Thu Sep 29 14:50:05 EDT 2011

do not buy REAMDE

Neal Stephenson's last few books have not been good. But his latest cinderblock, REAMDE, is bad in an altogether different manner from the Baroque Cycle, or Anathem.

At the turn of the millennium, Neal wrote Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. These two books are straight up, no kidding, masterpieces. I so very rarely have occasion to speak of creative works that aren't complete piles of shit on this blog that I could talk at great and tedious length about the overwhelming genius of both books, but I won't. These novels pretty much created the category of "nerd philosopher"[1], and catapulted him to the top, next to Eliezer Yudkowsky, Maciej Cegłowski, Paul Graham and Eric Raymond.

After writing these savagely brilliant, enormously relevant novels, Stephenson essentially said "Thank god that's over, now it's time to write what I really want." And what he really wanted to write was The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. These are also genius, insofar as Stephenson totally gave up on making anything readable, or interesting; and instead pounded out a couple million words that only he, personally, wanted to read. But despite their numerous failures, they are very obviously pet projects. Stephenson wanted to write about some very big ideas, so he did, completely ignoring the matter of convincing people to buy them.

And then we have REAMDE. It's 1056 pages of generic techno-thriller, with a whole lot of action but not much actually happening. The vast majority of the book is taken up by viewpoint character A being thrust into desperate situation B, taking inventory of their possessions, and executing plucky plan C. If you want to read hundreds of pages of people searching rooms for inventory items, or putting guns in various states of readiness[2], then REAMDE is your book. The last hundred pages or so have the floaty, unpolished feel of a first draft, written by someone in a very great hurry to finish this goddamn thing so he can finally get paid and stop having to think about it.

REAMDE, very clearly, was written to make cash. Stephenson didn't have any ideas to tell the reader, or anything interesting to say about the human condition, but he did have mortgage payments; and so we get REAMDE.

Which makes it awkward when Stephenson introduces the fantasy novel authors. Their explicit, in-story purpose is to write very large books about a video game, very quickly, in return for lots of money. These books are shown to be terrible, (there's an extended quote that's one of the better jokes in REAMDE) and the people themselves are talentless hacks.

Character 1 manipulates the writers into keeping a region in a MMO in a state of chaos, so he can interrogate character 2 as to the whereabouts of character 3. The killer part is that not only is this a huge waste of time, (Character 2 doesn't know anything) but the reader knows all this ahead of time. Dead ends in an investigation are great from a verisimilitude standpoint, but storywise, this entire subplot is a hundred page cul-de-sac which leads nowhere, and serves only to pad out the page count.

The book ends (SPOILER) with a shootout between far-right survivalist nut-bags and literal jihadi terrorists, a scenario straight out of the masturbatory fantasies of a Stormfront user.[4] After the terrorists are throughly perforated by bits of hot lead by Our Heroes, the male and female characters instantly pair off, and live happily ever after.[5]

It's bad. The ending is bad, the beginning is bad, the middle is bad; the whole thing, bad. I'd like to say that I don't understand why Stephenson wrote this, but that would be a lie. His intent is plainly clear; so all that remains is disappointment.

1: The real term for them is "Hacker philosopher", but Eric was fighting a desperate rearguard action to preserve the correct definition of the word way back in 2001, and using "hacker" in 2011 requires a lot of waving your arms and narrowly qualifying your words and generally having to jump through a lot of loops in order to use a word defined one way by a tiny technical subculture, and defined another way by the other billion internet users.

2: I have the epub version of the book, so I could do a search for how many times the sentence "he disengaged the safety" occurs in the book, but the answer would probably just depress me.

3: There's a very surprising reference to the sea burial of Osama Bin Laden. Judging from when the book came out, this must have been the result of a smart editor adding it to the galley proofs at the very last second.

4: Which drags on and on, of course, and really, really could have used a map or two, Stephenson not being the greatest at conveying a layout at the best of times, and his headlong rush to finish the book does not make his writing any more lucid.

5: (MORE SPOILERS) One of the main characters is actually the Chinese hacker responsible for the Reamde virus, which kicks off the events of the book. At best he's guilty of grand larceny, having stolen millions of dollars and destroyed the files of millions of people, and at worst he caused the deaths of a couple dozen bystanders and plot-relevant characters. Does he go to jail? No, of course not.

Posted by | Permanent link | File under: important, nerdery