By Alex Wukman
For many people the names John, Paul, George and Ringo are revered as much as those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For others, names like Tony Hawk and Shaun White or Jeter and A-Rod are those that resonate throughout their lives. However, for some it’s the names of authors, and the promise of a new book, that prove too enticing to ignore. In the modern world of popular fiction, where every author is a cult leader, there are names that stand out–the Stephen Kings or the J.K. Rowlings–solely because of their sales figures. There are also names that stand out–the Jonathan Franzens and Michael Chabons–because of the awards they’ve won. There are, of course, the true cult writers like Jonothan Lethem; authors so ignored by mainstream press that it’s a joy to meet anyone else who reads them.
Then there are the titans–men and women who have become legend for the scope, ambition and impact of their work. All too frequently it’s dead writers like Steinbeck, Orwell, Heller and Vonnegut who reach the rarefied state of being considered part of the cultural heritage. However, as the 21st century has become defined by things like space stations, killer robots, cloning and computers you can carry in your pocket writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick have come to be seen as among the artists who have shaped the future. Thousands of words, and hours of conversation, have already been spent discussing and debating the impact writers like Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker and William Gibson have had. Are we already living in the hyper capitalist, media driven, corporate feudalist state of Neuromancer and All Tomorrow’s Parties or are we simply headed there?
No discussion of writers who shaped the 21st century would be complete without mentioning Neal Stephenson. From the time he set the literary world on fire with his break out novel Snow Crash to now, Stephenson has been known for game changing, ambitious novels that millions of tech savvy, die hard fans love. His wry look at America,”There’s only four things we do better than anyone else: music,movies, microcode (software),high-speed pizza delivery,” his take on cyberspace (complete with intrusive ads) and his satire on Christian religion cemented Snow Crash as one of the best counterculture books of the early 1990s. Throughout much of the next two decades he went on to carve himself a unique, and uniquely geeky, niche in the history of ideas by exploring such diverse themes as cryptography, artificial intelligence and 17th and 18th century history.
So it was with more than a little excitement that I cracked open Stephenson’s new novel Reamde, published by Harper Collins and available for purchase September 20. Early notices about the sprawling, over 1,000 pages, novel focused on the fact that Stephenson devoted a portion of this thriller to the world of gold farming in massive multi-player online role playing games. This led multiple commenters to claim that such a thing was a much of an oxymoron as “an edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride about copy-machine maintenance.” However, a book about copy machine maintenance sounds just about as far fetched as Colson Whitehead’s 1999 debut The Intuitionist–which was, superficially at least, about elevator inspection and was a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway award. Despite all the hype gold farming and MMORPGs take up less than half of Reamde‘s narrative. The rest is packed with an espionage story so unrealistic that it makes the most cartoonish aspects of James Bond seem downright plausible.
Without trying to give too much of the plot away, and Stephenson has described Reamde as “a big plot book,” the book focuses on the kidnapping of former drug smuggler turned hotelier cum internet millionaire Richard Forthrast’s niece Zula by elements of the Russian mob and then, later, by jihadists. That kidnapping is the spark that ignites a Rube Goldberg-esque plot engine that at times traipses and at times chugs across the globe from Iowa to China and then to Manila, the Philippines and at least five other locations before eventually culminating in a shoot-out between American survivalists and the aforementioned jihadists that seems to have, at least, borrowed inspiration from the pages of Vince Flynn. The detailed description of the shootout seemed designed to illustrate a quote from William J. Lederer’s excellent book on Vietnam Our Own Worst Enemy, “we can fight them over there or over here. Over here we might have a chance of winning.”
Reamde is marred by more than the Right Wing fantasy that is the novel’s climax, one of the main problems is the hit-or-miss nature of Stephenson’s characters. Some are so fully realized that a reader feels like he or she knows them a little too well. Others, like the jihadists and Russian mobsters, are so undeveloped that they seem straight out of central casting and leave one wondering why Stephenson bothered to give them a name at all. Part of the problem may lie in the choice of antagonists, Stephenson may be known for many things but being a terrorism expert isn’t one of them. The problem is that on the heels of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, in an age when the CIA are using the NYPD for domestic intelligence gathering and even AT&T is doing black ops, his portrayal of the Global War on Terror is too superficial to be believable. If Reamde was coming out in 2001 instead of 2011, when Amazon.com lists over 28,000 products for terrorism including books on the psychology of terrorism including The Mind of the Terrorist, Stephenson’s inability to explain how a university educated Welshman of African descent became a mujahadeen would be forgivable but now it just feels lazy.
Instead of devoting time and pages to developing his characters Stephenson jammed the book with so much description of place and setting that it left one longing for Spanish surrealist novelist Juan Goytisolo’s habit of pasting photographs directly into the text of his books and remembering a line from The Marx Family Saga, “leave the word portraits for Balzac.” In Stephenson’s case instead of spending two pages describing the hustle and bustle of a Manila street or the picturesque qualities of a British Columbia sunset one wishes he would just give the reader a link to Google maps and be done with it. Stephenson’s recent novels can be characterized by many things–his love of middle aged white guys from the Midwest and gold being one–most notably a lack of a coherent ending and Reamde stays true to form.
The amount of balls that Stephenson leaves up in the air is almost awe-inspiring, especially since he reportedly received a $500,000 advance for the book, amongst other unresolved plot threads he leaves a helicopter crash survivor dying in the woods, a building on fire, a possible infiltration of the UK intelligence service by Chinese agents, the theft of the Russian mob’s entire pension plan and a civil war raging in a virtual world with the winners being able to claim somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million. Another Stephenson characteristic is his habit of shoehorning in contemporary slang. Instead of the irritating early 1990s expressions–”smooth move ex-lax”–that hurt Snowcrash, Reamde is populated witht he abbreviated language of tech centric corporate e-mails. The slavish devotion to abbreviation leads the word regarding to become simply “re” and the word reunion to become “re-u” throughout the novel. In the context of middle-aged tech start-up founder Richard Forthrast and even his niece Zula, who works for Richard’s tech company, the abbreviations make sense. In the context of a group of Russian security consultants, jihadists and a non-Han Chinese woman who grew up in a remote mountain village not so much.
Despite the problems with Reamde the novel has received good advance reviews and fans are loving it. Despite being billed as Stephenson’s most accessible work to date by his publisher, unless you are already a fan of his writing I’d recommend passing on Reamde and picking up his much less well known, and much more enjoyable, political satire Interface. Part of the problems with Reamde may be that during the writing phase Stephenson was distracted with the launch of his interactive Mongoliad venture, which his Subutai Corporation calls “a community-driven, enhanced, serial novel that you read with your Web browser, smart phone, or tablet” and reviewers are describing as “an experiment in post-book storytelling,” and, possibly, “the novel of the future.” Fast Company may have hit on the best description of what exactly the Mongoliad is trying to be “a reinvention of the novel as a serialized publication through a dedicated app” with both user and creator driven content that will be delivered each week to internet enabled devices.
For Stephenson, the Mongoliad offers a chance to break away from the confines of traditional publishing and a way to finally silence critics who, notoriously, complain about the length of his books something he has acknowledged. In August 2010, a month or so before the Mongoliad site went live, Stephenson tweeted that “no one will ever call my novels bloated again because they won’t have the faintest idea how long they actually are.”