Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

It would be both accurate and misleading to describe Neal Stephenson's latest novel Reamde as Cryptonomicon: The Sequel.  Accurate because, like Stephenson's 1999 breakout novel, Reamde is a multi-threaded, globe-spanning technothriller whose SFnal quality is derived not from invention but from a preoccupation with the role that technology plays in its present moment--the dot com boom and World War II in Cryptonomicon, the Facebook era and the War on Terror in Reamde.  Misleading because where Cryptonomicon was a thrilling, exhilarating reading experiences, whose segues and meanderings were as fun and fascinating as the meat of its plot, Reamde is rather mediocre, its fun moments offset by long stretches of tedium.  What's worse, Reamde is the sort of novel that makes you take a long, hard look at its author's previous output--even the parts of it you loved, like Cryptonomicon--and wonder whether it's Stephenson who has changed, or whether we're just now seeing him clearly.

Like many Stephenson novels, Reamde has a large cast of characters that only seems to proliferate over the book's thousand-page span.  Two characters, however, act as its lynchpins.  Richard Forthrast is a draft dodger turned marijuana smuggler turned ski resort manager turned MMORPG entrepreneur.  Zula Forthrast is his twentysomething niece, a recent college graduate who has taken a job with Richard's company.  Richard is the creator of the World of Warcraft-esque T'Rain, whose most unusual characteristic--and possibly the root of its success--is that instead of discouraging gold farming and persecuting the players who do it, it courts them and their business by incorporating economic and profit-generating activities into the game, and by making it very easy to convert game currency into the real-world variety.  This also makes T'Rain a popular vector for money-laundering, a deliberate choice by the somewhat shady Richard.  As Reamde opens, however, T'Rain is being rocked by the War of Realignment, a player rebellion in which the game-imposed conflict between Good and Evil is discarded in favor of a conflict between those players who have hacked their characters' appearance to display garish colors (the Forces of Brightness) and those who have stuck with the game's official, more sedate palette (the Earthtone Coalition).  Zula, meanwhile, is launched into a world of trouble by her boyfriend, Peter, a former hacker who has tried to get out from under a crippling mortgage by selling credit card numbers to mobsters.  Unfortunately, his contact turns out to be an avid T'Rain player, and the transfer of goods coincides with the outbreak of the virus that gives the novel its name, which encrypts every piece of data on the infected computer and holds them for ransom.  The numbers' intended recipient, a Russian called Ivanov, swoops in and kidnaps Zula and Peter, forcing them to help him track down the virus's creators.  These turn out to be in China, living next door to an Al Qaeda cell led by Abdallah Jones, the most wanted terrorist in the world, and when Ivanov's strike against the hackers accidentally rousts and destroys that cell, Zula ends up in Jones's clutches.

Just from that plot description, it's pretty easy to see what Reamde's core flaw is. One of Stephenson's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to make the most minute details of the most mundane topics seem endlessly fascinating, but even he can't convincingly argue that we should feel equally fascinated by, on the one hand, operational hiccups in the running of an online role-playing game, and on the other hand, a character who is kidnapped by a terrorist and becomes part of his plan to carry out an attack on US soil.  What's interesting, though, is that for a significant portion of Reamde it's actually Richard's strand that is more engaging, more obviously Stephenson-ian.  As he delves into Richard's history and the genesis of T'Rain, Stephenson produces a familiar blend of outrageous (if, quite often, highly stereotypical) personalities and situations--a biker gang with the unlikely name of Septentrion Paladins, a home-schooled geology maven with (of course) Asperger's Syndrome. One high concept set-piece, which later becomes known as the apostropocalypse, involves a tense dinner table confrontation between the two fantasy authors whom Richard has engaged to craft T'Rain's mythology--Donald Cameron, a technophobic Cambridge don who writes the first drafts of his novels in the invented language spoken by their characters, and Devin Skraelin, his American counterpart whose prose is as inelegant as his output is prolific, and who is so fat he can barely fit through the door of his trailer--during which Donald ruthlessly extracts, on the grounds of their having no philological justification, most of the apostrophes that Devin has so liberally sprinkled through T'Rain's species and place names.  At the core of all this zaniness, however, are deeply practical and businesslike motivations, and when Richard stops to explain how T'Rain has been designed from the bottom up to appeal to gold-mining Chinese teenagers, and, more broadly, to allow its users to find their own applications for its money-changing capabilities, we get a strong sense of how an inherently silly enterprise like T'Rain can be deadly serious at its core

