Still reading Reamde

reamde-by-neal-stephensonAnd it’s proven to be fairly entertaining. It still hasn’t completely fallen apart and gotten incomprehensible in typical Stephensonian fashion. But that’s also because it’s not quite as idea-dense as his other books. Still, there’s lots of fun stuff going on.

I would not describe this book as a thriller. Mostly because it’s not very thrilling. Although the book begins with high stakes (these Russian mobsters are gonna kill us!), those stakes never get any higher. In some ways, they actually get less high as the book goes on and it becomes clear that death, if it comes, will not be coming on this exact page.  This is not a knock against the author. It’s obviously purposeful. Stephenson knows how to raise the stakes in a novel (remember the nuclear bomb at the end of Snow Crash?) It’s just that in Reamde he chooses not to. Actually, there’d be a very easy way to instantly raise them, if he wanted. For most of the book, we’re in the company of a Most Wanted terrorist, Abdallah Jones, who is trying to sneak into the US. But at no point do we ever get a clear picture of his plan. We know he wants to do some terror, but there’s no sense of urgency here–no sense that if he crosses the border, then tons of people will die.

That’s because this novel is less of a thriller and more of a picaresque adventure. Stephenson has solved his plot difficulties by just shunting them aside entirely and constructing a novel that’s a series of increasingly outlandish setpieces. There are some issues with the way Reamde’s structured: mainly that the action isn’t really being driven by the desires of the main characters. In a picaresque, you’ve usually got a colorful striver–a Moll Flanders or Don Quixote–who desperately wants something. Here, you’ve just got a bunch of people who want to get away from murderous terrorists and be safe. All of their actions are directed towards escaping the adventure, rather than widening it. The result is that the plot must contort itself in increasingly desperate ways in order to keep the book from ending. Towards the end, the strain becomes increasingly visible, as characters start dashing across borders on impulse, and coming to crucial last-second epiphanies that provide them with info that they can’t possibly know, and chasing red herrings, and behaving in other ways that are generally more in service to plot than to character.

That’s not ideal, but it’s okay. The book hums along, and I don’t feel acutely cheated by it. And I am in the mood for it right now.

On an aside, I love the fictional game in the book. T’Rain is a World of Warcraft knock-off that Stephenson uses to satirize online gaming in a gentle way. But I do have one issue with it…which is that T’Rain doesn’t sound very fun.

It’s an incredibly overdesigned game, with a world that’s as big as the actual planet Earth, and a complex mechanic for extracting gold and crafting it, and all kinds of other little doo-dads. But it contains numerous features that seem like they’d made for an incredibly frustrating player experience. For instance, it appears that characters of all levels are allowed to engage in combat with each other. This means that level 50s (or whatever) can attack level 1s. That is crazy. There are some major jerks in online games. You know that some level 50 person would just run around ganking newbs hundreds of times. People would get killed ALL the time. And the fights would never be fun, since you’d always severely overpower the other person. Furthermore, if you don’t hide your equipment in time, then other players can steal it off your corpse!

Now, I played on Everquest’s Player vs. Player service for a long time. And that was a game with PVP rules that were much, much less annoying than the ones in the fictional T’Rain. But it was still an incredibly aggravating experience that I don’t think many people would go for. I just don’t believe that any game would actually be created in this way.

And that’s okay. It’s fine to create a game that wouldn’t, in real life, be very much fun, if you’re creating it as a satire of all the ways that real online games aren’t actually that much fun. But no one in the novel ever complains about how horrible T’Rain is. Instead, they all create characters and are instantly sucked into it and seem to have just about the most amazing time ever with it.

Oh, also, despite taking up hundreds of pages, the game has literally no function within the plot. The only way it matters is as a vector for a computer virus to infect a key character’s computer in one of the early chapters. If, instead of saying “Oh no, I got a virus from this computer game!” the character had instead said, “Oh no, I got this virus from looking at porn,” then every single T’Rain section could’ve been lifted out with no problems.

It’s inelegant, and I don’t like it.

2 thoughts on “Still reading Reamde

  1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    I agree on all points. It was a fun book, and it DIDN’T fall apart (not that it ever cohered all that well). I especially agree with the criticism of the game. My read is that this book was a quickie for the money, and he started with a bunch of ideas that never jelled – T’Rain being the core idea. I can imagine a better version of this book where it’s more important and embeds itself in more areas of the book. Heck, I’ve been working on a very Stephenson-esque 1,300 page novel for three years now, and getting the weaving right – the warp of this idea crossing the weft of that one at the appropriate intervals – is !@#$%-ing HARD WORK.

    If I was in Stephenson’s shoes and knew that the book would make me a million dollars cold hard cash if done with some slop, and a million and six dollars if perfected, I can’t say that I’d take the time to revise, revise, revise. If you look at the disappointment from Stephenson’s Mongoliad would-be-multi-media empire, and his recent kickstarter woes ( http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/260688528/clang/posts/604023 ), a quick trip to the literary ATM machine makes perfect sense.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Might be something to that. Yes, I pity Stephenson for getting involved in that Kickstarter mess. It’d be awful to be so publicly associated with a massive failure like that. When investors give you money, there’s an understanding that there’s some risk (and, furthermore, they have auditing powers, so they can confirm that the money really is all gone). Since Kickstarter is a donation and not an investment, I don’t think people have that same understanding–when you don’t deliver, they kind of feel like you just walked off w/ their money.

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