No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, January 21, 2012

2011/63: Reamde -- Neal Stephenson

The channel through which these images had reached them was extremely confusing (decryption key pulled out of a dead man's wallet by a Hungarian in the Philippines communicating with an American in Canada, the conversation taking place on an imaginary planet .. (796)
Neal Stephenson's latest novel is a vast, sprawling contemporary techno-thriller. It's very readable: I devoured it, on my Kindle (not sure my wrists are up to coping with the physical dead-tree book) in a couple of days. But it wasn't as satisfying as Stephenson's previous novels. All his flaws (including implausible female characters, lack of editing, frustratingly inconclusive endings) are here, and Reamde doesn't have the virtues of The Baroque Cycle or Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon.

The basic premise is good. Richard Forthrast, uber-geek, is one of the creators of T'Rain, an exquisitely-detailed MMORPG which is immensely popular all over the world. Being popular, it's also the perfect medium for the REAMDE virus, created by Chinese gold-miners, which Richard unwittingly distributes to the Russian mafia. Taking Richard's niece Zula and her boyfriend Richard, the Russians head for China to take out the perpetrators of REAMDE, and -- in a farcical series of coincidences -- find themselves in conflict with a cell of jihadists led by a black Welshman, who --

No, really. With hilarious consequences.

There is also a kick-ass Chinese tea saleswoman, a fantasy-writing Cambridge don, a CIA operative in exile, an insane Russian crime lord and a plethora of ex-military 'security consultants'.

Zula, who's one of the main characters, reminds me of Eliza, and not in a good way. "She wondered what others saw in her; why Csongor, of all people, would go to such lengths to protect her. Why Jones was keeping her around. Why Pavel and Sergei had decided -- spontaneously, she thought -- to include her in the deal they were striking with Jones... (477)" She's another Stephensonian heroine whom everyone loves, who inspires men and women to go out of their way and put themselves in danger solely to protect. She's resourceful and tough, but her main function seems to be as plot token: something to motivate other characters to act in atypical and interesting ways.

Richard, reluctant technology mogul, is more interesting to me. He's a former marijuana smuggler made good, who's kicked into realising how far he's come from his roots as a young creative gamer. "His whole mind, his whole attention, was focussed on one thing for the first time he could remember." (961) The international pursuit of Zula's captors, culminating in a small war that ranges through the backcountry where he grew up, helps him get back in touch with himself and with the terrain from which he's sprung. (A similar thing happens to his T'Rain character, who ends up roaming the imaginary world of T'Rain in search of REAMDE.)

That advice that's always given to writers, "show don't tell"? Mr Stephenson will have none of it. The majority of Reamde's page acreage is given over to description and observation: the sociology of virtual goldminers, the horrors of recombinant cuisine ("repurposing other foods"), the ways in which boring tasks can be made interesting by putting them into a gaming context. It's fascinating, but somewhat self-indulgent. Perhaps another edit? But this book hasn't been edited enough, as evidenced by phrases such as "in the center was a raised circle in the middle with traffic lights on it" (189) and "ground that was table fat, but of to its right a kilometer or so ..." (190). (Typos as per the printed page.)

I found the ending rushed and inconclusive after the fast-paced conflict of the previous hundred pages. Okay, so character X is dead. (The first we hear of this is a discussion of the will.) Characters A and B have paired up (but then so have multiple young heterosexual pairs of characters, off-stage and not that plausibly). I am not at all clear as to whether earlier issues in T'Rain have been resolved.

This all sounds as though I didn't enjoy the book: I did, at least while I was reading. But Reamde's plot, characters and structure are not on a par with Stephenson's best work. There's no one in this novel who I'd like to meet again.