Thursday, December 29, 2011

100 Books 80 - Neal Stephenson's REAMDE

I'm still mad at Harper Collins for its outrageous ebook price on this, which forced me to put wear and tear on the hardcover, but that's not Neal's fault. At least I don't think so.

But regardless, it's Neal Expletiving Stephenson, and I can't not read him, I discover, even though his last effort, Anathem, left me a bit cold. Oh, don't get me wrong, there was lots to like about Anathem: it was clever, inventive, imaginative, sometimes even entertaining -- but it read more like a really long Platonic anecdote than a story. Thin on plot, forgettable characters, hard at time to believe it's Stephenson at all, except for the language.

REAMDE, on the other hand. Ah, REAMDE. The title refers to a computer virus that encrypts all of the files on an infected computer and holds them to ransom until a certain sum of game currency (which is convertible into real world money) is deposited in a certain realm in an MMORPG that was originally developed by a backpack marijuana smuggler as a way of laundering his enormous stock of $100 bills. And that's just for starters.

So in a very real way, REAMDE has rather the opposite problem from Anathem, as if Stephenson realized his errors in Anathem and decided to cram twice as much story into the next book. Maybe even three times as much: Stephenson does nothing half-assed, after all.

This makes the experience of reading REAMDE (I pronounce it mentally as "reamed" though I know full well it's meant as a faux typo of "readme") rather stressful and exhausting and occasionally producing of doubt that it's worth the pounding one is getting. Which is unfortunate as there is still lots of good stuff here, some even, perhaps, on a par with the famous discourse on Captain Crunch that is the thing everyone seems to remember best about Cryptonomicon (still far and away Stephenson's finest work in every respect). An excursis on what Stephenson pithily refers to as "recombinant cuisine"* comes to mind, for instance. And don't get me started on his whole "medieval armed combat as metaphor for everything" routine.

Mostly, though, it's worth it, even though one starts off, being introduced to the character of Richard Forthrast (he of the aforementioned dope smuggling/Fortune 500 game founding/British Columbia schloss ownership), wondering if Stephenson is going to pull the kind of fast one he did in the Baroque Cycle, getting one invested in a fascinating character one would be quite happy to read about for a thousand pages or so, only to yank that character away and throw a bunch of others at one.

Which he did. Ugh.

Fortunately, most of what is switched in is good. He's gotten better at writing female characters (though his heroine, Zula**, is pluckier than a warehouse full of harps, OMG) for a start. No emetic Elizas this time around, which is good. As other reviewers have observed, however, every single one of these characters would make McGyver look like a helpless boob who still needs to have his mittens attached to his coat sleeves. This feels pretty far-fetched even before Stephenson, late in the book, has one of his characters observing how unlikely it really is that his situation happens to call for his exact skill set; he's straying into Robert A. Heinlein superpeople territory here, but it's all in good fun, mostly.***

I seem to be using a lot of qualifiers here, but that reflects my extremely mixed feelings about REAMDE. Is it Stephenson's best book since Cryptonomicon? Assuredly. I loved the Baroque Cycle but those three volumes were, let's just say, a bit much, and spent way too much time with a character whom I found irredeemably annoying. And I've already shared my dismay with Anathem. So yes, REAMDE is Crypto's best successor so far. But it lacks the essential elements of mystery and history that Crypto had, and it loses, about halfway through, the feeling that something subtle and wry and puzzling is going on. The only mysteries in REAMDE, are first, who made the virus (mystery solved about 25-30% through the book) and then, the rest of the way through, how all the characters (and really, there are too many characters; an editor who really cared would have, for instance, persuaded Neal to strongly consider getting rid of the spy chick and extra soldier sidekick, whose storylines are really unnecessary and give the book most of its bloated feel) are going to find their way back to each other.**** And who is going to get to kill the bad guy. Everyone is in constant, frantic motion but there is never the feeling that their peril and escapes and interminable, minutely described action scenes have any kind of deeper meaning -- very odd for Stephenson.

He hasn't lost me yet, though. I still look forward to his experimental internet-generated collaboration The Mongoliad, in which he returns to a historical milieu wherein, I think Stephenson is at his best, because, fun as it is to speculate about what the world is going to be like someday, it's far more satisfying, for a mind like his, to explore how the world as it is got to be this way -- with lots of wordplay, challenging conceptual frameworks, and big time dweebs in action.

*"Recombinant cuisine" meaning food made of other food, rather than of ingredients. Rice Krispie treats being his prime example in this book.

**Did he deliberately name her after the Grace Jones character in Conan the Destroyer? Because I'm pretty sure that led me to mis-visualize the somewhat more demure Miss Forthrast.

***Stephenson has developed, for this book, a weird and harmful tic regarding his characters, though: I lost count of how many times he has someone saying or thinking "Can this really be happening?" This is a dangerous flaw for a big work of fiction. Fiction relies on the willing suspension of disbelief, which Stephenson's fans readily engage from page one because we've learned to trust him -- but when the very characters whose exploits and situations we're supposed to be enjoying keep questioning the plausibility of said exploits and situations, the effect is usually to jolt the reader out of that suspension. One starts to agree that yes, this pickle character X is in is highly unlikely and a bit of a stretch, which leads to a big damn annoyance when the now extra-critical and newly skeptical reader gets hung up on why the hell is this chick part of this book and what the hell did her entirely unnecessary extra jaunt halfway around the world accomplish besides introducing the other superfluous character OMGWTFBBQ.

****And I do mean back to each other. For some reason, Stephenson felt compelled to generate not one, not two, but three ill-advised romantic subplots. I half-expected a big Shakespearean group wedding at the end.

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