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01 Apr 2012

Fun. Not Stephenson’s strongest.

REAMDE is Neal Stephenson’s first book that he wrote to try, specifically, to get a movie made. It must be; it’s an action movie nicely wrapped up with a little bit of nerdry in the perihphery.

It’s a lot of fun. There are two main characters, with plenty of screen time for some supporting parts. Both of the characters are good, and one is interesting and different, the CEO-hunter-smuggler-video game nerd. He hits a lot of cool buttons and it’s fun to be in his head. There’s a romp around the world involving lots of explosions, boats, guns, kidnapping, murder, airplanes, and more. The bits where folks cross borders are actually quite neat, in my opinion. The characters spend a lot of time dealing with political borders, from being washed into Phillipene harbors to remote airstrip landings, then worrying about being seen. There was a lot of time spent in people’s heads worrying about how to be off the grid. I liked that.

It all crescendos into a neat wilderness-chase-shootout-bombing-intrigue-whatever. It’s fun.

It’s not Stephenson’s strongest work. In my opinion, he’s got a few bits of writing skill that I haven’t seen as well done as anywhere else: indirectly describing a character’s mental state, his technical details that say so much to nerds while saying so little, and his ability to skip huge portions of the story and get you into someone’s mindset by how they recall them.

These skills lend themselves, amazingly, to science fiction. Snow Crash and The Diamond Age and The Baroque Cycle are absolutely amazing books, and Anathem, while not my favorite, is something I might reread just because it was so new and interesting I’m not sure that I got it. What’s interesting to me about science fiction is how a strange world changes people’s mindsets, their opinions. Watching characters in the diamond age have fundamentally different experiences about things as simple as what it means to ‘have something’ is a really powerful way to express a ‘what-if’.

The same skills, applied to what amounts to a spy-mafia-nerd action movie, make for a book that is fun to read, and that I would recommend: don’t be afraid of the length. But I walk away disappointed, not from the book, but from my own expectations: I walked away from Stephenson’s sci-fi with new points of view, and I walk away from REAMDE ‘only’ very entertained.

And we were so close: the MMO in the game could have been an amazing part of the world, but the one character who really lives in it, Marlon, is tangential. I’d have loved to see some of his world, and get a feel for the minds of some kids who grew up only understanding an online world, their only life skill to play a video game. But Marlon spends about 80% of the book without internet access, and thus silent and not contributing much. Too bad.

There’s a british guy turned islamic terrorist, and very few scenes from his point of view. We get a lot of him as the brilliantly evil tactician, and zero ‘what is it like to be a crazy islamic fundamentalist?’ Too Bad.

We instead get a lot of the main character, Zula, who is our ‘guide’ through the story: she has some interesting bits, but on the whole, really, she’s fairly normal by the time we get to the story. She’s got the determination and guts, of course, to be an interesting story mover, but her point of view is never particularly interesting to me: she’s always too busy being a logical tactician, getting out of her current predicament. Not as interesting as the two above, in my opinion.

I’ll of course read Stephenson’s next one. But I hope he creates a new world, and a new batch of interesting characters and viewpoints to make me see something different, not just keep me around.