That bedrock of practicality is missing from the early portions of Zula's plot strand, which tries to hang a lantern on the irrationality of Ivanov's behavior--he could easily have ransomed his data for a piddling sum, but instead embarks on an international murder and kidnapping spree--but can't quite get out from under it, and this contributes to the imbalance between Zula's story and Richard's.  When Jones turns up, however, he raises the stakes to a point that seems to justify the absurdity of everything happening to and around Zula.  It's at this point, also, that Zula's plot strand fractures into several points of view--Sokolov, Ivanov's increasingly dubious security consultant who conceives protective feelings towards Zula and pursues her after she's kidnapped by Jones; Csongor, a Hungarian hacker recruited by Ivanov to help find the virus's creator; Marlon, that selfsame creator; Yuxia, a young Chinese peddler employed as a guide by Ivanov and forced to participate in his plot; Olivia, an MI6 agent on Jones's tail; and Seamus, an American ex-soldier and security wonk stationed in the Philippines, also in pursuit of Jones--who scatter in the wake of the disastrous attack on Marlon's operation and the (literally) explosive destruction of Jones's cell, each to their own involved adventure.  Even as Richard's story is winding down--we have, by this point, covered all of T'Rain's origin story and are just marking time making slow and desultory progress with Reamde and the War of Realignment--the China-set portion of the novel starts delivering attacks, escapes, chases, and fights, all of which are very well done.  It's hard not to resent being taken away from all this fun and derring-do to catch up with Richard who, still blissfully unaware of Zula's disappearance, is mostly concerned with things that now seem utterly beside the point. 

When he does realize that something has happened to Zula, Richard naturally drops these matters to concentrate on finding her, which has several unfortunate effects on the novel.  First, it means that everything that's happened in the T'Rain strand quickly becomes irrelevant.  Richard sets events in motion that might resolve the War of Realignment, but this resolution, if it happens, happens off-page, and what's more important, neither the characters nor the readers actually care about it.  Second, Richard, who in the novel's earlier chapters had been a wellspring of new, inventive bits of information as Stephenson introduced us to T'Rain and its storied history, is suddenly behind the curve.  He spends the rest of Reamde playing catch up, deducing Zula's movements hundreds of pages after we'd witnessed them (in one case, he is on the verge of flying to China, several days after Zula has left it, and Stephenson has to parachute Olivia in to inform him of this).  Third, and most importantly, almost everything that's fun and engaging about Stephenson as a writer fades from the novel.  As T'Rain and all other discussions of technology are sidelined, Reamde devolves from a technothriller to a plain thriller, and not a terribly thrilling one at that.  The China segment turns out to have been the highpoint of the novel.  As Zula and the other characters make their way back to North America the novel frequently becomes bogged down in long, tedious passages--a play by play description of Jones and his cohorts soundproofing a bedroom for Zula in an RV they've stolen reads like a home improvement manual; the frequent descriptions of the Canadian wilderness in which they camp, like particularly dull travel writing.  The novel's final sequence, in which the entire cast converges on Richard's old marijuana smuggling route, which Jones plans to use to get into the US from Canada, feels interminable--too many characters spread out over too many locations, all doing essentially the same thing, trying to stay alive and kill terrorists (and, along the way, indulging in some strange and completely avoidable continuity errors--Olivia, who introduced herself to Richard and his brothers under an assumed name, is greeted by them by her real one; Richard meets Seamus in real life and forgets that they met in T'Rain only a few days ago).  There's very little tension--even if Stephenson had given the impression of being willing to kill major sympathetic characters, he rarely puts them in enough danger to warrant that concern--and the only nagging question is who gets to kill Jones, which Stephenson takes forever to answer.  It's a damp squib of a conclusion to a story that has worn out its welcome by hundreds of pages.

Reamde's prevailing concern--and the only theme that seems to tie the T'Rain and kidnapping strands to one another--is with tribalism.  In the T'Rain story, the War of Realignment has divided those tribes along objectively meaningless lines, as Richard tries to argue to Devin--who, Richard suspects, has sparked the war in an attempt to wrest control of T'Rain's mythology from Donald.  Devin responds that it was the original division written into the game, between Good and Evil, that was meaningless--Good and Evil players, he points out, did exactly the same things but were still classed in different groups.  The current dispute, according to Devin, actually reflects a true, ingrained division between T'Rain's players.
you did it yourself when you saw the billboard at the airport.  "Ugh!  Blue hair!  How tasteless!" ... it has been the case for a long time that those people we have lately started calling the Earthtone Coalition have always looked at the ones we now call the Forces of Brightness and seen them as tacky, uncultured, not really playing the game in character.  And what happened in the last few months was the F.O.B types just got tired of it and rose up and, you know, asserted their pride in their identity, kind of like the gay rights movement with those goddamned rainbow flags.
That reference to gay rights aside, what Devin is essentially talking about is some strange commingling of class and the culture wars.  It's a division that the rest of the novel keeps returning to, whether in the familiar guise of the red/blue state divide--on her way to the American end of Richard's smuggling route in rural Idaho, Olivia passes through a town that "had all the indicia--brewpub, art gallery, Pilates, Thai restaurant--of a place where Blue State people would go to enjoy a high standard of living while maintaining nonstop connectivity and assuaging their guilty consciences in re global warming, fair trade, and the regrettable side effects of Manifest Destiny"--or in more exotic forms--musing about a split in his gold-mining group, Marlon reflects that "really it boiled down to pride.  Some of the miners were ashamed that they were living in crowded apartments and doing this kind of work for a living ... Marlon's group, on the other hand, was fine with what they were doing.  They saw it as no worse than any other occupation"--and ultimately serves to tie the two plot strands, however loosely, together.  Where T'Rain's players reject a division between Good and Evil for being arbitrary and choose to focus on cultural differences, the real-world strand--whose action scenes grow increasingly video game-like as the novel progresses--sees characters from disparate backgrounds, including Richard's survivalist brother Jake and his neighbors, setting their cultural differences aside to join together in the fight against Jones's evil.

