Neal Stephenson's Reamde: Disappointing

Well, I finished Reamde this weekend.   It was only OK.  It is a straight up modern adventure book, like perhaps a Vince Flynn novel, chasing terrorists around the globe.  I enjoy Stephenson for his big, sometimes outrageous ideas, his witty prose, and his love affair with the geek culture.  Except for the latter, none of this is in evidence in this book.  It is certainly a more popularly accessible book, but that is certainly not what I want from Stephenson.

Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash are among my favorite novels.  One of the reason I liked them were for the prose he brought to bear on even (or especially) trivial topics.  His long passages on eating Cap'n Crunch or getting wisdom teeth removed in Cryptonomicon are classics.   I got very little of this kind of thrill in Reamde, made worse by the fact that there were just too many main characters, none of whom were very well developed for me.

At some points, this book held my attention, and at some points it dragged.  The book in some ways is almost the same structure as a comedic farce -- a whole bunch of characters who are dragged along by events into increasingly unlikely circumstances.   There is no looming event or goal that drives the narrative in a, say, Clancy novel.  Its just a lot of falling into one mess after another.   Its also a bit unseriousness - it feels like the teens in Scooby Doo chasing terrorists.  (One problem is that Stephenson's bad guys are too likable - they are always smart and ironic gentlemanly - so its hard to get as worked up about heading them off as one might in a classic thriller).

Some playwright or critic once wrote (sorry, can't remember the name) that if you put a gun out on the stage in Act 1, someone better use it in Act 3.  (OK, it was Chekov, though why he said "gun" rather than "phaser" is beyond me).  In this book, Stephenson leaves guns unused all over the stage.  In particular, Stephenson comes up with one of his patented interesting-crazy ideas of using an MMRPG to crowd-source security analysis.  I felt sure that in the manhunts that followed, that particular gun would be picked up and used to help drive to the climax, but we never hear of it again.  In fact, we learn a lot of interesting things about this game in the book, which seems to be absolutely central to the plot, but in the end turns out to be entirely peripheral, an early macguffin to kick start the plot.

Another example is the HUGE amounts of the book go to talking about an interesting social realignment happening in the game, to absolutely no end.  OK, so characters have abandoned the good and evil alignments put in by the game masters for a new emergent faction division.  I thought sure we would see some kind of real-world parallel to this happening in the book, or some insight drawn from this that helps solve the real world problem.  Nothing.

Overall, a disappointing book I would not have finished had it not been by Stephenson.

Postscript:  If you become interested in the dynamics of the MMRPG in the book, where there are no character levels (only a skill system) and money and money making is central to the the game, the closest analog I have ever seen is not a fantasy game but EVE Online, a space-based game (also, to a lesser extent, Star Wars Galaxies as well, but that is now defunct).  EVE Online probably has the most interesting economy of any MMRPG I have played and I know they employ an economist who sometimes writes articles about his work.

  • Evil Red Scandi

    I didn't think it was one of his better works (by a looooong stretch), but I didn't think it was *that* bad. It wasn't challenging, but I had some fun with it.

    You are absolutely right, though, about the huge number of dangling threads left everywhere. There was another immense one that I was flabbergasted that wasn't picked up at the end, but I don't want to mention it because it's kind of a spoiler.

  • http://www.emergentfool.com Kevin Dick

    If you're looking for an MMORPG-based SF novel, I just read Ready Player One. I thought it made fantastic use of a MMORPG as the central plot device. Also pays a lot of homage to 80s "culture".

    http://www.amazon.com/Ready-Player-One-Ernest-Cline/dp/030788743X

  • John David Galt

    I also loved Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and especially The Diamond Age, but apparently since then he's been churning out crud. His Baroque Cycle is every bit as bad as the new one. I don't think I'll buy another book of his without reading it first.

  • James Dean

    Try "For the Win" by Cory Doctorow . Again it has MMORPG economic evolution as it's central them but from your description is much better tied together with the games and online economic organization forming a key role in the book.

  • http://jamescrain.org jhc

    I just finished Reamde this weekend, too, and had many of the same sentiments Coyote mentioned. The Russian bad guys were believable but the terrorists (in particular, Mr. Jones) weren't. Too many characters and too many threads - with a rather staged ending where they all appeared for a curtain call. The implementation (plotting) wasn't up to the spec (big picture).

