Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis

I’ve just finished REAMDE, Neil Stephenson’s latest tome. It continues his tradition of book titles which look like words from the dictionary, but aren’t, like Cryptonomicon and Anathem. It also continues the welcome trope of being centred around geeky heroes: Lawrence Waterhouse (codebreaker) and Randy Waterhouse (programmer) in Cryptonomicon; Erasmus/Ras, the science-monk in Anathem.
All three books have elements of the thriller genre about them. In all three stories the main characters find themselves forced to trek halfway across the globe (and beyond) to save the world and their own lives. Furthermore, the protagonists use their skills to affect the outcome of their adventure. However, REAMDE compares unfavourably to the other two books, in that these technical skills are secondary to the more worldly talents of gun fighting. It therefore reads much more like a Tom Clancy process thriller, than a book that examines the implications of new ideas and technologies on how we think.
Don’t get me wrong – I love a good Clancy thriller. They’re addictive and enlightening about the way world changing decisions are made, about the quirks of the intelligence communities, and the way in which all global actors (be they terrorists or US Presidents) rely on both a combination of luck and a complex Chain-Of-Events to achieve their aims. However, I’ve always felt that Stephenson operated in a different genre-space to Tom Clancy, and that his work was more interesting for it.
In Cryptonomicon, the heroes are the heroes because of their special talents. Lawrence Waterhouse prevails precisely because of his code breaking abilities. His grandson Randy uses his own skills to break the code left by his grandfather, and thus ‘win’ the day against rogue Chinese military personnel. In Anathem, Ras uses mathematics and science to peel back the secrets of extra-terrestrial invaders. In REAMDE however, the undoubted technical brilliance of Richard Forthrast (creator of a World of Warcraft style game world, T’Rain) seems tangential to his success. It is the game which gets him into the mess of kidnappings and terrorism, but it plays no part in the reason he overcomes his adversaries. Instead, he wins because he and his confederates know how to work a gun (two of them being special forces trained)… And [SPOILER ALERT] not one but two instances of a wild mountain lion attacking the bad guys at a pivotal moment. Stephenson might be making a point about how nature can intrude on our best laid plans, but if so it is poorly made – nature doesn’t attack the technology, it attacks the guerrilla fighters. It’s just a deus ex machina.
Such a device is particularly irritating in REAMDE, because in the world of T’Rain, Richard Forthrast is himself a “God outside the machine.” He controls Egdod, the first and most powerful avatar in the game world, and (as founder of the game) he also access to the game’s user database, giving details of all the players’ private details, IP address and browsing habits, as well as the powers and inventories of their avatars. It would have been fun if Richard was forced to use (or maybe even sacrifice) Egdod in the game, for some higher purpose. Stephenson should and could have come up with a finale where the winning of the in-game war affected the outcome of the real life predicament. The sequence where Richard does provoke a war between two factions of players in the game (all to inspire renegade Chinese players to log on) should have been the central set piece of the game. Instead, it becomes a sort of by-the-way, dealt with in a few pages. The fascinating sociological quirks that Stephenson introduces early in the novel – an unexpected conflict between two factions of players (the Earthtone Coalition versus the Forces of Brightness) – are simply dumped, in favour of a (literally) pedestrian hundred pages, dedicated to describing the terrorists trek accross the Canadian-US border. At one point, a promising passage likens Richard’s real life predicament of wandering through the forest on foot, to his avatar Egdod doing the same thing on T’Rain. That parallel, between a physical and virtual self, seems to me to be one of the crucial concepts of the twenty-first century, but Stephenson uses the smilie as a poetic aside, not the kernel of the book.
The neglect of T’Rain in the latter half of the novel is doubly annoying because it squanders some of the more interesting characters. Marlon and Csongor are two variations on the New International Geek. The first is the Chinese creator of the eponymous REAMDE virus that plagues the T’Rain players. The second is a Hungarian sysadmin for the Russian mob and an erstwhile credit card fraudster. Their moment of glory, where they extract a few million dollars from the game world, while sitting in a Manilla Internet cafe at 3am, comes and goes so quickly a drowsy reader could miss it.
This extraction is to my mind the most important scene of the book. It carries within it ideas about the money that we in ‘The West’ spend on play, and the way in which our global connectivity shrinks the physical space. Money can be channeled from one side of the planet to the other, just as the computer avatars in T’Rain use wormholes (or ley lines) to pop out on the other side of their virtual world. It is interesting that Marlon uses the cash to hire a private jet, which spirits him and Csongor from the Philippines to the USA (there is much talk of private air travel and ‘great circles’ in REAMDE, which are not unlike T’Rain’s virtual ley-lines). However, Marlon and Csongor’s arrival in the USA seems less than essential. When they do get to America, they just sit around for a bit and then crash a camper van, while doing little to help the other protagonists. I would rather have had them hunched over their laptops in disparate locations, connected via some VPN, winning the day in the virtual space, to genuinely help the prospects of their allies in the real world.
The use of the virtual world of T’Rain as a planet sized Macguffin is thirdly disappointing because REAMDE otherwise draws together many of the ideas of Stephenson’s other books. In 1992 he introduced the idea of a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playimg Game (MMORPG) in Snowcrash, years before the effects of Moore’s Law enabled Second Life or World of Warcraft. Cryptonomicon, and his seventeenth century triology The Baroque Cycle, all look at the nature of global commerce and the basing of currency on gold you can dig from the ground. It grates that although these ideas are revisited in REAMDE, they are not properly explored and no conclusions are drawn.
Any writing on REAMDE must inevitably cite Cory Doctorow’s For The Win. This story also takes place across continents, but with the characters linked to one another through MPORPGs. Doctorow’s writing is generally less conventionally literary than Stephenson’s, but in dealing with the implications of the idea at hand, I think For The Win trumps REAMDE. In Doctorow’s book, the band of protagonists form an international union of online gold-farmers, and beat the system by altering their in-game behaviour. They still encounter real world tests and violence, but they ultimately prevail because of how they use the new technology – Precisely the element I missed in Stephenson’s book.


Interestingly, Cory Doctorow loved REAMDE.

One Reply to “Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick”

  1. I think you are too kind.
    I only finished the book because I had a lot of time on my hands. I’ll think twice before approaching his stuff again – and that is despite the Baroque Cycle being one of the finest reading experiences I have had.
    I see no reason for the second half of this book whatsoever. It is as if it suddenly became a cookery book, or a fishing manual. I think it is slightly dishonest that Neal put his name to the book – which I would have (probably) forgiven in a collaboration.
    Unforunately, I think Cory’s review was also slightly dishonest too. He hints waywardly at the thriller area, but I thought he was refering to a different tone or texture, not bad pulp fiction.
    I agree that the first half very well covers familiar ground that Stephenson knows well, and extends nicely into our current decade. I can only wonder if something happened in his life that influenced the quality of the second half.

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