Which sounds like a heartening message, but this is to ignore how muddled, and how frequently dismissive, Stephenson's handling of tribalism is.  What the intersection of class, cultural preferences, interests, and opinions that distinguishes approved characters from mockable ones boils down to is a distinction that Stephenson has made before, between Doers and Talkers, those who are concerned with concrete matters and those who natter on about meaningless ones.  But that's a false distinction that doesn't hold up very well, even in a universe that Stephenson has built to support it.  When she's first kidnapped, Zula muses that Peter and Csongor, having made their own way in the world
had a kind of confidence about [them] that was not often found in young men who had followed the recommended path through high school to college and postgraduate training ... This quality that she had seen in Peter and now saw in Csongor was--and she flinched from the word, but there seemed little point in trying to distance herself from it through layers of self-conscious irony--masculine.  And along with it came both good and bad.  She saw the same quality in some of the men of her family, most notably Uncle Richard.
Bear in mind, as Zula is thinking this, she's in the clutches of Russian gangsters, and has her confident, "masculine" boyfriend to blame for that predicament.  And yet despite her sop to the potential negative effects of "masculinity" (here defined as competence and confidence, even though there are plenty of competent, confident women in the novel), it is for the most part held up as a positive--when Peter, later in the novel, turns out to be a coward and abandons Zula, the narrative suddenly decides that he is stupid and lacks a firm grasp on his situation.  Zula is exasperated with him (and Csongor, who admittedly is portrayed more positively) for "trying to solve the technical problem of locating the [hacker].  Which might have been Ivanov's problem, but wasn't theirs.  Theirs was Ivanov."  And Sokolov muses that "Peter would, sooner or later, do something stupid and cause enormous trouble.  Peter would do this because he believed he was clever and thought only of himself."

What Stephenson is doing is trying to depict competence as a function of character.  When really it's almost always a situational trait--a person may be extraordinarily competent in one setting and helpless in another, may have a firm grasp of their situation in one instance, and a completely unrealistic confidence in their abilities in another.  Reamde, which valorizes confidence and the general competence that has been a hallmark of, yes, masculinity, in all of Stephenson's novels, doesn't quite know what to do when that confidence turns out to have been unfounded.  In Peter's case, its response is to decide that he must not have been terribly masculine--which is to say, competent, intelligent, possessed of a firm grip on reality--to begin with.  But in Richard's case, Stephenson's approach is to double down, to continue to insist that Richard is, as Zula thinks of him, the epitome of masculinity, even as he piles on the evidence to the contrary.

Most of the reviews I've read of Reamde have found Richard charming or heroic, but to my mind he is one of Stephenson's most aggravating creations, if only because it's not at all clear whether we're meant to be aggravated by him.  Richard is a perpetual fish out of water--a black sheep among his staid, law-abiding, Midwestern family, but too steeped in their values to fit in among West Coast liberals or his fellow board members.  In another man, this perennial ambivalence might have led to humility, a willingness to see the other guy's point of view.  Richard uses it as a justification for feeling superior to everyone around him--to his Red State relations and his Blue State colleagues, to the fuddy-duddy Donald and the trailer trash Devin, to the Forces of Brightness and the Earthtone Coalition, to his young, gadget- and Facebook-obsessed cousins and his old, computer-illiterate ones.  It is "a belief that had been inculcated in him from the get-go," we are told, "that there was an objective reality, which all people worth talking to could observe and understand, and that there was no point in arguing about anything that could be so observed and so understood."  But for Richard, that objective reality seems to mean whatever he thinks about the world, as when he loftily explains to Zula why T'Rain, a game aimed as much at Asian customers as Western ones, draws solely from Western mythology.
"Elves and dwarves, c'mon, how could you be so Eurocentric?" Zula said.

