It's pretty hard to describe the plot of the book as any accurate descriptions would be spoilers. It is one of those rare books where you truly have no clue what is going to happen next. As to what it is about, well, it's about philosophy I suppose. Stephenson has taken an entirely different direction from his other books. This is not about Earth, either future or past. In some respects, he is channeling Le Guin in that he's created an alternate sort of human society on another planet, and spent an entire novel describing it. Except that there's a plot, with stuff happening, which I can't describe without ruining things.
The world-building is impressive, and by an artful combination of leaving things undescribed (for one character is described as "being of an ethnicity not common to the region"), showing some things as quite different, and other things as very nearly the same. It really feels like a world that underwent a different evolution. Then by doing all this through the eyes of a character who himself is outside much of the society, we get to see it through fresh eyes.
One theme of this book is that modern society distracts us from real, deep thought and so unlike his other works, with dizzying arrays "cool hackers", etc., this follows a more grounded protagonist who though 19, is in many ways wise beyond your average teenager. He is a sort of philosophical monk. The conceit of the book is that there are essentially philosophical monasteries where thinks separate themselves from society at large. The separation is quite literal, with periods one, ten, a hundred or even a thousand years completely locked away from the rest of society. When the period ends, the "avout" have ten days to mingle with society before returning.
Stephenson does a masterful job of creating a sort of new language the differentness, yet sameness, of this world. Many are literal drop in replacements, for example "mobe" for "car" and "fetch" for "truck", yet all have very obvious etymologies as if these could have been our own words but for a quirk in etymology. And since the book is centered around philosophy, we hear about the "Adhakhonic Theorem" or "Gardan's Steelyard" or "Protism". Sometimes this makes things confusing, but it does strip some of our prior impressions of various philosophies while we see them described.
It is a very talky book. There is certainly action, but much of it involves two or more characters having deep discussions on the nature of reality.
Anyway, best thing I've read in a while.
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