Thursday, October 20, 2011

REAMDE was disappointing for this Neal Stephenson fan

There is something particularly appealing about an author (or any sort of artist) who works hard to try new things.  A few weeks ago I attended a talk and book-signing by Neal Stephenson for the launch of his latest work, REAMDE.  During the question and answer section he said (I paraphrase) that he has always tried to ignore his publishers' pleas to write books like whatever his latest top-seller may've been.   All of his books that I've read have borne this out (a very early book, Zodiac, I've not gotten to yet).  Stephenson has covered ground from near-future dystopia to present-day techno-thriller to a trilogy written about the 17th century to an alternate-world thought experiment, and his readers and fans have been conditioned not to expect him to write sequels, revisit characters, or really even reuse themes.   REAMDE is also no sequel, and is certainly an entertaining adventure story written in his witty and engaging voice.  However, I doubt I'll be the only Stephenson fan who was disappointed in this book's lack of new ideas and lazy storytelling, and by extension disappointed in one of our favorite and most talented authors.

"Lazy" is not a term I throw around lightly.  At the REAMDE launch talk one of the questioners noted that the author had been producing, on average, an impressive 1000-or-so page book every 2 years since the mid 1990's -- certainly not lazy.  At another point in the talk Stephenson described his process as trying some ideas out and sometimes having to discard them if they didn't work.  That description of his process came to mind because there seems to be a grab-bag of unrelated ideas and plots that are mashed-up here; I will of course try to avoid any spoilers but given that the story is stitched together with three or so absurd coincidences and a couple of MacGuffin-style plot devices, it will be difficult.

The story starts focused on Richard Forthrath, a middle-aged former drug dealer turned video gaming magnate.   His creation is a very popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) called "T'Rain", a virtual world that sets the stage for us to meet a number of interesting characters involved in the game either as creators, players, or exploiters -- we discover very quickly that many of the players of the game have seen their computers infected with a malware/ransomware virus that gives the book its name, REAMDE.   The ideas Stephenson brings to light via this game and the virus are promising enough, touching on the mechanics of virtual worlds, the very real "gold-farming" economy of low-income Chinese who sell virtual items from MMORPG's to Westerners for real money, and a partially-developed subplot around players building alliances based on color pallettes.

In the meantime, the action in the 'real world' is initiated with the first set of very improbable coincidences.  To keep this vague and spoiler-free, it involves a Russian criminal organization, and shifts the action to Forthrath's niece Zula and a trip to China in pursuit of the first MacGuffin.   Just as that hunt is building to its climax, another set of incredibly improbable coincidences occurs and the original theme and pursuit are abruptly abandoned and for the second half of the book the reader is shifted into a completely unrelated and pedestrian story about Islamist terrorists and Zula becomes the MacGuffin; later in the story comes another set of slightly less improbable coincidences not worth describing that set up the action-packed climax and subsequent epilogue where every sympathetic character is happy, all possible couples are paired off, and any loose ends are tied up with a holiday bow.

Simply put, it felt like he started with one story, couldn't figure out where to go at a certain point, spliced another story idea he had laying around into the middle, and finished it off with a very long gun battle out of a Western he'd been working on.  I think the only other stories I've seen so many absurd coincidences in were Monty Python movies or possibly Star Wars Episode I.

Kidding aside -- while my description probably reads as if I hated the book, I actually enjoyed reading it.  Stephenson's descriptions of place bring locations to life whether in a formerly colonial neighborhood in a Chinese city or the depths of the Canadian wilderness, and his action scenes -- and there are lots of them -- are gripping, believable, and make the reader feel like they are part of the action.   These, and his lively and often humorous prose, are consistent strengths through all of his books.

Stephenson's consistent weaknesses are also apparent.   As in most of his previous work, the characters in REAMDE are static and in general do not grow stronger, weaker, smarter, more compassionate, crueler, weirder, or more mature at the end of the book than they were at the beginning.  Romantic relationships are announced rather than developed, and people decide immediately that they are best friends.

His books are usually able to rise above these drawbacks, but in REAMDE Stephenson is depending on character and relationship for most of the motivation.  Much of the action in the second half is driven by characters who having only met Zula briefly (one of them not at all) decide she is such a dear and important friend that they completely upend their lives and spend weeks in desperate circumstances trying to find and rescue her.   The motivations of the Russian villian in the first part of the book are never explained beyond that he is "unstable", and we get no insight whatsoever into what drives the Islamists who dominate the second half.

It is this lack of believable motivation, with the pasted-together plot, that are the core of my disappointment, because even with his weaknesses in character development and relationships, Stephenson has always been a writer who turns interesting ideas into motivation and plots that make sense.   Whether introducing us to the concepts of virtual worlds and memetics in Snow Crash, social structures and educational theory in The Diamond Age, the history and theory of cryptography in Cryptonomicon, the entire basis for modern economics and philosophy in the Baroque Cycle,  or complex logic in Anathem, he makes these ideas the core part of his works.   Ideas drive the struggles of both his protagonists and his villians and the reader comes away having learned something new.    

This is not the approach he has taken in REAMDE.   You can see a glimmer of potential ideas in the parts of the book around "T'Rain", but they are never developed.   Chinese "gold farming", MMORPGs, ransomware, Russian organized crime, and Islamist terrorists are all concepts that have been in the public consciousness for years.  For the first time I've read a Neal Stephenson book and not felt intellectually stimulated. 

One could theorize that Stephenson intentionally departed from big ideas in this book.  He may have been responding to the mixed reaction some readers (myself included) had to his last book Anathem, which got so deep into trying to instruct that it ended with a 24-page appendix of complex logic puzzles.   Another possibility is that by not trying to teach, he is trying to stretch as an artist -- writing a pure action thriller is a departure, and doing it well is not easy.  

Unfortunately, even with a coherent plot, a good action thriller needs a hero who grows to meet his challenges and a developing and believable romance (often ending in heartbreak).  Stephenson has written characters who grow and change in The Diamond Age, and the Baroque Cycle saw a reasonably plausible romantic relationship develop.  All of his previous work was strongly plotted.  Its disappointing to see none of those elements here.

I'm sure I'll buy Neal Stephenson's next book.  I've bought, read, and (from Snow Crash forward) reread all of his books at least once for the terrific prose, entertaining plots, and thought-provoking ideas they contain.  But I doubt I'll reread REAMDE.

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