"Exactly, but in a way it's almost more patronizing to the Chinese to assume that, just because they are from China, they can't relate to elves and dwarves."
Something I haven't mentioned yet about Zula is that she was born in Eritrea, orphaned during the war with Ethiopia, taken to a refugee camp, adopted from there by Richard's sister and brother-in-law, and raised in Ohio where she spent a portion of her teenage years calling herself Sue.  So it's likely that she has a better grasp than Richard on the whole issue of cultural imperialism and its effects.  And yet she doesn't call him on the enormous straw man he just dropped in her lap.  Which is, in a nutshell, the core of my frustration with Richard--he is so obviously a buffoon that it seems impossible that Stephenson hasn't written him so deliberately, and yet the narrative never calls him on it.  What are we to make, for example, of Richard's repeated musing, in the novel's early chapters, that he doesn't want to come off as creepy in his attentions to Zula?  Surely Stephenson realizes that this is creepy in and of itself, and yet nothing is made of it after Zula's kidnapping, and Richard ends the novel by stepping into a more prominent parental role in her life.

Contributing to my confusion over how Reamde intends for us to see Richard is its treatment of Sokolov, who is in many ways Richard's opposite.  Where Richard has happily curdled into a middle aged complacency that mistakes his perspective for "objective reality," Sokolov is defined by his ability to sympathize with those who are different from him and get into their heads: "Sokolov owed his life--his survival in Afghanistan, in Chechnya--to his ability to see things through the eyes of the adversary ... This reversal of perspective was not always easy.  One frequently had to work at it for some days, observing the other, gathering data, even conducting little experiments to see how the other reacted to things."  (Richard, meanwhile, whose ex-girlfriend "had barely been able to make through a paragraph without invoking the O-word ... always writhed uncomfortably during O-word conversations, since he had the general feeling, which he could not quite prove, that certain people used it as a kind of intellectual duct tape.")  We get the chance to see Sokolov in action during the China chapters, in which the city is seen mainly through his constantly evaluating eyes, and conclusion are drawn about culture, social organization, and customs.  This helps him to become what is probably the most competent character in the novel, who can make his way out of a massive security cordon thrown by a decidedly unfriendly government, secure travel around the world, show up in Idaho in the time to save the day, and along the way kill a lot of bad guys in terrifyingly effective ways.  And yet it's Sokolov who is treated to Reamde's sole concession to the point that confidence is not a virtue in its own right, when he lambastes one of the goons he used in his original capture of Peter and Zula, who has stolen from their apartment and is now in trouble.
"Doing time.  Getting in trouble.  All very normal for a man who breaks into another man's house and steals his computer and his rifle.  If you had just followed my orders--"

"Why should I take orders from you, motherfucker?"

"Because I actually know what I am doing."

"Then how did you end up in this fucking situation?"

It was a fair question, and it rocked Sokolov for a moment.
By any reasonable standard, Sokolov is much more of a hero than Richard--who for all his posturing and gnashing of teeth spends the novel constantly scrambling to catch up, who contributes nothing to Zula's rescue besides his very existence, as Zula uses the promise of his money and knowledge of a bootlegging route to the US to buy her life from Jones after they arrive in Canada, and who, when he is inevitably captured by Jones, does the least of any of the novel's characters who spend time in captivity to resist, subvert Jones's plans, or try to escape--and a much better exemplar of Reamde's version of masculinity.  But not only is Richard's certainty that there is an "objective reality" on which he has a handle never punctured, while Sokolov's more (but by no means entirely) justified confidence is, in the novel's climactic battle between Jones and the rest of the cast, Sokolov makes good account of himself and is sidelined, while Richard, of all the many characters who have sworn vengeance against Jones--Zula, Yuxia, Olivia, Seamus, and Sokolov himself, most of whom have far greater reasons to hate him than Richard--gets to deliver the coup de grace.

It's possible that Richard's triumph at the end of Reamde is intended as a sort of ironic joke, a sly puncturing of the conventions of the technothriller which sees a hapless, self-satisfied, useless man lauded by those he has done little or nothing to save.  But that sort of irony has never characterized Stephenson's writing, and if that was his intention with Reamde then the rest of the novel, which does so little to question its core assumptions, and whose other characters, particularly Zula, are entirely earnest, can't support it.  So we're left with Richard as our hero, and the purveyor of what is presumably Stephenson-approved wisdom.

Which brings us back to that supposedly heartwarming climax in which British spies, Chinese hackers, and American survivalists band together to thwart a terrorist plot, and the realization that that erasing of cultural difference is cut from the same cloth as Richard's supercilious dismissal of Zula's accusation of Eurocentrism--I'm not being Eurocentric, I'm just giving non-Europeans the credit of assuming that they are capable of embracing my culture.  Stephenson wants us to realize that deep down, we're all the same, but that same has a suspiciously Western, technophilic, geeky cast (the sole outlier, Yuxia, is sidelined for much of the novel's second half).  Zula, for example, rarely draws on her experiences as a war orphan, or on her life before coming the US, for solace or guidance during her captivity, and it's probably no coincidence that so many of the novel's characters, even those who aren't connected to Richard and Zula, are either gamers at its outset or become gamers over the course of its events (and that all of them play T'Rain).  Genuine attempts to understand the other, as exemplified by Sokolov, are rejected in favor of the assumption that the other doesn't really exist, or that if they tried hard enough they could be just like us.

