Neal Stephenson and I go way back. Snow Crash, his breakthrough novel, was an enjoyably zippy future-tech adventure, overly hip and over in seconds. Over the years he learned verbosity and the ability to write more than was strictly needed, and this gave rise to Cryptonomicon. Then the Baroque Cycle came out and I gave up after only 200 pages, much to my continuing shame. Anathem has sat on my bookshelf, mocking me these past few years as I’ve ploughed through countless other books, all of them generally with fewer pages.
When Reamde was announced, I thought that my Kindle should be utilized to give Stephenson another chance. I would like to believe that my gamble paid off, although at Stephenson’s expense; against all odds, Stephenson has produced a pseudo techno-thriller: a jock in nerd’s clothing.
Reamde opens at the “re-u” of the Forthrast clan. Richard Forthrast has consolidated his already significant wealth through the creation of T’Rain, an MMORPG designed from the ground up to support the gold farming industry. Through T’Rain, a virus is released that holds the data of players hostage, and through this connection Richard’s niece Zula is tangentially abducted by rogue Russian criminals, bundled off to China, and, through a series of events more convoluted than can be detailed here, eventually becomes involved with Al-Qaeda.
There is a lot of plot to Reamde and I wasn’t prepared for it. For the longest time the title mystified Internet speculators: is it a typo? Should it be “Readme” or “Remade”? Now that the book is published it is plain that “Reamde” was always its title: a deliberate misspelling, the name of the virus that unintentionally creates the unlikely spiral of coincidence and chance that forms the body of the book. All I knew when I picked this novel up was that it had a gold farming connection, and so it was a constant surprise to discover its new situations and rhythms.
So this is the odd thing: while the story is largely tangential, the overwhelming timbre is of a modern thriller. This is a long book, and not without its digressions (more interesting than pointless), but one strange criticism that I’ve read is true: Reamde is potentially too “accessible”. Its points of difference gradually disappear, and after a time the T’Rain material becomes little more than interesting window dressing; it is as if Stephenson couldn’t wring enough material out of the concept and decided to go for a much more straightforward terrorism plot, successfully dragging his characters along.
In some ways this is disappointing but it allows for a much more serviceable book, and it will be interesting to see the crossover appeal of the book between the more technically minded audience (i.e. pre-existing Stephenson fans) and those more at home with traditional thrillers. The length alone is enough to scare off many, but for others it will represent value for money; I can happily say that I have no regrets about the US$8.82 and ten days that I devoted to it.
Stephenson’s prowess as a thriller writer is largely predicated upon his ability to draw upon the crutches of the modern visage of the genre; while we could have done without the leaning on Islamic terrorists, who else could he have focused on? Still, this is delicate ground upon which he is treading and the minefield is not always traversed as carefully as it could be.
While thrillers are awash with cardboard Muslims, Stephenson is above this yet still not quite able to transcend a not-exactly reverent approach to organised religion. This is symptomatic of one of the more jarring elements of the novel: Stephenson is no longer certain of how old he is and who he identifies with. His own age is more in line with Richard’s, but much of the focus in this ensemble work is on Zula. Stephenson simultaneously envies and derides what he sees as the current generation of young people’s ironic detachment. He considers everything in terms of hipness, and what he perceives as the interest of the modern youth (loosely defined as “twenty somethings”).
Sometimes Stephenson outsmarts himself, referring to Boo-Boo from The Yogi Bear Show as “the bruin sidekick from the old Yogi Bear cartoon”, a reference that would be far clearer through a lack of obfuscation; I had to look up what a bruin was (it’s Booboo, obviously), and people unfamiliar with the canon of cartoon bears would likely be lost either way. A reference to the original Mission: Impossible is couched in terms of hip young things watching old TV shows on YouTube, as if there were only one way for something to be consumed, and methodology is divided upon age lines.
All of this age confusion culminates in a passage suggesting that Islamic people should maybe practice their religion somewhat sarcastically, as if they must “acknowledge” that their rituals are ridiculous and laughable. It’s more than likely poor phrasing on Stephenson’s part but it is true that the religion’s representation in the novel as a whole leaves something to be desired. The terrorists are multi-ethnic, but are represented as potentially embarrassing to their genetic brethren rather than to innocent practitioners of their religion. Placing a token “reasonable Muslim” in the story would have been too on the nose and struck of pandering, but there has to be a way to write terrorists along religious lines without treating them as a synecdoche of their creed.
Stephenson’s approach is nearly progressive but doesn’t quite get there, and it’s a mark against an otherwise measured novel.
Apart from the head terrorist, who is charismatic and terrifying largely because Stephenson tells us that he is, Reamde is populated by largely likeable characters in whom it is easy to invest. The opening gambit gives an impression of a liberal minded man who doesn’t identify with his gun toting family, but the book gradually evolves into a paean to human interaction and cooperation. Stephenson slightly exaggerates the universality of the English language for ease of storytelling and character dynamics, but it’s hard to hold it against him when they all work this well. The Forthrasts exist largely in isolation and draw upon remembered distant pasts, but the chemistry of the groups that form, disband and reunite over the course of the novel is enviable. I was never particularly tense as I read the ever compounding complications, but at all times I cared about what was going to happen to these people caught up in circumstances that they merely stumbled into.
Admittedly, Stephenson does feel a little too warmly towards his characters, to the point that he blatantly attempts to maneuver them into romantic pairings even when this seems inappropriate at best, and irrelevant at worst. It is possible that this is an inbuilt defense against “shipping”, one of entertainment’s darkest hours, but it’s an unnecessary graft that smacks too heavily of crowd pleasing. This affection also means that none of the characters ever feel like they’re in danger, no matter how terribly the situation escalates; shield characters are hastily provided and despatched to take the literal and figurative bullets that by rights belong to the plucky team of protagonists.
In Reamde, Stephenson has presented a very enjoyable thriller that doesn’t come close to approaching a game changer. Audiences will have a lot of fun and, even if it takes time, the novel never feels like a slog. Reamde comes unreservedly recommended, but no one’s life will be changed by its consumption.