Since 1992, Neal Stephenson has been writing sprawling science-fiction novels. One got the idea that detail was a weakness of his. His books have included asides on the correct way to eat Captain Crunch breakfast cereal, the economics and technology of pizza delivery, and horticultural re-enactments of famous battles. These asides were lovingly detailed and fast-paced, but this style of writing made the typical Stephenson novel four-fifths detailed build-up and one-fifth furiously paced climax.
For many readers, the sudden switch in pace was disconcerting. These readers will have no such problem with Reamde. As if to respond to his critics, Stephenson has written a book which is uniformly fast-paced and has almost no asides (of the ones that were left in, my favourite is one on using video games for airport security). It also has no science-fictional or supernatural elements. Stephenson claimed in publicity interviews that he was fond of thrillers, and so wrote a book that was an out-and-out thriller. This is the most accessible Stephenson book ever, and it is an excellent thriller.
Unfortunately, it’s also a let-down for Stephenson’s existing fans. While Reamde contains many plot elements that were used in earlier Stephenson novels—the creation and management of currencies or money, being stuck on a boat on the high seas, a fascination with both Tolkienian races and real life ones—it misses something important, which his science-fiction work has usually contained: an exploration of big and audacious ideas.
Reamde: William Morrow, 1,056 pages, $35 (around Rs1,820).
And while Reamde does touch upon such ideas, it doesn’t go anywhere with them. The really good ideas are to do with a multiplayer Internet game called T’Rain, and the practice of gold farming (or playing games as a business), by playing all the boring parts to collect in-game money, virtual weapons, or other artefacts, and then selling these for real money to other players.
In the book, T’Rain has been designed to make gold farming easier, on the grounds that this will pull in a customer base of Chinese gold farmers and that T’Rain can make its money on the commissions. Handled with more depth, this could have led to a fascinating fictionalization of the processes of money laundering. Unfortunately, the whole premise of money laundering and cybercrime is used only to kickstart the book’s main plot, which involves chasing down a black Welsh jihadist and his hostage.
Simultaneously, the game’s players are in revolt. They have decided that the game writers’ arbitrary—and actually meaningless—classification of their characters as Good or Evil is senseless, and are realigning themselves into different blocs, based on the colour of their in-game costumes.
It’s exasperating that this particular subplot was made subservient to the main plot line, because so much could have been done with it. It could be tongue-in-cheek commentary on the tendency of people to group themselves into opposing camps on the flimsiest of pretexts (Team Jacob and Team Edward today, Mods and Rockers in the 1950s). It also offers a chance to explore the philosophical question of how good and evil should be defined at all, a question quite relevant, considering Reamde’s “good guys” end up killing the “bad guys” without expressing remorse, or even thinking about the magnitude of what they have done. Reamde’s “real life” violence is as amoral as the violence going on in T’Rain, where, when a character is killed, it is only sent to “Limbo”.
It’s true that thrillers usually dispense with the ethics of violence, but Stephenson’s earlier books used to engage with it in eager, comprehensive detail. That, perhaps, explains my disappointment with this book. Excellent thriller though it is, Stephenson is capable of so much better. To this devoted fan, Reamde was a waste of his considerable talent.
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