None of this, of course, is new.  In my review of Anathem, I took Stephenson to task for constructing a world in which the Platonic ideal of humanity consisted solely of Western civilization, and Cryptonomicon famously presages Reamde's casual dismissal, to the point of erasure, of anyone who is not technically- and practically-minded in an opening scene in which Randy Waterhouse (who feels a bit like a younger Richard, or rather Richard feels like one of the worst versions of what Randy might become) listens exasperatedly to his academic girlfriend's insufferable friends as they enact every cliché of the out-of-touch, ivory tower liberal intellectual.  In Reamde itself, we could also note the handling of women, which gives the definite impression that Stephenson has read the many accusations that he is unable to write women as actors (particularly in response to Anathem), and that though he wants to prove them wrong, he can't quite overcome his antipathy towards the people who voiced those accusations and their ideology.  So we get smart, strong-willed, level-headed characters like Zula, Yuxia, and Olivia, but also an incessant stream of snide comments about feminism--"Yuxia was not the type to deploy terminology like "feminist" or "matriarchal," but the picture was clear enough to Zula"; "Feminist thinkers might argue with social conservatives as to whether women's tendency to be extremely self-conscious about personal appearance was a natural trait--the result of Darwinian forces--or an arbitrary, socially constructed habit"; Olivia's casual assurance that Richard and his flunkies can call her "chick": "I shan't file a complaint"; Zula's rejection, noted above, of any reticence towards equating competence and masculinity as "self-conscious irony"--as if to assure us that women can be kickass without any of that silly feminism guff.  (Not helping matters is the fact that all three women end the novel in romances--two of them with much older men--which are seen solely through the eyes of their male paramours, all three of whom make decisions about the relationship without ever consulting or discussing matters with the object of their affection.)

The truth is, Stephenson's novels have always been characterized by a sort of snide condescension towards those who don't share his interests and worldview.  Which raises the question: am I so down on Reamde because Stephenson's crankiness towards anyone outside his narrow box of approved interests and attitudes has turned a corner, or because Reamde is poor enough stuff that there's nothing in it to compensate for that crankiness, or because this time around, it feels as if that crankiness is directed at me?  That's a question that I've found myself asking more and more often in the last few years, as artists I'd previously held in high regard--people like Aaron Sorkin and Steven Moffat--have started producing work that I've found risible and deeply insulting (judging by the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan may be the next across that threshold, and no, I don't think it's a coincidence that these are all men known for clever, cerebral work, who have trouble writing well, or at all, for women).  Am I growing less indulgent, or are these writers growing more cantankerous, digging further into stances that originally gave me pause, and now stop me in my tracks?  Perhaps a more generous way of phrasing that question is, what is it that I saw in these men's writing that made it easy to look past its serious flaws?  In Stephenson's case, the answer is, to a great extent, fun--the sheer exuberant joy of inventing a new world or discovering an existing one, in all its glorious complexity.  It is that sense of fun and joy that is missing from Reamde and makes it so much easier to see Stephenson's limitations in other areas.  Perhaps he'll rediscover it in his next work, but who knows if I'll be able to keep turning a blind eye to what this novel has laid bare.


Tamara said...

I'm not sure it's a zero sum game, that fun vs. annoyance of a Stephenson novel. They seem to exist as separate qualities in each book. Snow Crash was mostly fun. Cryptonomicon was somewhat annoying and plenty of fun. Anathem was somewhat fun and plenty annoying. etc.

I'd like to come up with some notion that manages to create a dialectic synthesis of the fun and the condescension that will explain Stephenson's entire career, but it isn't working. Treating them as entirely separate qualities that just happen to cohabit in the same set of pages seems like a cop-out though.

Alison said...

What I enjoyed about Stephenson's early novels was that they were bracing. He's from a fairly privileged background. He can write about poor people without compassion, dismissing those who don't fight their way upwards as weaklings. It seems there is a similar response to non-Western cultures here. It is a failure of empathy, but the ability to stand coldly apart from those who are not like him, and to describe their failing in forensic terms, has a little bite to it, like real life does.

But there's a sogginess at the centre of the diamond, which is that the culture he is writing from does not actually align with maximal efficiency and competence. And that means there's a weakness in everything he writes, which I think is starting to overpower the strengths. He challenges my complacency - which is delightful - but is sunk by his own.

