<i>Anathem</i> makes me wish I was a scientist-monk

I'm right in the middle of Neal Stephenson's new tome Anathem, and it's like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy - it's making me wish I'd studied some kind of hard science or classics, and that I had a bunch of really geeky friends to hang out and trade theorems with. Anathem is novel of big ideas - science, philosophy, and religion - but it also shot through with a melancholy longing that really gets to me. I haven't finished it yet, but so far I think it's as good as, or maybe even better than Cryptonomicon, if such a thing is possible. <!-- SUMMARY_END -->

[Update: 2008-10-24] Forgot to update, but I finished the book, and it was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. I had my doubts at the beginning - the concept was interesting but didn't grab me right away. But if you've read the first bits and gotten bored, know that it ends up in a totally different place that makes it totally worth slogging through the first part, which is different in a good way when you look back on it.

I loved Stephenson's riffs on the Ita's "super-jeejah" and the telescope recorder pad thing (it'd be awesome to be able to pull off that kind of user interface), and the caste-difference between the avout and the Ita resonated with my experience.

As a Christian I was a little less comfortable with his portrayal of religion. I can see where he's coming from - my own ancestors were driven out of Europe by religious extremists, and I see potential for that in today's America and in Christianity in the global south. I'm glad that Stephenson is more even-handed - there are some religious characters who are protrayed in a favorable light - but by the end of the book most of these "turn out good after all" by basically giving up their religious views.

Most adventure books start with their characters safe in their daily routines until they notice something a little out of the ordinary, which turns out to be a Big Problem, and soon they're hanging on for dear life wondering where the beast is taking them. Anathem captures this in an especially realistic way.