REAMDE by Neal Stephenson
I suppose it was bound to happen. At the start of the year I made a resolution to make The Weekly Rot truly weekly again. Now here it is, only the beginning of April, and I’ve cocked it up already. Yup, it’s been more than a week since my last post. Of course, I have plausible excuses. For a start, the previous post on union membership felt important to me, and I wanted to give it a little more time at the top. Beyond that, my college observed Spring Break last week, so I considered myself on vacation. Finally, for most of the last couple of weeks, I’ve had my head firmly wedged in a great big book.
I’m a slow reader, so I’m not normally a fan of massively thick novels. Speed aside, I believe my favorite genres (horror, crime, science fiction) are not well served by extreme length. Take Stephen King’s The Stand as an example. Yes, it’s considered a classic, but few readers would argue that the book is well constructed or arrives at a satisfactory ending. In my opinion, a book in any of these categories should top out between 350 and 400 pages. Many works of even less length are exceptional. Racking up a mere 218 pages, Robert Charles Wilson‘s Bios is more of a novella, really. Even so, it’s a perfect clockwork of plotting and theme. Epic Fantasy is an obvious exception to this rule–hence the Epic–but I’ve read very little of this since my teens.
Several people whose taste in books I trust have recommended Stephenson to me over the years, but I have always been daunted by the length issue. In the spirit of trying new things, I selected REAMDE more or less at random and brought it home from the library. The sheer size and weight of the book were a bit off-putting. At 1,044 pages, you could easily batter someone to death with Stephenson’s novel. It did not sit comfortably on my lap. Nevertheless, I cracked the cover and read. Well-written, funny, and intelligent, REAMDE got its hooks into me very rapidly.
REAMDE falls into a new sub-genre that really doesn’t have proper name yet, but that I like to call Near Present. Notable works in this field include William Gibson‘s Blue Ant Trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History) and certain works by Charles Stross (Halting State, Rule 34). Charlie Huston’s upcoming Skinner looks like it will belong as well. As a whole, these books deal with the absurdities of the internet age. The protagonists often have the sort of tech industry non-careers that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago. These are frequently contrasted with characters from developing nations. Interconnectedness is common theme, displayed in plots rife with random meetings and odd coincidences. Though structured like thrillers, the action in Near Present novels is often set in motion by something trivial or absurd–the violent conflict in Zero History begins with the theft of the design specs for a pair of pants.
REAMDE begins in a similar vein. A Chinese hacker creates a virus that attacks players of T’Rain, a popular MMO, encrypting all the files on their computers. The victims can obtain the encryption key by paying a ransom of 1,000 T’Rain gold pieces, equal to a mere seventy-three real world dollars. But paying the ransom has become problematic, as the in-game drop point is choked with players desperate to get their files back. One of these players is Wallace, a money manager for a Russian gangster who goes by the name of Ivanov. Wallace would like to pay the ransom, but since Ivanov is short tempered and doesn’t really get computers, he ends up kidnapping a pair of American hackers and flying them to China with the intention of tracking down and killing the virus writer. All this happens in the first hundred and fifty pages. From there, things just get weirder.
REAMDE is a true ensemble piece, the point of view rotating through a wide cast of characters. The main players are Richard Forthrast, co-creator of T’Rain and retired CEO of its corporation, and his niece Zula, a young Eritrean woman who was adopted into the Forthrast family at the age of eight. Other characters shouldering story duty include Sokolov, a former Spetsnaz officer who works security for dubious characters like Ivanov, Csongor, a hulking Hungarian systems administrator also in Ivanov’s employ, Qain Yuxia, a Hakka tea wholesaler, Marlon, creator of the REAMDE virus and de facto head of a Chinese gold farming operation, and others. While the novel is certainly generous enough to support such a large cast, some characters get introduced at oddly inconvenient moments. For example, Olivia Halifax-Lin, an MI6 deep cover agent in China, first appears, complete with copious back story, right in the middle of an otherwise splendid firefight.
Despite an action heavy plot, Stephenson manages a lot of truly funny moments. Richard Forthrast’s doorbell rings while he is playing the ultra-powerful T’Rain character Egdod. Since Egdod’s voice is a Godlike boom, the bell sounds out over an entire city in the game world. Sadly, there are just as many technical asides that I could have lived without. The peculiar psychology of screen brightness, while mildly interesting, was not worth interrupting the narrative flow, at least not for me. (He also tends to go on about geography.) Maybe it’s just the size thing. I might have been more tolerant of these digressions in work that was shorter– and more tightly plotted–overall. Or if I were used to reading longer books.
This dichotomy pretty much sums up my reaction to REAMDE. While individual pages, scenes, and set pieces were compelling, the sheer size of the book transformed a page-turner into a slog. Much as I enjoyed REAMDE, by the end I just wanted to be done with it. In my view, a truly successful novel should leave readers wanting more, not wishing there had been a bit less.