Not sure when this happened, but there's a new video on Amazon's Anathem page that features a 4 minute interview with Stephenson, who explains a few things about his new book. Most notably and despite Stephenson's best efforts, it appears that the book has developed it's own vocabulary and will feature a glossary (similar to Dune, though I get the impression that his planet won't have quite as much in the glossary). I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but my initial impression is that it's a good thing. The story is supposed to be set on an alien planet, so it makes sense that there would be concepts and vocabulary that would require explanation. One of the things that always bothered me about alien planets in fiction (particularly in TV and movies) is just how homogenous they are. When you look at the history of our planet you see a ton of variety surrounding life, society, culture, etc... and you rarely see any of that kind of depth in SF stories. Again, this is more evident in TV and film, where you see things like a multitude of humanoid races (not that humanoid aliens can't exist, it's just that humans developed and evolved to survive in a distinct environment - to assume that most aliens would develop in almost the exact same way (except with some strange bulges in their forehead) is ludicrous - and besides, we know humanoids, humanoids are boring, give us something new and interesting, like the Alien) or overly simplistic environments like "the ice planet of Hoth" (Star Wars seems particularly willing to simplify planets by endowing them with a single ecological system that covers the entire planet). Books seem to be a little better suited to establishing a fictional world anyway, so I'm hoping that Stephenson will be able to do so effectively.
I've actually been reading a lot of SF recently (which I guess you can tell, from the recent SF content that's been posted on the blog recently) and will probably be posting a recap of several recent reads, but one book that really caught my attention with it's depiction of a non-humanoid alien race was Vernor Vinge's excellent A Fire Upon the Deep. There are actually several interesting alien races in the book, but the primary one is called the Tines, which basically take the form of packs of dog-like beings. I don't want to spoil the book, but the way Vinge handles the Tines is fascinating. In some ways, they're very similar to humans, but in other ways, they are dramatically different, and Vinge does a good job extrapolating from those differences. I can't tell yet if Stephenson's novel will feature humanoid aliens or not (are they even aliens?), but he does mention that their history of ideas runs roughly parallel to our own. Again, I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I don't want aliens that are exactly the same as us, but on the other hand, there needs to be some similarities or else we won't be able to relate (nor would it be realistic to expect Stephenson to conceive of something like that). Indeed, Vinge's Tines had a roughly parallel history of ideas as well, except that they were stuck in a medieval state that, for physical reasons, they could not transcend (until aliens land on their planet, of course).
Anyway, there also appears to be a PDF of Anathem's first chapter available, though I have not read it yet (and probably won't until the book comes out). No word about whether or not we'll get an accompanying CD with the book (like the advanced copies had). Sorry to keep blabbing about Anathem, but I'm obviously excited for this novel.