But to be fair, I find him impossible to read now, so I am responding to your review not the novel.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


It's true, a significant portion of what makes Stephenson's novels fun is rooted in his limitations as a thinker. When I first read the scene in which Randy sqaures off against his girlfriend's friends in Cryptonomicon I found it extremely funny, though nowadays I can see what mean-spirited stereotypes those people all are. And as I say, there's a good chance that I was put off by Reamde because this time around its condescension is aimed at me, whereas someone who doesn't identify with the targets of that condescension might find it just as fun as his previous work.

That said, though I don't think that the fun and annoying aspects of Stephenson's novels are entirely separate, I do believe that there's more to his writing than the narrow worldview expressed in Reamde. At his best Stephenson is not just inventive but has a unique way of looking at the world that makes even the most ordinary topics seem new and strange. His narrow-mindedness expresses itself in this inventiveness too, of course, but they are not the same thing.


That's an interesting way of looking at Stephenson, and one that seems to succinctly sum up Reamde's flaws in particular. Of course, Stephenson might say that the reason Western culture isn't maximally efficient is that it hasn't embraced his ethos to the necessary degree. See, for example, his recent article about how we're squandering the promise of the space age, in which he argues, among other things, that the reason we haven't developed viable alternative energy sources is bureaucratic red tape - rather than, you know, the political power of the existing energy industries.

David Moles said...

I didn't find that scene in Cryptonomicon remotely funny, possibly because I'd already seen Stephenson deploy his contempt for academics and particularly for his protagonists' academic ex-girlfriends and the academics they ran off with in two or three other novels. I have a certain morbid curiosity as to just what youthful crush of Stephenson's ended up with which English professor, and whether he ever actually dated her or even had a chance with her, but really, I'm basically done with Stephenson and human relationships. His fatuous, self-congratulatory encomia to Western Civilization are just a bonus.

Michael Grosberg said...

A couple more points worth mentioning about Reamde:
* Terrible villains. Abdallah Jones is one of the worst cartoon characters I've seen in literature. Muslim Terrorist AND a British accent? pure Hollywood schlock. And what was he doing in China again? Hiding in the one place he was sure to stick out like a sore thumb in? None of it made any sense. Speaking of which...
* Plot hinges on the biggest, silliest coincidence ever devised in literature: You don't knock on the wrong door and find Osama Bin Laden by mistake. That is just silly.

Mary (chemtchr) said...

One of my sons gave me Reamde for Christmas, because I had enjoyed The Baroque Cycle so much. I just finished it last night. I did enjoy it, but I doubt I would have read it through if the titanium steel tibia plate in my knee replacement hadn't coincidentally suffered a catastrophic failure.

Abigail's review captures my dissatisfactions with this present novel, but it doesn't even try to square the worldview Stephenson expresses here with his (magnificent!) work in The Baroque Cycle. I haven't read any of the other works under discussion: Snowcrash couldn't hold my attention, Cryptonomicon fell during a busy interval of my life and I never even picked it up, and Anathem didn't register on my radar. The Big U happened to fall into my hands once, and I did admire it. (My sons say it embarrasses Stephenson now; I can't see why.) I hope the viewpoint-narrowness Abigail notes here doesn't really reflect a limitation in Stephenson's capacity, and I certainly hope he isn't adopting the position that "overregulation" is causing the current financial and technological crisis.

I think any smaller work is going to seem disappointing after The System of the World, and of course Reamde struck me as culturally shallow by comparison. Stephenson spent thousands of pages delving into what it MEANS to be "eurocentric". We investigated the deep magic of the calculus, the steam engine, the Reformation, the expanding boundaries of self during the scientific revolution. We joined the political struggle for the birth of the enlightenment, and we also made it to Timbuktu in time to see it extinguished. Of course, such overreach requires a higher silliness quotient than is evidenced by REAMDE.

There is one plot element that needs to be picked up, and if Stephenson does so I can promise you I'll buy the novel. The War of Realignment of the geek world rivets my attention. Richard left his all-powerful avatar walking home, unguarded and unattended, when the baddies cut the power and kidnapped him. How is this message being read by the factions? What does it mean for the cosmology of T'Rain? Is it gonna be like Gandhi's March to the Sea?

nostalgebraist said...

This seems to be a rare opinion, so maybe I'm just imagining things, but I've always felt that Stephenson's work after Cryptonomicon felt like the output of a entirely different (and much less skilled) writer. One of the defining qualities of his work in the 1990s was its stylistic charm and humor. His prose certainly wasn't lyrical or traditionally literary, but it wasn't the cardboard of a Devin Skraelin either -- it had a snappy rhythm and energy to it that was a very good match for Stephenson's humor. Even the infamous technical digressions were written to be entertaining even to readers with no intrinsic interest in the subject matter. The Baroque Cycle and Anathem, though, completely lacked this stylistic verve (I don't think there was a single sentence in either that I'd single out as good, or even interesting), and were also largely humorless, except for the sort of unfunny "jokes" that exist more to prove that the characters are people (and not infodump robots) than to make the reader laugh.

