Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Despite frequent reading breaks because my wrists hurt (this book is HEAVY), I have finally finished Reamde by Neal Stephenson. 

I had a surprisingly emotional response to this novel.  That may be surprising if you have heard that this is more of a crime novel than anything else.  Then let me explain by saying those emotions were a frenetic shift from LOVE to HATE... and back again.

I shouldn't be surprised.  That describes my entire relationship with the author Neal Stephenson.  Snow Crash was life-changing for me. It was my gateway drug into cyberpunk, which led me into science fiction. That was only a few years ago, and my reading life has been revitalized as a result.  That was my greatest love experience with the author, and it is one I will never forget.  The reason I keep returning to his writing, hoping for a similar experience.

After that, I tried reading The Baroque Cycle, starting with Quicksilver, a book I hated.  The author seemed self-aggrandizing.  I developed a hatred of physics.  I threw it across the room.  But still, I finished it, because several friends had loved it.

He redeemed himself with Anathem, which I zipped through despite its length.  I loved the culture he'd set up of these monk-like scholars, the Thousanders and their mechanics and music, and the space travel in the end.  The characters were very human and I was very invested.  The ending was a bit disappointing, but did not cause the overall experience to suffer.

So really, I did not know which experience Reamde would be.  I was not even going to read it so soon, but the Sword and Laser group selected it as an alternate read, and I'd already read the official read, Ready Player One.  From the description, I expected these two books to go nicely together, both seeming to be about virtual worlds in some form or another.  But Ready Player One is a book for gamer geeks, and Reamde is a crime novel, maybe a thriller novel.  One of the two.  Both.

Wait, a crime novel?  From Neal Stephenson?  As surprising as it sounds, I did not see much of the author in this book.  If you had told me it was written by [insert any old crime author here], I would have believed you.

I'm bad at summarizing, so I'm pulling this from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
The Cliff Notes version: Richard Forthrast, a '70s-era marijuana smuggler gone straight, is the creator of T'Rain, an online role-playing game that is more popular than World of Warcraft. His niece Zula -- an Eritrean refugee who works for him -- is abducted by Russian gangsters after her boyfriend, Peter, gives them a thumb drive with stolen credit-card numbers that's infected with a virus. This virus, created by Marlon, a game player who lives in Xiaman, necessitates a trip to the island where the Russians hope to exact revenge. Instead, they become embroiled in a battle with Muslim fundamentalists.

I had planned to abandon the book around page 160 or so.  Other members of the Sword and Laser said "It gets better at page 300 when new characters are introduced."  In a shocked sense of disbelief, I decided to press on to that point.  And, okay, it really does get better at around page 300.  In what universe is it okay for an author to not get to the good stuff until 300 pages in?  My favorite parts of the book were from about page 300-700.  The ending was not satisfying although all the ends are tied up.  In that regard, Stephenson does not feel like a crime writer after all, because the end should be the pay off!  It felt like it kind of faded out, without spoiling the ending.

Other things to love:
  • Neal Stephenson writes awesome female characters.  While Reamde would not pass the Bechdel Test,  the characters of Zula and Olivia are particularly compelling.  They are smart, creative, but still imperfect in realistic ways.  
  • The various settings, from Xiamen to the Philippines to northern Canada to the back woods of Idaho.

Other things to hate:
  • The virtual world was a plot point, and while it does bring the characters together, it is not nearly as central to the story as I would have liked.  Yes, I believe I am now complaining that this book was not geeky enough.
  • Coincidence and convenience ruin the believability of almost everything.  Perhaps this is typical in a thriller, but it was too much to take.  
  • The pace, partnered with the length.  Fixing one would have aided the other. 


  1. I really don't think this is for me, but congrats for getting through a difficult book.

  2. Jenny, since you loved Snow Crash,, I'll recommend Stephenson's Diamond Age. It's pre-Cryptonomicon, pre-Baroque Cycle, so it's from back when he wrote tight, compelling narratives. I think it's pretty fantastic.

  3. Hi. I haven't finished it yet. I decided to risk being spoilered by your review anyway. Yes, it's way too damn long, and obsesses for pages over things that nobody could possibly care about. There is some kind of theme about private jets! Is that interesting to someone besides the author? It reminds me of early science fiction stories that would be about some exotic new technology, where the hero saves the day thanks to the amazing power of ROCKETS! or NUCLEAR POWER! or something. This is just like that except PRIVATE JETS!

    You mention the strong female characters. I'm not sure I can agree. Again, I can't tell where this is all going, but there is a theme of chivalry. That men are willing -- or should be willing -- to put themselves in danger to protect a woman. There's some tension in this story because the objects of this chivalry in some cases don't need saving, and the men are throwing themselves in front of cannons all the same. I hope there is a point here about relationships between men and women, or about something. It's a page turner, but at this point I feel like it's just gonna be some shiny fluff.

  4. Private jets are AWESOME and the BIGGEST TERRORIST LOOPHOLE... er... something.

    Compare Zula with Peter. One was expendable, and one was not. Peter wasn't heroic, he was vindictive, despite having good security, and got killed.

    Compare Olivia with the Russian meathead she ends up traveling with. I feel like we know much more about Olivia....

    Still, that doesn't redeem the book for me. And if any relationship proves important it is family-based, not romantic.

  5. Ed - I did like Diamond Age. Maybe #2 or #3 to Snow Crash.

  6. I agree with your review - I was expecting a more geeky novel too, but ended up reading about terrorists and how the characters could get away/meet up with them.

    Not a bad book in the end; was just expecting more from the title/virus that was created for the MMO...


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