Neal Stephenson: “Reamde”

01/11/2012 § Leave a comment

No, that’s not a typo in the title, explains Neal Stephenson, an appropriately temperature-taking 96 pages into the book: “‘I think it’s supposed to be called README,’ he said, ‘but there’s a typo. They transposed two letters, see?'” The text file in question, as it turns out, is the product of an ambitious young hacker from Xiamen, who has cleverly skirted the legality of ransoming someone’s data (for what turns out to be roughly $76) by asking victims to deposit the money within a specific region of a World of Warcraft-like MMORPG known as T’Rain. At this point, Stephenson’s still being clever, but he quickly devolves into a convoluted mess: Richard Forthrast, with whom we misleadingly spend the first seventy pages, is the inventor of T’Rain, but it’s his adopted niece Zula who will now need to enter T’Rain in order to prevent crazy Russian mobsters (who talk like this: “You are khacker genius, correct?”) from killing her in an effort to save face: REAMDE has corrupted the credit-card numbers that Zula’s now ex-boyfriend Peter had stolen for the late Wallace who had been working for Ivanov, the crazy Russian in question. Instead of exploring the ramifications of Richard’s carefully created in-game e-commerce, or the underlying writing behind the game’s grinding — both in the fantasy scripting that has led to what the players call the Apostropocalypse and within the geodesic modeling that has created the gold currency that players work to earn — he settles for a plot-heavy battle between good and evil that explodes just before the three-hundredth page . . . and then races maddeningly onward through a series of improbable and convenient accidents for the next six hundred pages. (That’s right: Reamde makes The Da Vinci Code look like a hundred-meter sprint.)

Stephenson’s a decent writer, but his strengths lie in his mathematically precise explanations, the way in which he can make sense of myriad philosophies, thoughts, and structures, and form them into one whole, as he did in Cryptonomicon and the three book Baroque Cycle. He’s always worked on some level with the basic plotting of a thriller — just look at Zodiac‘s eco-terrorists, or Snow Crash‘s samurai-like codes — but he’s never been afraid to introduce creative tangents . . . and he’s never been unable to work those in some surprising way back into the nature of the novel itself. With Reamde, Stephenson has ample opportunity to play with the MMORPG universe, and to use the two Forthrasts — older and younger, in-game and in-reality — to parallel the similarities between reality and games (especially this one, which Richard wants to be accurate), and yet he gets hung up on an increasing score of characters. Ivanov transports Zula and his consultant Csongor to Xiamen to trace the hacker, but, loath to turn over the hackers to a bunch of professional killers led by Ivanov’s honest yet brutal number two, Sokolov, Zula redirects them to another apartment . . . which happens to be the secret lair of a bunch of Islamic terrorists led by the impeccably efficient Abdallah Jones. In turn, Jones is being surveilled by Olivia Halifax-Lin, an MI6 agent in deep cover, and who eventually winds up working with Sokolov to kill Jones, who has subsequently re-kidnapped Zula after killing Ivanov. Meanwhile, Csongor, who has fallen in love with Zula, teams up with his plucky tour guide, Yuxia, and his former hacker target, Marlon, to do the same thing: kill Jones and recover Zula. At some point, Richard begins tracking his missing niece as well, and if you’re concerned that I’ve given too much away, know that the book continues for another five hundred pages from where I’ve left off with these introductions.

You see, there’s no way to talk about these characters without explaining their connection to the driving plot, mainly because they simply could not exist without it. It’s not unusual for people to disappear from Reamde for the length of a regular book; it is unusual for any of these characters to change in any way, shape, or form. Zula’s the adaptable and resolved damsel-in-distress, Csongor’s the resourceful and determined planner, Marlon’s the clever and brash hacker, and Jones, being the ultimate villain, is whatever the book needs him to be at any given point. Etc., etc. After Sokolov and Olivia hook up, it become apparent that everyone needs a love interest, so Seamus, a military-type, is introduced on Yuxia’s behalf. Just think, if Stephenson were less of a romantic, or more willing to kill some of these characters, this book might have only been eight hundred pages. Not that these are unreadable pages, mind you, or that there’s nothing thrilling in all the chases, twists, explosions, and surprises, but it all seems so unnecessary coming from Stephenson; moreover, it seems long-winded and short on invention — people chasing one another, after all, is nothing new, and if you cut out any mention of T’Rain, we’re looking at a novel that could just as easily have been penned by Tom Clancy. Compare Stephenson’s “success” here to all that’s accomplished in Tad William’s Otherland series; hell, compare this novel to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

I guess the ultimate point that I’m making is that I’d like to read for something more than the sake of just flinging pages to the left, hurdling to a conclusion. Mass-market entertainment like this isn’t bad, it obviously sells well, but an author of Stephenson’s caliber is capable of more: he’s at least always offered us ideas and then followed through on them. Dan Simmons, who also comes to mind, has presented us with more authentic settings (especially in The Terror). Stephen King, before he started repeating himself, most recently in Under the Dome, gave us horrific descriptions and usually sustained his premises. Reamde, ultimately, ends up like the virus it is titled for: it holds you hostage, and once you’ve paid the ransom — in this, case, reading the novel cover to cover — erases itself from your memory.

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