What's funny is the '00s Stephenson is, in a sense, more consistent than the '90s Stephenson. He has always, of course, valorized a certain nerdy mindset that believes intellectual content is all, and form and rhetoric are uninteresting or even evil. The irony is that books like Cryptonomicon get the reader on Stephenson's side through rhetoric rather than reason -- rather than convincing you his worldview is right, he just makes his worldview look like a lot of fun. His more recent books are tone-deaf and clumsy, but that just makes them feel like they practice what they preach. (As good Stephenson People, we shouldn't care about things like "tone," right?)

In short, I feel like Stephenson's always been in the business of giving stylish guided tours of his own rather limited worldview, and his recent work is what happens when the style disappears and we're left with just the worldview. (Though I can't judge whether Reamde fits this pattern, since I haven't read it. I was only willing to give him one more chance after the Baroque Cycle, and Anathem was that chance.)

Abigail, I'm curious what you think of The Diamond Age. It has one of the worst of Stephenson's famously bad endings, but I thought it was the one Stephenson book that had a real emotional core. It's certainly no masterpiece of psychological subtlety, but it focused on people more than his other books do, and depicted human relationships that weren't the usual "cool nerd gets the hot chick at the end" stuff. (It did include the traditional Stephenson dorky engineer character, Hackworth, but he's less central to the narrative than usual, and I found him much less obnoxious than Randy or Raz.)

(P.S. I know I'm commenting on an old post here, so I don't necessarily expect or feel entitled to a response.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think you can certainly make an argument for Stephenson's prose being more adventurous in Cryptonomicon than it was afterwards. I liked Anathem, but it's certainly told in a more straightforward style than Cryptonomicon (though a less leaden one than Reamde).

It's been years since I read The Diamond Age (in fact I think it was the first Stephenson I read, way back in high school) so though I remember my reaction to it - I liked its bits without feeling that the whole came together very well - I don't remember the book well enough to explain that response. I do agree that its relationships are more multifaceted than anything Stephenson has written since then, if only because there are multiple female characters who aren't written as rewards for any of the male leads.

Steve NM said...

I think that there is an unstated goal helps the reader understand Ivanov's motivations: he was not after his files. He was interested in the oh, $2m or so that REAMDE has picked up in his little scheme to pay back his losses.

If one assumes that this is the case, the trip to China, accompanied by his little entourage of hangers on, all necessary to trace and take the money makes perfect sense.

databunny said...

Thanks for an amazing piece of work on Reamde and more, i have started it but find it so irritating just by page 24 i started researching whether to continue. I loved snow crash, found cryptonomicon hard to carry on with (i guess i'll need a knee problem to keep me still for a while) and liked anathem for about three-quarters of the way through. The baroque cycle is still on my "to-complete" list, but i'll admit i developed such a hatred for the main female lead i couldn't get past half of book 2. I still don't know why, but i think it's because she felt too much like a man's idea of her sort of woman, and i didn't much like how poor old Jack ended up.

I found the constant references to facebook etc quite sad, as if stephenson is having to try to be "cool" just as i've noticed that the only people who ever boast about owning a kindle are over 55 years old.

Gort's Friend said...

I think you missed the point of the Forces of Brightness vs. the Earthtone Coalition. Specifically how it relates to that East vs. West issue.

He's pointing out that the split in the world isn't between the superficial nations of east and west, by comparing it to the artificial nature of the game's good vs. evil dynamic. He's saying we're not westerners or easterners. We're geeks or not geeks. That a Chinese virus builder has more in common with a marijuana smuggler-game designer or even a banker for the Russian mob, than they do with terrorists. That the builders must stand against the destroyers. He's basically pointing out an internationalism that transcends national borders. It's a metaphor, depicted as a rather keen eyed appraisal of the gaming world.

As for much of your other criticism, you're basically upset that he writes from his strengths, as he always has. He's well acquainted with the engineers, the mathematicians, the geeks of the world. Not the pretend geeks who spend their lives talking about books and movies, but the hardcore ones who invent their own games, who spend time hacking their tv sets. Personally, I found the game design sections quite interesting, just as I've found Elmore Leonard's commentary on Hollywood to be interesting, because they're real arguments to be found in gaming blogs. Given the money involved in game design, I see nothing odd about this. I'd say the same is true in his discussion of code breaking in Cryptonomicon or his discussions of calculus in the Baroque cycle. They're interesting subjects to read and think about.

Ben Fenwick said...