    It didn't come up to the standard he set in Zodiac, Cryptonomicon and Snowcrash.

    JDG: The Diamond Age? Seriously? I liked it *less* than Reamde. Cool tech background but lame story line resolution, I thought.

  • epobirs

    Most of the complaints are classic Stephenson flaws. Two of his better put together novels, The Cobweb and Interface, under the name George Bury and written in collaboration with an uncle who I've never seen named, seem to benefit from the uncle's requirement that they stick to the core story and not wander off too far. In his solo works it's almost guaranteed you're going to be left wondering about stuff that never resolved or seemed to matter but ultimately didn't. The question is whether you had enough fun to make it worth your while.

    The Baroque Cycle was very long and a hard slog at times but did such a great job at demonstrating that there has always been a version of 'high tech.' It was Anathem that made me wary of giving REAMDE a chance. That book was very long but lacked much fun and was just generally pointless. It seemed to make a case for keeping pointy headed intellectuals isolated from society so as to limited their harm, yet these were supposed to be the heroes. Early on, it seemed to be implied that the civilization outside the reservation/campus was in some sort of medieval dark age for lack of the scientific prowess bottled up but it turns out the outside world is doing just fine and roughly on a par with 20th Century America. I just couldn't perceive what he was trying to accomplish with that one.

  • epobirs

    Oops, that collaborative pen name is Stephen Bury. The Wikipedia article has the full name of the other participant.

  • http://that-xmas.livejournal.com/ Xmas

    I loved Anathem...it's a hard read, but it's lots of fun.

    Diamond Age was fun, and a particularly interesting view of the future. Snow Crash was a great poke at cyberpunk stories, but Stephenson carries some of that cyberpunk dystopian view of the future into his other stories.

  • anoNY

    "(OK, it was Chekov, though why he said “gun” rather than “phaser” is beyond me)"

    That made me laugh. Also, I am reading this during Eve Online's daily downtime. Finally, I am going to get around to reading Reamde someday soon, but I guess I am forewarned that it is no Cryptonomicon...

  • morganovich

    i totally agree.

    i am stuck in the middle of the books and have mostly lost interest, somehting that has NEVER happened to me before with one of neal's books.

    this reads like a second rate spy thriller.

    for that matter, anathem was not all that good either, so this is his second weak effort in a row, which is really disappointing.

    the baroque cycle is jaw droppingly good. classics like cryptonomicon, snow crash, diamond age, and even the lesser known ones like zodiac and the big u are all great books.

    maybe you only have so many great ones in you.

    dunno.

    i'll always have a special place on my shelf for NS, but one more turkey from him and he'll go onto the "wait for paperback" list.

  • http://space4commerce.blogspot.com/ Brian Dunbar

    Early on, it seemed to be implied that the civilization outside the reservation/campus was in some sort of medieval dark age for lack of the scientific prowess bottled up but it turns out the outside world is doing just fine and roughly on a par with 20th Century America.

    It was obvious to me that civilization outside the monastery walls was cyclic, from high tech to barbarism and back.

    And of course, like the future, this kind of thing is not evenly distributed. The area where the first part of the book is set seemed to be in a technological and cultural backwater. Later they moved the action to a more hip and happening part of the world.

  • epobirs

    I got that part, Brian, but it came as a shock when the civilization immediately outside the walls was pretty much the late 20th Century. Cars, cell phones and all. Up until that point it seemed to be implied that the rest of humanity was hardly managing with all of the smart folks kept in the reservations with not much tech of their own. It made the whole premise cease to make sense to me. The reason for keeping the smart guys segregated seemed moot and there surely were some pretty smart guys not among the segregated.

  • http://space4commerce.blogspot.com/ Brian Dunbar

    It made the whole premise cease to make sense to me. The reason for keeping the smart guys segregated seemed moot and there surely were some pretty smart guys not among the segregated.

    Blame an unreliable narrator - he didn't know what he didn't know at the beginning of the narration.

    This might be a spoiler:

    Avout are walled up in concents. Concent is a corruption of 'concentration camp'.