Reamde (Neal Stephenson, 2011)

Like most Neal Stephenson books, Reamde is unsatisfying. But unlike Anathem, which was unsatisfying because it just barely missed following through on a powerful and fascinating premise, Reamde is unsatisfying because it aims so low. It is a surprisingly unambitious and overstuffed series of procedurals that has you waiting for a payoff that never comes. Page by page it is enjoyable, but around 900 of the 1040 pages are enjoyable in more or less the same way, and you reach saturation long before they run out; the remaining 140 pages are essentially irrelevant navel-gazing.

The story is basically this: a computer virus causes an unstable mob boss to kidnap two young techies and bring them to China in order to find the virus’s author. Once there, they accidentally kick a hornet’s nest of terrorists and ride an endless wave of repercussions.

The funny thing about the book is that it’s called Reamde, and Reamde, the virus that sets off the series of events, is almost totally inconsequential. Yet in order to manufacture relevance, Stephenson spends page after page explaining how it works, which means establishing not only an entire massively multiplayer online RPG (through which the virus propagates) but a history of that RPG, employees and characters within that RPG, and so on — none of whom have any real effect on the story. The game is admittedly a potentially interesting game, but this isn’t a pitch deck being sent to Blizzard, it’s a novel, and the entire subplot is a flight of fancy that performs no real work. A reader will naturally take interest in the details because they think they will matter later. They don’t.

The book is full of smaller pieces of foreshadowing that fail to pan out. Early on, a character laboriously explains the behavioral principle of “tasking.” This reappears later in the book, but in such a contrived way that one feels Stephenson realized at some point that he had established it early on and decided to write it in poorly rather than take the time to write it out well.

Once you take Reamde out of Reamde, it’s a cut-and-dry kidnapping/adventure/terrorism story set in modern day. I don’t have to tell you that there is no shortage of perfectly fine books of that type, many of which are written by people for whom that is their forte, and consumed regularly by fans of the genre.

That wouldn’t be a problem if the book was excellent on those merits (I’ve enjoyed many a caper novel), but the Reamde misstep means that people are waiting for the wrong payoff, and meanwhile must forgive Stephenson’s shortcomings as an action writer. It feels after a while that you’re basically along for the ride as Stephenson plays cops and robbers, but his style turns every scene into an interminable list of micro-actions spelled out in excruciatingly drawn-out fashion. No one ever shoots at anyone in this book. They pull the gun out from the holster, chamber a round, flip the safety off, line up the sights, direct the sights at a particular part of the target, and then fire a specific number of rounds — after which the casings dutifully travel through the air (“arcing,” probably) and strike something nearby. Every shootout — and there are a lot of shootouts — plays out in slow motion.

Donald Westlake’s Parker novels take the opposite approach: characters shoot or hit one another in the same way they would pick up a plate or turn their head. This normalization of violence with any other everyday act paradoxically makes it more shocking and more realistic, and it saves paper.

It seems likely that the author of Reamde recently took a few classes in firearm discipline and learned a few facts while he was there, and we are now receiving that lesson second-hand. Inconsequential bits of gun lore are peppered throughout, as Stephenson feels we are not properly educated unless we know that Makarov pistols have a special holster that chambers a round as you remove the gun from it — a fact that is never material in the story, naturally.

The second-by-second style also jars with Stephenson’s colloquial tone, in which “friggin’” is used both in the narration and in the mouth of a Chinese hacker who somehow knows this corruption of a foreign curse but not other common English words. As for higher-level pacing, he has a habit of breaking off from narration of a scene in order to narrate another — a normal enough thing with multiple characters — but it is done haphazardly and sometimes arbitrarily in order to build tension, like a commercial break in 24 or Lost.

Sentence by sentence it is obvious that Stephenson is not being edited well. He overuses and misuses “bemused” and other words, and, as with gunplay, is overwrought in his descriptions. At one point a character wrote on a map. Stephenson renders this as “added hand-drawn notations.” Concise he isn’t (to be fair, his readers know this).

The main plot, meanwhile, is advanced by absolutely outrageous deus ex machina. Spoiler warning. An actual wild animal intervenes on our heroes’ behalf not once, but twice, both times during firefights. Does Stephenson think so little of his readers? For a writer of such imagination it is not to be thought that he had no other way to resolve these situations. Yet here before my eyes, a mountain lion is mauling a terrorist who is about to pull the trigger on one of the main characters.

I read the first third because it promised interesting things to come. I read the middle third because it was a sort of Rube Goldberg machine, toppling inexorably from one event to the next. But as I progressed through the final third, I became more and more aware that this was not going to become the book I wanted it to be. As I feared, it descended into a melee of round-chambering and ducks and rolls, none of which had anything to do with the personalities, motivations, or capabilities of the characters or the themes of the book we were led to believe were important. And just when you’re hoping for, at the very least, a tidy conclusion, you get a cougar instead.

Do I regret the thousand pages I read? I’m afraid I rather do. Part of the reason I enjoyed it was because I assumed it was all tying together somehow and I just couldn’t see how it would work. But it never did, and that makes my enjoyment hollow — fraudulent, in a way. I enjoyed Reamde on false pretenses, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone else do the same.