To sum up: Reading Anathem is a humbling experience. Wow, you say to yourself, this guy Stephenson really knows a lot of stuff about philosophy and physics. And he's really ingenious, too, neatly counterpointing Earth/Orth history, creating a series of elaborate puzzles that can only be solved by Encyclopedia Brown and his monastic buddies, and transcribing intellectual conversations that sound like really nerdy Caltech grad students schmoozing at 3 a.m. or Cambridge dons pontificating at high table while they wait for the Stilton to come round.
The sad thing is this: None of these more than 900 pages can have been easy to write, or even to outline. Stephenson truly is gifted in the range of material he can draw on and play with. But he is also the sort of ambitious writer who tends to go too far, which is certainly preferable to playing it safe. Still, this novel is at heart artistically simplistic, despite its techno-razzle dazzle. Sigh. The word "Anathem" -- which here refers to either a piece of religious music or an act of excommunication -- is a portmanteau of "anthem" and "anathema" -- in other words, it suggests a song of rejection. I just hate to be singing it.