Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

In my head, this book is very much lumped together with the recent Greg Bear book, Vitals, that I read. Both are by authors that I have previously enjoyed. (Well, my reading relationship with Stephenson started out a little rocky, but it's gotten better of late.) They are both authors whose previous works have thrown off ideas like candy, been provocative and engaging. And they both turned in books in this round of reading that are mere technothrillers. Well-written technothrillers, but I want more.

I know they can write books of ideas and so I am disappointed. There's an additional caveat to this one, though. Both are well written. Reamde is always easy to read and interesting. However. And it's a big however.

Greg Bear pulls off his technothriller in about 300 pages. Reamde takes over 1000 pages to do much the same thing. With very few ideas to enrich this, it's more or less 900 pages of a chase around the world. That's probably about 600 pages too many, and that's being generous.

This is frustrating, because Stephenson is an entertaining writer. It wasn't that there was ever a section that was itself bad. It was just the collective weight, as I slogged on and on, that started to wear me down. I started to wonder why all this detail was even in here, and that's another issue.

Oh my god, there is a lot of detail in this book. Well-written detail. It's not turgid, it's not just lists of things in the environment. He's not making rookie mistakes. They're pretty much mastercraft mistakes. That doesn't make them excusable.

In some of the combat/hiking scenes, or actually, in any combat scene, I was suddenly very sure that Stephenson had been out there, acting out each piece of movement, to make he got it exactly right and could duplicate it, blow by blow, muscle movement by muscle movement, on the page. In combat scenes, the level of detail jumps to a point where I start to glaze over. Perfectly outlining every heartbeat of a battle is not good writing. It becomes realism at the cost of story.

I would have much preferred fewer but well-chosen and placed details to make those scenes really crackle.  The frustrating thing is that they're not terrible. It's interesting, the first few times. But then you look up, and realize you're only 300 pages into the book, the other 600 pages are still to come, and you start to feel fatigued. Do we need this level of detail for every moment? Is extreme realism really that interesting? (Hint: Often, no, it isn't.)

I realize I haven't even said what this book is about. That's because it's a daunting task. It's about this game designer, who designed the greatest MMORPG ever built, and built into it real-world economics that encourage gold-farming. His niece gets involved when her boyfriend makes a stupid deal with the Russian mafia, and gives them a USB stick infected with ransomware aimed at players of the MMORPG. The Russians wing the niece and her boyfriend, along with another hacker, off to China, where the Russian leader is intent on murdering all the hackers responsible for the virus. Did I mention there is a British secret agent watching the same building in China? Maybe it's too soon.

At any rate. In the process of trying to track down the hackers, the Russians stumble on a black Welsh jihadist making bombs. (I am seriously about to give up on this synopsis.)

Oh, for goodness sake. Okay. The upshot is, a lot of people get involved, well above a dozen, and through meticulous detail they all converge on a little piece of land in northern Idaho (I think it's Idaho. My geography is wretched, and I was tuning out on the details) where the jihadists are trying to cross the border into the United States. Near the cabins of some seriously serious gun nuts.

It's a crazy plot. The problem is that it's mostly fun, but the fun gets undercut by how hard it is to get there. Too much detail. This crazy book probably still needed to be long, but could have been 600 pages instead of 1000. Stephenson is too good a writer to be boring. Instead, he wears his readers down by attrition, until you roll over and surrender, and when you finish the book, you're not exhilarated. You're exhausted.

1 comment:

  1. This post is an excellent description of a feeling I definitely know. I feel like Stephen King (though nowhere near Stephenson in class, even at his best) has the same problem with his recent books--he's doing what he does, but he just can't stop, and he's so popular that no editor is going to stop him, either. There are plenty of other great authors who suffer from bloat, as well. You describe the problem very neatly.