Having just finished Reamde, I searched online to see what others thought of this Stephenson novel, and found your review detailed and interesting. Unlike you, I think I enjoyed it more--but then, I'm a male roughly of Forthrast's age, so I suppose I come with a little baggage in that area. That said, I find that part of your criticism of this book is admittedly on point. He does present outwardly strong female characters (all of whom I admired) but he *did* sort of laugh off to the side about "feminism". Your review made me consider the yardstick I tend to use to get outside my own biases when I try to assess such works. For me, I think about the Bechdel test. You probably are far past this kind of critique, but it's at least entry level in terms of understanding gender bias in a work. (For those who don't know, basically, a work of fiction (movie, novel) must take the time to have two named female characters discussing something in the story besides the men in it). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test

This work fails that test. I suppose it might be given some slack because of the extremely warm point of view for Zula and her internal musings while captured, but, let's face it, her musings are pretty much determined because of the actions of the males in the immediate vicinity.

Still, I enjoyed the book quite a lot. I've been put off Stephenson since Quicksilver, enjoyed Anathem fairly well, but was glad to see Stephenson's sense of style and pacing come roaring back in this book. But...then, I would, wouldn't I?

Thanks for your insights.

Ufotofu9 said...

I'm in the process of reading REAMDE, and I think I like it more than you did, thigh I am only halfway through. It's not quite Cryptonomicon, my introduction to Stephenson, but it's so much better than the unreadable Baroque Cycle and the flat, pointless Anathem. I'd say it's a return to form for Stephenson than a sequel.

I can understand giving up on the writer after Anathem. I wish that he does return to a Cryptonomicon type novel and ditches the "cyberpunk" 90's VR gee-wiz stuff. It was a fad that has worn out t's welcome. I'd love to see him tackle Quantum Physics or Grand Unification, or some topic like that. You KNOW he has it in him.

Though I don't agree with your review one hundred percent, I'm in awe of you're writing; especially your summary of the book's plot. I don't know how you so sparely and concisely summarized this novel, but I was so impressed that I had to read twice.

I look forward to reading your other reviews.

elly rainbow said...

as i began reading Seveneves, and got pissed off at a sentence in it that completely dismisses a main character's mother, i googled for "neal stephenson writing women" and found this incredibly detailed, well-written post. i'm looking forward to anything you write about Seveneves!!

Abigail Nussbaum said...


The problem with my almost allergic reaction to Reamde is that it's made me wary of Stephenson's writing, and the plot description for Seveneves isn't very encouraging. It might be some time before I get to it - I'm certainly going to wait for the paperback.

Tim Ward said...

(I wanted to talk a bit about Seveneves and Stephenson - forgive me if this is not an appropriate place to do it)

I don't think I know of a writer with a more pronounced gap between his strengths and weaknesses than Stephenson. This is to say, what he's good at he's really amazingly good at and what he's bad at he's absolutely awful at. While I choose to believe that Reamde was the result of a drunken bet where the forfeit was that he had to write a novel that played only to the weakest aspects of his writing, Seveneves is a novel where you get to see both on display.

What Stephenson is really good at it is taking some genuine science/technology and turning it into an amazing science fiction story, where his gift for explaining the science in question in a way a reasonably intelligent layman is able to follow (and he's really good at that, he should be writing textbooks) and which produces in the reader not only that sense of science fictional awe we all got into this SF business in the first place for but a sense of verisimilitude which makes his creations seem even cooler than would otherwise, because they seem plausible.

This in contrast to most science fiction where you have the first if it's done well, but you at the back of your mind the future will not actually look like this. (Yes, I probably need to read more if I think Stephenson is the only author capable of this)

What he can't do at all is characterisation or structure books effectively.

So, in Seveneves what you get is a cleverly constructed and engaging story about the moon blowing up and the subsequent efforts to preserve the species in space, which is effective because of Stephen’s knowledge of the ins and outs of space exploration and his ability to communicate this knowledge to his readers without making it overwhelmingly technical or alienating. You feel that if the moon were actually to explode, this is a fairly decent take on how events would subsequently play out.

You also get some very poor character work. Like, the characters are "the ones who works with robots" and "the one who is the leader and is friends with the one who works on robots, I think" plus at least three people who are stand ins for real life celebrities, one of whom is Malala Yousafzai (this, in particular, was not a very good idea, Neal).

Somewhat bizarrely in the midst of this, the way he depicts the end of the world is genuinely affecting, and the characters reactions to it are convincing. After reading it I found myself eying the moon suspiciously whenever I was outside at night. I also thought the claustrophobia and discomfort of living in space was well portrayed (disclaimer: I have not been in space).

The last third of the novel is actually a prologue for another novel entirely, because Neal Stephenson.

What's also missing from this novel and everything he wrote post Cryptonomicon is the wit and sparkle of his first three novels, which helped to make up for his poor characterisation; he's characters were never convincing people, but they were at least *funny* and thus they were not a net-negative contributor to your enjoyment his books.

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