Tag Archives: Neal Stephenson

Two reviews

The theme of today’s reviews is Martin’s tweet from earlier this week:

Just read a book I was hoping to love which was awful and one I thought would be mediocre but was excellent. This isn’t that uncommon.

Which brings me to Reamde, Neal Stephenson’s latest doorstop. It’s a thousand-page technothriller, combining the dynamics and player exploits of the fictional MMO T’Rain, a weird hybrid of Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and EVE Online, with a more conventional thriller involving globetrotting terrorists, hackers, and law enforcement. I was hoping for Snow Crash 2.0, and something which would be as mindblowing as reading Cryptonomicon the first time, and it isn’t that. The parts which actually deal with T’Rain are fine – Richard Forthrast, reformed draft-dodger and pot-smuggler turned game designer, is at least a little different to every other nerdy male hacker character Stephenson has written. The mechanics he works into the MMO are pretty clever, and the idea of viruses targeting MMO players and legitimising money-laundering through a virtual economy are only one step removed from current events.

The problem is that the cool parts are welded to a really long, occasionally tedious techno-thriller. Richard’s niece, Zula, gets caught up with the Russian mafia, who kidnap her and take her to China to try and find some T’Rain hackers who have stolen their money. As well as finding the hackers, they find Islamic terrorists, who kidnap Zula again, take her to Canada, and plan to extort money form the fabulously wealthy Richard, as well as blowing up some stuff in the US. Because they’re Islamic terrorists, and that’s what they do.

I like Zula, who is smart and competent and does eventually manage to escape from the terrorists herself without waiting to be rescued, and helps bring them down. It doesn’t make the three hundred pages[1] of Zula being threatened, tied up, assaulted, tied up by some different terrorists, chained up, and eventually threatened by a bear[2] any less wearying to read. I generally like Stephensonian digressions, and I will happily read a dozen pages about banking systems, or an explanation of Enigma machines by way of bicycle gears, or even that weird bit in Cryptonomicon about the couple with the fetish for sex on antique furniture, so it’s weird that I hit my limit when he spends time discussing exactly how the terrorists construct a cage for Zula in the back of the RV they have been driving around Canada for the past hundred pages.

As technothrillers go, and it’s not a genre I’ve read particularly widely, it’s not bad – not many novels of terrorism and intrigue really stop to consider the problems of flying a great circle path and what to do when you are trapped in China without your passport, and I have absolutely no idea whether all the parts about guns are accurate, but they feel like someone’s put in the research about what you can realistically do with automatic weaponry. It’s just that there’s hundreds of pages of it, culminating in a running battle along the Canadian border which brings together all the disparate protagonists, and the MMO part of the book is completely forgotten. And there’s the ending, which feels like the weird epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where you find that everyone has been paired up[3], as if you don’t want to leave any loose ends but must tie everyone up into couples.

It’s not a terrible book, it’s just Stephenson’s least interesting or entertaining once since, well, ever.

From the latest disappointment I go to one of 2011’s unexpected surprises, in the form of God’s War by Kameron Hurley, a book relentlessly pimped by Niall to the entire SF community so it’s a good job that it’s excellent. I’m not sure I have a great deal to add to Dan and Niall‘s reviews, but I wanted to back up their views. There’s so much that I like about it, so many complex, interesting characters, a colony world which is not one homogenous culture but all these different nation-states from a common source, so many nuanced views on religion and gender and war and power. If I were to criticise it, I’d say that the plot is not that interesting – a fairly straightforward tale of the team who have to track down a missing person who inevitably has secrets which may shake the very foundations of their society, etc etc – but you won’t really care. The bugs, the organic insect technology that is ubiquitous on Umayma, are interesting but frustratingly unexplained, at least to my scientist brain, as are the shifters who can take animal forms, but there’s something wonderfully squishy and organic about it all. In short, it is visceral and exciting and it is less than a thousand pages, and it is a mere six dollars for your preferred ereading device. Go buy it.

[1] Exact page count is a guess, because I read it on the Kindle and there aren’t page numbers as such, but it certainly felt interminable.
[2] Not only does Zula get menaced by a bear, she also meets a mountain lion who plays a key role in her eventual escape from her captors. I can only assume she is a deliberate reverse Kim Bauer.
[3] Except without the terrible make-up/CGI job that makes them all look like teenagers dressed up in their dad’s cardigans.