A review of the novel Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson is somewhat of an enigma to me. He has written some of my all time favourite works of Science Fiction: Snowcrash is easily a modern Sci-fi classic (if not a general landmark piece of fiction) and his next-most-recent novel Anathem was one of the most satisfying reads I've had in years. However, he has also written some books that are decidedly not my favourite books: from the punky missfire of Zodiac to the gargantuan, grinding, morass of his Baroque novel series. I mean, all of these are "good" books in the sense that they are thoughtful and interesting... it's just his best books are both keenly insightful and pleasantly engaging. His worst books are usually only one of these.
Reamde for me, falls somewhere in the middle.
Reamde follows the stories of Richard forthrast, millionaire MMORPG mogul and former marijuana smuggler, and his adopted niece Zula forthrast as they run afoul of the Russian mafia, Chinese hackers, b\British spies and Islamic terrorists in a globetrotting thriller. Reamde, therefore, is a kind of modern meta-thriller, designed around the tropes of Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and/or Dan Brown novels. And when I say designed around the tropes (plural) I am being literal: this novel is an aggregate of ALL thriller plots simultaneously. To a certain extent the book functions as a mediation on the genre and its conventions. In a certain sense Reamde succeeds, in that it builds this quintessentially modern thriller story in a highly textured and plausible way. Stephenson's eye for research and his penchant for grounding the over-the-top implausibility of events in the sheer real-world banality that would make them possible (ie. several page discursion on air traffic routing, airline fuel limitations and international radar deployment)really elevates the material. However, the doing-so of this is also Reamde’s greatest flaw. The problem with the novel is one of suspense logistics: it’s hard for a thriller to maintain the kind of tension that is the engine of the genre over 1000+ pages, especially pages that are rife with Stephenson’s particular brand of discursion. Don’t get me wrong: the tangential riffing is some of the best writing in the book and is insightful and interesting which I love (said as a guy who listens to educational podcasts for entertainment while setting up experiments for his graduate studies), but it does bog down the pace of the action. But then again, these tangents are among my favourite parts of Reamde as they act as a direct conduit to the Stephenson-sublime voice that is more prevalent in my favorite books by him. Also, these information rich, laborious discourses are often involved in the mechanics of getting separate plot threads aligned in ingenious ways. Seriously, the character logistics in this book are incredible. It’s technically a very well written book.
Overall, I'd say I enjoyed Reamde, and that I will likely revisit it in a few years. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to a general reading audience (there are better, more accessible Stephenson novels to try first), but I would recommend the book to anyone who is a fan of Stephenson as an author or is serving a lengthy prison sentence.