Monday, December 12, 2016

Review: Reamde

Reamde Reamde by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I know Stephenson as the “new William Gibson” – which makes him the “new-new Philip K. Dick” – as a writer on the cutting edge of exploring what it means for humans to live with machines in such a way that machine “intelligence” becomes a subject for consideration. That’s a worthy subject, since life with computers – whether through faster processing in our daily lives, the loss of freedom to move from place to place without our records following us, or the experience of living and playing in alternate worlds of Facebook or World of Warcraft – alters the way we perceive life.

I’ve read and admired Snow Crash for the way it explores the interactive experience of living in and around the web, and I’ve looked forward to reading Cryptonomicon from its reviews and reception. So I was prepared really to enjoy this 1000-page doorstop as a thriller with some ideas behind it.

If you squint, you can see the pretty good novel that sits at the heart of this. Richard Forthrast has created a giant MMORPG that, among other things, allows international smugglers to pass real-life money back and forth through the virtual world. The premise is terrific since it seems to promise a story in which – as assorted good guys square off with assorted bad guys – the action would have to move from our universe to T’Rain’s. I pictured a kind of four-dimensional showdown with people in different places having very different experiences of the same conflict. I pictured a real interrogation of reality which, if Snow Crash is any guide, would have some aspects of a thriller woven in.

But when you’re actually reading this – as opposed to the novel it might have been – it’s more like an Elmore Leonard knock-off than anything inspired by Gibson. Instead of big ideas, we get quirky takes on stereotypical characters. We get a series of misunderstandings that put Russian mobsters into conflict with international Jihadists, and we have British MI-6 agents, Chinese hackers, and Hungarian cyber experts all working at cross-purposes to restore something like order. I prefer Leonard to Gibson, so I’d have been fine with all that if only Stephenson had recalled Leonard’s most famous maxim, “leave out the parts people don’t want to read.”

Things move quickly here. There are seldom more than 15-20 pages without someone being in danger or having to move quickly. (With that, the short, choppy sequences get irritating. It’s a narrative gimmick to take one strand of the story a few steps further and then, on the brink of conflict, to cut to another. And the gimmick gets very old here.) Despite that, this becomes a real slog after a while. The different characters, separate as they are, all seem to be going through parallel experiences. Two or three are stuck on trans-Pacific boats at the same time. Two or three get wounded in nearly the same way. (IN fact, SPOILER, one pair even discover they can exchange prosthetic legs since their wounds are so similar.)

The bottom line is that this should have been 60 percent shorter at least. I can’t imagine a serious publisher putting this out as it is if it had any name other than Stephenson’s on it. And that’s a shame because, with substantial cutting, it could have become what it promised to be. Whether it’s the 40+ pages on the opening family reunion – do we really need to see Richard reuniting with his niece? Can’t we just start with him already having offered her a job? – or the 70-some pages describing the takedown of the hackers and their Jihadi neighbors? How about implying some of these things? How about narrating in a fashion other than sustained (sustained as in 500-600 pages worth) of climax?

All that said, I’m also troubled by the politics of the novel. There’s something easy about casting a bunch of Jihadists as the clear adversaries, and there’s something right-wing fantastical in having them taken down by a quasi-survivalist community. From the opening pages to the closing, we’re made to understand that a solid knowledge of guns is essential to surviving this dangerous world.

I’d be open to all that if this book were simply told with more skill. As it is, I’d never have committed to something so long if I weren’t nearly a third of the way through it before I realized how mis-conceived it is. I’ll try to give Cryptonomicon a shot, but beware this one. Stephenson is worth reading, but this one is well below what I know of his work.

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