Book Review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

This review was a tough one to write, and not just because it is my first. Let me start by saying that I have read other works by Neal Stephenson and experienced a whole range of feelings about him as a writer. My first experience with a Stephenson novel was his Cryptonomicon, which is a sprawling thousand-page opus that nevertheless succeeds at being a page-turner. I loved it – so much so that I eagerly sought to get my hands on other books of his. The next one I read turned out to be his latest at the time: a modern masterpiece of speculative fiction entitled Anathem. Now, I freely admit that I have yet to read Stephenson’s highly acclaimed Snow Crash, but to me Anathem was a virtuoso display of an artist at the peak of his world-building skills. True, some people disliked the multipage explanations of strange architecture, or the complexly described religious traditions and cultures. And I admit that sometimes Stephenson does take a long time to “get to the point.” But as I read Anathem I felt like I was coming to know a master. I decided then and there that Neal Stephenson had to be near the top of my list of favorite authors. He would never topple David Foster Wallace from the latter’s perch at the apex, but he would enjoy a comfortable spot in the top five.

Then I made a mistake: I read his novel Quicksilver, which probably could be better described as the first third of his Baroque Cycle. The book started off well enough. I enjoyed the characters, the plot seemed interesting, and the topics seemed substantially Stephensonian and were discussed intellectually and exhaustively. But somewhere along the way I became more apathetic, and then downright upset. It was here that I understood what people meant by calling Stephenson “long-winded.”  He took pages and pages to talk about theories of money before getting to any plot devices whatsoever, and the characters that I had first enjoyed seemed to develop at a snail’s pace. I began to see the problem other people had with Neal Stephenson’s brand of fiction: his novels could be more essay-like, more dissertations about philosophical and socio-economic problems, than stories.

But this review is about Stephenson’s newest work: Reamde. The book’s jacket explains that it is about a kidnapped woman whose uncle is the founder of a MMORPG á la World of Warcraft. It also promises a chase that reaches across continents and cultures, includes gunfire and techno-gadgetry, and has radical Islamic terrorists as key players. These things are all true, but I found my interest in the story waning within the first two hundred pages. For those of you unfamiliar with Neal Stephenson, this might seem like a long time. However, Stephenson rarely writes anything below eight hundred pages, and Reamde itself has over 1,000 – so in reality the author was losing me within the very first fifth of his book. Sure, the structure and intricacies of T’Rain (the aforementioned MMORPG) were interesting, and as ever Stephenson showed a knack for getting characters out of scrapes in new and exciting ways that I was unable to predict. But ultimately I had to admit to myself that I simply didn’t love the book. Don’t get me wrong: I liked it well enough. But powering through a thousand-page work that you just kind of like breeds its own form of discontent. If you are going to write such a long novel, you need to capture your readers immediately and hold them throughout – much the way that Stephenson had done to me with Anathem.

So after finishing the book I tried to write the review in my head. What was it exactly that made me not love it? A compendium of grievances came to mind. Stephenson tries to world-build the same way he did in Anathem, but the main difference is that the world of Anathem is utterly foreign and is thus ripe for building in interesting ways. The world of Reamde is our world, and therefore trying to “build” it in the same way simply seems boring. Describing the plants on a different planet is necessary and can be really cool. Describing the different breeds of trees on the border between the US and Canada, however, makes me yawn. The plot itself seems a little too familiar for Stephenson’s style as well. As a young twenty-something, I already know about online role-playing games. As someone who lived both pre- and post-9/11, I know about radical Islam. As someone who has watched a television show in the past fifty years, I know about kidnappings and chase sequences. That isn’t to say that stories involving these elements can’t be fun, or even that they can’t be “new.” But certainly Stephenson’s brand of hyper-detailed intellectualism doesn’t easily lend itself to such familiarity, such modernity. If I can imagine it well enough, I don’t need so many details.

For me, though, the most damning parts of Stephenson’s novel were the characters. In Cryptonomicon, chapter-ish sections of the book were divided between characters and their points of view. This is the way that Stephenson approached Reamde as well. It worked in Cryptonomicon because the characters were all so different – both in their personalities and in their “quirks.” In Reamde, however, the characters seem to be almost all cut from the same mold – they only differ by their names and histories (upon which Stephenson elaborates ad nauseam). Take Zula: a quick-thinking, levelheaded, good-hearted, improvisational Eritrean orphan. Or Richard: a quick-thinking, levelheaded, good-hearted, improvisational American entrepreneur. Or Sokolov: a quick-thinking, levelheaded, good-hearted, improvisational Russian mercenary. The list goes on, encompassing character after character with those same four attributes, differing only in where they are from, what they look like, the language they speak, or the occupation they hold. And on the other side of the story, the terrorists all have similar “evil” traits.

Despite its many problems, though, Reamde is an enjoyable read, and worth putting time into. I think Stephenson has a lot to say about the current state of our world in a voice that is both unique and intriguing. The characters might be the novel’s downfall, but the plot itself moves at a steady pace and is truly exciting. However, the novel as a whole ultimately fails to reach the astronomical promise I once allotted to Stephenson. It certainly fails to live up to the standard of Anathem. But, I guess, not every work has to be a masterpiece.



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