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Anathem; Speed Racer

Started: 2008-10-18 13:53:00

Submitted: 2008-10-18 14:30:02

Visibility: World-readable

I finished reading Anathem this week, and I can confidently say it ranks among Neal Stephenson's best books. (I consider Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash to be his best. I didn't care much for The Baroque Cycle -- I gave up halfway through The Confusion -- but I was willing to give Stephenson another chance.)

With the story's plot twists, knowing too much about the story ahead of time can be a liability, so I'll stick to the setting: Stephenson creates a post-technological world where society's best and brightest are siphoned off into monasteries where they study mathematics and science but avoid any especially dangerous technologies. The story follows the first-person narrative of one particular young monk at a time of cataclysmic change to the three-thousand-year-old system. The first two hundred pages (out of nearly a thousand total) start slow, gradually building the world before the plot picks up. (I was never bored in the lengthy first act; the world-building kept me interested where the plot was lacking.) Much of the book reads much like a mystery, with the characters trying to figure out what's going on and the readers trying to understand the world Stephenson created. I loved the world-building, the technical detail, the millennia of history, and the plot twists. I can't recommend this book enough.

I had the opportunity to attend a Neal Stephenson signing earlier this month. As I write this, I'm wearing the advertising t-shirt I got at the signing, which includes a definition of the term "bulshytt" (fourth definition on the page). Elsewhere on the Internet, library comic Unshelved promoted the book, and geek comic xkcd mocked Stephenson's invented vocabulary. And how could you resist a book that has a trailer?

Last night, I watched Speed Racer on DVD. After watching the trailer and reading reviews this spring, I couldn't figure out if the movie was worth watching, but it was obvious that I'd want to watch it on DVD. I sat down last night fearing for the worst -- nausea-inducing cinematography, hollow characters, mindless action, and an incomprehensible (and irrelevant) plot. I was pleasantly surprised. The cinematography was manic but failed to induce any nausea (at least on my thirty-two-inch CRT; I can't imagine the full theater experience would have been entirely nausea-free). The characters were almost exclusively cardboard cutouts, and I couldn't always figure out what some of them contributed to the plot. I could have done without most of the plucky comic relief; the kindest words I can say about the chimp are that he was much better than Jar Jar. The movie would have been better without the chimp and the kid, though I must confess I did chuckle at their contribution to the hotel fight scene halfway through the movie. At least the plot was easy to follow; it could have been written on a single highway billboard. None of the plot twists surprised me; they were all telegraphed so far in advance that it was mostly anti-climatic when they finally really happened. Still, it was fantastic throw-away entertainment with amazing effects and very little nausea. (I can't comment on how well it lived up to its anime predecessor, having never experienced the original, but it clearly owed a visual debt to the genre in general.) Speed Racer makes a great rental and bargain-bin purchase, and I'm sure it would be excellent entertainment while intoxicated.