I just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s new 1042 page tome, Reamde. Can’t say that I enjoyed it. I’ve read a few other works by him, namely Snow Crash and Diamond Age, and I enjoyed them both very much, but this one was a slugfest from the word go. This was the single longest book I’ve read and actually finished. It was more out of stubbornness than anything else though. I’ll warn you now there may be some spoilers in this.
There are some good aspects to the book. The writing is done well, grammatically correct and well punctuated. I didn’t notice any editorial problems from that standpoint. The plot is fairly intricate, moves at a moderate pace initially and covers a lot of territory, which Neal obviously spent a lot of time researching, because he doesn’t hold back any detail. I mean ANY. He waxes on for paragraphs about stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with the story and not just a couple of times, but throughout the book. He could have easily cut 500 pages out of this and it would not have changed the story in any meaningful way. Surely he had an editor, but maybe he refused to budge on their recommendations. I have no way of knowing. As I said, there is plenty of plot here, but no real story in the sense that I understand story. I’ll get back to that.
I liked a few of the characters, especially the former Russian military man, Sokolov and the Chinese/British MI6 agent, Olivia. They both had depth and complex personalities and I would actually love to see more of those two. It was fun to be in their heads and see what they were thinking about. The other characters were not cardboard cut-outs, and some were quite interesting, but they didn’t really change through the book, unless you count dying. I liked the hacker, Csongor, too, but he didn’t really have a lot of introspection, unless you count him thinking about Zula a lot. He could have been much more complex, given his Eastern European background.
I honestly thought the “story” was going to be about Richard Forthrast and how he would change in some way. But despite everything that happens, he is essentially the same at the end. He contemplates life without being connected to social media and enjoys being cut-off. He is not satisfied with the way he is kind of wandering through life without a cause. But when it is all over there is no mention if he has decided to change the way he lives, only that he is spending more time at the farm. I guess that is a very minor change, but almost noncommittal. Neal spends a lot of time telling us how militia-like the Forthrast clan is, but in the end we don’t know if Richard leaves his company to live off the grid or still just plays at it on occasion like he always had. He obviously loves his family but has no children and no love interest. Don’t get me wrong, he seems like the kind of guy I would love to have a beer with. But the down-to-Earth billionaire is basically living a shallow life, fantasizing about his glory days as a pot smuggler and how alive he felt back then. Doesn’t really tug at the heart strings of the reader.
Maybe it was supposed to be about Forthrast’s adopted niece Zula, but despite being held captive for 90% of the book and mentions of understanding how Helsinki Syndrome might affect people, by the end she is pretty much back to normal as well, with no appreciable change.
I was sold on two things before I read the book. Stephenson has a reputation as a good Science Fiction writer with good ideas and good prose. And the story was based around the next big thing in Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. At least that was how it was sold to me. On the first count, I have no doubt that Neal is capable of doing great work, but this wasn’t Science Fiction and it straight up wasn’t his best work. I am a big William Gibson fan as well and these two seem to be close to the same mold and both appear to be moving backwards in time like Merlin. Their work was cutting edge SF and with each book they seem to get closer and closer to contemporary. I think their next books will be historical fantasy. To be fair, I think Gibson’s writing is getting better with each book, despite this trend. Neal, on the other hand…I can’t say that. It’s like he forgot that once you do the first draft you can shave off the stuff that isn’t germane to the story. A lot of us love world building and love to describe all the cool things we’ve thought of, but from everything I’ve studied about writing, it’s not the best way to go about it. There is something to be said for concise, tight writing and Reamde is the exact opposite of this. I know that some people enjoy a lot of description and for those of you this book is right up your alley, but for me all it did was slow me down and make me put the book down, repeatedly. I’m not a quitter though. I like finishing what I start and I kept answering the bell to get back in the ring and take another swing at finishing the book. Eventually I figured out that if I just skipped two out of everything three paragraphs it moved a lot better. A lot of people like to bash Stephanie Meyer but I will say this about her writing. It’s easy to read. I compare her writing to eating candy. Reamde was like a ten course meal, but each course was same, meat and potatoes, heavy on the potatoes. I was ready for a bucket only a few hundred pages in.
On the second point of being about an MMORPG, it does have a lot to do with the main character Richard Forthrast, but it is really just a trigger for the plot. Not really a McGuffin, but not really the central piece of the story either. It is really more about a terrorist and a kidnapping; at least that is what ties all the extraneous plot pieces together. I think it is actually two books. One about a virus named Reamde and one about jihadists and kidnapping. By combining them together all he did was make it lose focus.
I’ve mentioned the word story a few times already, but I can’t say that there was any actually story in Reamde. There was a plot, and it was certainly full of action, but it was mired in paragraphs of meaningless description that slowed it to a snail’s pace. But the heart of a story is about how the protagonist changes in some way, an internal story arc. There is no doubt that everyone in this book goes through a lot of stuff and a lot of people get killed, some gruesomely, but none of it seems to have any lasting effects on the main characters, those that survive. With more than 1000 pages he certainly gave himself enough room to expand on an actual theme, but sadly chooses not to.
For me, the story is really about Sokolov. I could buy that, but that was not how Neal wrote it. Sokolov went through hell, surviving at every turn despite the odds, realizes he is getting too old to stay in his line of work, even though at that moment he was at just the right level of expertise and experience to survive the ordeal. He knew that next time he would be too old. He also has a romantic entanglement that works.
It’s very presumptuous for me to offer Mr. Stephenson writing advice, as I still have a great deal to learn, but it would have been a much more focused story if he had centered it on Sokolov. It wouldn’t have been that hard to do, just set the initial scene with Sokolov in his normal day-to-day life and start the ball rolling toward Seattle. He still could have brought the other characters in, and trimmed a buttload of descriptions of cities and ships and forests and introspection that had nothing to do with the story. Introspection in and of itself is fine as long as it has something to do with moving the story along, but he chose to ramble on about that things that add no real meaning to the story. I think he honestly fell in love with the idea of the rogue billionaire and lost focus on where to tell the best story.
I know this is long, and I really don’t like writing bad reviews, but I really got mad reading this book and seeing how poorly it was managed. There is nothing wrong with the writing per se, but the editing was sorely lacking. From the standpoint of someone trying to break in to the writing industry, it does a lot of things that I have been warned against. I wish Neal Stephenson well, and I know he has already sold a lot of books based on his reputation, but I will be much more reluctant to buy his next book based on this one. Mr. Stephenson you need to fire your editors, or maybe listen to them. Perhaps it wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much if it was only 500 pages long.
I recommend avoiding this one.