opposed to knowing about them in advance.

    I have to agree, if you don’t already like Stephenson, this may not be a very good entry book.

    You left Snow Crash out of the list, a fun cyberpunk adventure with hints of Stephenson’s signature data-overload style of writing.

  88. Owlmirror says

    You left Snow Crash out of the list, a fun cyberpunk adventure with hints of Stephenson’s signature data-overload style of writing.

    You mean besides mentioning it in the second sentence?

  89. John Scanlon FCD says

    I haven’t sought out Anathem yet, but I suppose I’m destined to read it at least once. I discovered Stephenson with Cryptonomicon, which remains one of my favourite re-reads… can’t recall where it has a dull paragraph. The Baroque Cycle is more… diffuse, such that a lot of it is OK (and highly educational, historically) and some bits are clever or droll, but none of it is outstandingly brilliant or LOL-funny (could one quote a sentence or paragraph to give an impressive example of the author’s wit? – I didn’t think so). But I don’t mind a long read (BC 3 times), and I sniff with contempt at those newspaper book reviewers who think anything over 300 pages is a waste of their so-precious time. So I also read Snow Crash and The Diamond Age when I had the chance to borrow them (I did laugh out loud once at a piece of silliness in SC: nitrates, nitrites, nutrotes…). But PZ’s description of Anathem sounded more like The Glass Bead Game (Hesse) than anything else.

  90. Mat Wilder says

    To the person who thought “lembas” should’ve been called “elven biscuits”- do you realize that Tolkien didn’t just invent words, He invented whole languages? In a way, the stories are meant to give a history to how the languages changed over time, like real languages do, and Tolkien was attempting to give plausible (though of course fictional) explanations to philological problems in which he was interested. In many ways, Tolkien wrote for himself more than for an audience hungry for fiction.

  91. tim says

    #93 – I just finished Anathem, and I feel compelled to re-read The Glass Bead Game now.

    And I thought Anathem was brilliant. I burned through it in about a week, which is quicker than I’ve read anything of Neal’s since Snow Crash.