If you read cosmology books for fun, you’ll have plenty of fun reading Anathem, by Neil Stephenson. It also helps if you like wordplay, language, and philosophy. I liked this book so much I was actually a bit relieved that I didn’t fall in love with it, because a 900 page book could mean some serious sleep deprivation.
From the first page, you can’t even talk about this book without using its coinages. It opens with Erasmus serving as a recorder for his teacher Orolo, who is asking all sorts of peculiar and embarrassing questions of a handyman hired for some repairs in the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Flustered and offended, the handyman flings techobabble right back at them. Many commenters, including xkcd, have complained about the made-up words. Most of the strange vocabulary is based on Greek and Latin roots, just reassigned from the way usage turned out here. It’s not so different from how the Russians send, not astronauts, but cosmonauts into space. The glossary and interspersed definitions help, and if you really want to dig into the roots, you might want to check out a dictionary of etymology. (Not to be confused with my other love, entymology.)
I was more bothered by how slowly the book started. I wasn’t entirely sure what was keeping me interested, aside from exploring a strange world.
For instance, it takes about 30 pages before Orolo even explains why he was asking such strange questions. They are so insulated from the outside, that he considers it possible that a sort of timeslip could have happened while the gate was closed. Erasmus bursts out:
“[Y]ou want me to believe that you were just checking to see whether a thousand years might have gone by on the other side of that wall while only ten have gone by on this side!?”
“I saw no harm in making inquiries.”
And that’s about where I decided I was willing to stick with it and find out what the book was about. Even so, about 180 pages in, I was thinking some books would be done with, and I still didn’t know what the story was about. Finally, about page 300, just as you’re wondering if the book is going to be one big doorstop of philosophical recapitulation, you find out what the Big Problem is and the adventure story finally kicks in.
One of the book’s little jokes is that you have to go outside the walls to find people who believe in God, or Deolators. Though the people inside the concents might practice austerity and sing hymns, they are the avout (the opposite of devout, I suppose). One of their basic rules is that you shouldn’t believe in something simply because you would like it to be true. So no god. They believe in science and philosophy and math.
The real payoff is a book about Ideas, controlling ideas, proving ideas, and the relationship of the ideal to the real. Not just talking about them (which like perpetual grad students, they do a lot) but the whole setup of the Discipline, the division between the mathic and Saecular, is a thought experiment of how to control technology and the pace of change and the movement of people and information. And if you want to know where the ideas came from in this world, there’s a treasure trove of reading in the acknowledgments.