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Well, I've ploughed through the almost 900 pages of novel (plus 20-page glossary, plus 25 pages of supplementary material), and I reckon this gets my Hugo vote. (I've read all the other nominees except Zoe's Tale, but given my track record with Scalzi's writing I'm unlikely to put it at the top of my list.)

At first I thought this was going to be some sort of combination of The Tombs of Atuan, The Name of the Rose and philosophy of science; our hero is a trainee scholar in a rigidly ritualistic academic culture which covers his entire world. But then it turns out that this is a First Contact story, and we have the build-up to a brilliantly described commando raid in deep space. And our hero resolves the problems in his love-life, so the romantic in me was satisfied too.

I particularly enjoyed Stephenson's playing with words: the honorific "Saunt" drawing on both savant and saint, the "Concent" combining the characteristics of a convent with undertones of concentration and concepts, our hero's name "Erasmas" echoing most obviously Erasmus but perhaps also Rasselas and others with similar names. There are a lot of neat and witty allusions to well-known concepts in the history and philosophy of science. Erasmas' home, the Concent of Saunt Edhar, is located at 51.3° north, the same latitude as London, or Greenwich, or indeed Bath where Herschel discovered the planet Uranus.

Stephenson loses marks on a couple of technical points, though. I mentioned last week that he has his polar orbits wrong. Also, like Asimov in The Gods Themselves, he has matter brought into universes where the nuclear forces don't operate in quite the same way, in which case I would expect the atoms to either collapse or explode, though I suppose there could be some handwaving explanation (or perhaps I've misunderstood what "newmatter" is supposed to be).

I expect it will be a tight race between Anathem and The Graveyard Book for the Hugo this year. My vote goes to Anathem.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 30th, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
I haven't been a big fan of Stephenson in the past, do you think this book is good enough to overcome that sort of bias?
Apr. 30th, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
It's quite different from his previous work in that it's not set on contemporary or historical Earth, so has a much more sfnal feel in some ways; Arbre is well-executed. He is still a bit didactic, but about stuff that I at least find more interesting than economics. His linguistic twitches are still there, but I think more successfully integrated into the story. So it's probably worth a try.
Apr. 30th, 2009 04:47 pm (UTC)
Hmm, interesting. I kind of gave up on Stephenson when he started writing vast historical novels with no plot. Lots of interesting bits of history and fun descriptions, but nothing that really engaged me in terms of character and story.

I have a holiday coming up, so might be tempted by it as a hols read.
Apr. 30th, 2009 05:32 pm (UTC)
Stay awayyyyyyyyyyyyy!
It sounds like this is exactly wrong for you (as it was for me)
For example, since Nicholas mentioned the romantic subplot - the romance lasts about three pages and then disappears again more or less until the very end. There are no messy human relationships for Stephenson to worry about.

In a way, it's very neat. Stephenson thinks "fuck, our hero is a man, he's probably going to think about girls at some point, and then they'll want to talk about _feelings_. I know - if he has a girlfriend but they're conveniently separated, he has an excuse not to notice any other women, without them ever having to talk! Which leaves more room for lectures on Penrosean quantum brains! I am _such_ a genius..."
Apr. 30th, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
I took the root of "concents" to be "concentric", with the 1s on the outside, the 10s further in, the 100s further still, and the millenarians at the centre.

I'm also constantly surprised that nobody else sees the similarities with The Glass Bead Game.
Apr. 30th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
It is an obvious thing to compare Anathem to, you're right.
Apr. 30th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC)
Not re: Anathem (as I haven't read it, nor anything of Stephenson's since the first part of Quicksilver), but of the 3 Hugo books I've read (ZT, Graveyard and Little Brother), I would tend to agree that Zoe won't make the top of your list. I, personally, would put it behind both of the others I've read.

That said, I think Zoe's Tale is pretty good, and better than Scalzi's last 2 OMW novels. Am interested to see your thoughts when (I'm making the assumption that you will) you read it.
Apr. 30th, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
I ordered it from the library earlier today. The returns pile is Zoe's Tale (which I like quite a lot), Blindsight (which I enjoyed once I got into it) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I think I agree with you on.

I also ordered Little Brother, so I might actually have read all the nominees before the ballot, Graveyard Book is currently winning, although Zoe's Tale is a good bit of fun storytelling.
May. 3rd, 2009 07:59 am (UTC)
I think it beats Blindsight and Little Brother. Both great books. Blindsight is particularly worth the payoff for the ideas at the end. Not read ZT yet, but having read Scalzi's other OMW novels I can't see it being the same calibre as Blindsight or Anathem (fun no doubt, but not quite the same level of questioning the human condition).
Apr. 30th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
You might find this review by Adam Roberts amusing.
Mar. 27th, 2019 07:21 am (UTC)
Thank you! (The review is no longer on that link, but is still available to a ridder through the Wayback Machine).

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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