I keep putting off my review, uncertain how to engage without scattering little spoilers everywhere--but also just a bit flabbergasted over how to describe the experience.
For about 200 pages, the endless pilgrimages to the glossary really wore me down. The future setting intrigued me, but information is slowly parcelled out--the Chinese Water Torture method for context-building. And while I kind of like the alternate-world-building of much sci-fi (or, hell, fiction generally), the elaborate game of defining new words for familiar items (blackberry-ish pda's become jeejahs) makes me want to throw thirteen-sided die at the author.
But even in this first 200 pages, despite the occasionally crushing weight of Stephensonian detailing (three or four pages elaborately describing the architecture of a conclave in the cloister where the novel begins), there were these extended philosophical discussions about meaning that just... well, they were ripping -- smart but not smarty-pants, erudite yet fluid and often quite exciting. (The conceit of the novel is what first sold me -- look for the plot summary above/at Goodreads, 'cause I can't do it justice. And the conceit comes alive often enough to keep me thrumming along, until....)
....after about 200 pages, and I'm working to avoid any spoilage here, it suddenly became clear that Stephenson wasn't just playing the silly other-name-for-everything game, but that the elaborate vocabulary and context-building were as crucial to the plot as to the richly-imagined world he was crafting.... plus I got the hang of the history and the vocab, and.... Well, reader, for the next 500 pages I was so thoroughly entertained by the crafty plotting, the philosophical digressions and dialogues, the occasional sly meta-textual gags. There's a very thoughtful and (to this atheist) even-handed yet critical running debate about religion and rationalism, even if I don't quite buy some of the equivalencies Stephenson later sort of defines. As a fan of [book:Cryptonomicon], with its extended jazz-like riffs on the nature of information, it was fun to see Stephenson push information to the side (with a group called the Itas) and turn his attention to knowledge. (And, yes, the distinction is clearly worked through.)
It's smart, funny, thoughtful as hell. And, if you're willing to do some calisthenics to warm up, it's a real rush to read.
I might have even leaned to 5 stars, like all the other fans, but for that opening (which might have been a bit long) and an end which while satisfying enough seemed like action-plotting, most of the novel's conundrums already untangled. Still, a kick, and much recommended, to those who go in for this sort of thing.