At long last I got to the end of Neal Stephenson’s latest tome, the amusingly mistyped ‘Reamde’. I bought the book not even noticing the typo: I saw a note about the release on someone’s G+, immediately hopped over to amazon and entered ‘Readme’ into the search box… and Amazon helpfully auto-corrected it to the proper improper version without me even noticing until I read the emailed receipt a couple hours later. I was pleased to discover a few hundred pages in that the author made mention of my old stomping grounds and while that made my day, it was also something like 800 pages ago, so I’m pleased to report that after chewing through the rest of the thing, the plug wasn’t even the best part of the book.
The story is pretty freakin’ gigantic. Big surprise from Stephenson, right? Normally he’s known for such tiny, intimate affairs. You know, a single setting, two guys talking in a convenience store for 250 pages. *cough*. No, The sets here range from a canadian ski lodge, bustling chinese streets, a castle in england inhabited by a ren-fair gone wrong, a trailer park morphed into something strange, manilla internet cafes, private jets, and the north american wilderness…
The first character, and the sort-of lead of the story is Dodge aka Richard Forthrast. WIthout giving to much of the story away, he’s a wealthy businessman, the founder of a successful MMO known as T’Rain. We meet him and his niece Zula at a fairly typical midwestern family reunion. He’s a bit of a black sheep to his clan owing to questionable personal decisions made in the 70s.
The MMO world of T’Rain is the other set of the story. Within the context of the book, this is a hugely popular MMO that has served to offset the market dominance of the World of Warcraft by embracing gold farmers and the intersection of real world economics and virtual ones. The attention paid to details clearly shows that this is a man who understands the genre. Although I suspect he doesn’t have a lot of level 85 WOW toons given that he seems to write a 1,000 page book every year or so.
Without giving away to much of the story, a computer virus targeting players of the popular MMO is running rampant. When a transaction between two characters transfers the infection along with some valuable data, a series of events is set into place. This leadsto the arrival of “Bad Guys” of various sizes and shapes. There is kidnapping, murder, money-laundering, chinese gold farmers, an MI6 super spies, mafia psychopaths, and just for good measure, good old fashioned machine gun welding jihadist terrorists.
The book is an excellent page turner but for me the plot is secondary to the characters. Stephenson has a really amazing knack for getting into the head of… well… me. And if you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you’re going to know what I mean. Richard Forthrast’s observations about everything from the nature of midwesterners, to corporations, to work, to video games rings true. Time and time again I realized that Neal was just stroking my ego and making me wish I was as cool as the character that he was giving a voice to. In Cryptonomicon I believe there was an entire page describing a method to more efficiently moisten Cap’n Crunch with a spoon that injected ice cold milk directly into the breakfast, thus eliminating the chance for soggy cereal. This book is chock full small ideas like that. Thoughts that you might have had. But Stephenson actually put ink to those little thoughts making you wonder if he’s eavesdropping in your skull somehow.
Besides the entrepreneurial Richard, we have a pair of writers who start from opposite ends of the world in every way. What I found interesting is how each of them dealt with their success. I have to wonder if the author isn’t putting voice to something in his own life there as well. Both characters are wonderfully insane in their own ways, and without spoiling much, I wish he would have done a little more with their plots.
There are numerous other characters that I really fun to follow, but I won’t spell them out expect to say that many of them are wonderfully realized, reminding me of myself, or of people I know, and being just startlingly accurate in the way they behave and see the world. This is good stuff.
However it really does feel like Neal is at the point in his career where he no longer has a editor saying “Allright bud, maybe you could trim this part a bit”. At one point there is quite literally a page where he describes an office in a cube farm type space. After expending a surprising number of paragraphs describing the minutia of the environment, he finally just breaks down and admits something to the effect of “it was in every way a totally ordinary room in an office building”. There’s a lot of points like this. Sometimes the thing being described is unique and interesting. Huge chunks of text dedicated to describing the particulars of a gun or the current air travel system. Other times it helps to build tension or reveal something useful. Other times I feel like he’s just describing things because he can. And that’s his prerogative as a writer, but weighing in at over one kilo-pages, I wouldn’t have minded a good solid trim! But then again, I was unable to make it through the entire Baroque Cycle. So many words!
I struggled to keep track of the final sequence as well. I felt like I needed to set up a map with D&D minis just to keep track of where the entire cast was located: throughout the book he is constantly switching from one group of characters to another, and usually this is pretty easy to keep track of, but for some reason the final scene just had me struggling to keep track of locations, weapons, injuries and companions. Like so many stories, it ends in a giant bit of action. It’s a bit cliche I guess, but considering how epic the previous 900 pages feels, it also is a bit cathartic.
So as with Cryptonomicon, Snowcrash, and The Diamond Age, it’s really the observations and the world that I enjoy the most. Stephenson has a knack for understanding technology, both present and potential. His grasp of the nerdish psyche is pretty much perfect. And I found myself wanting to just read a few more pages more than almost anything else for the last week, and that says something. So go get it, you won’t be disappointed. Although it still might not convince you to go back to the Baroque Cycle… I’m currently unemployed and even I don’t have that kind of time!