Nobody ever accused Neal Stephenson of not going far enough. But with his new novel, the hyper-knowledgeable and impeccably entertaining author might well be thought of as coasting. Of course, in his case, coasting means knocking out a thousand-plus-page hyperbolic steam engine of a globetrotting thriller with apparently as much ease as Stephen King might have penning a novella before breakfast.
In the wide-open years of the ‘90s, when science-fiction writers still thought of the future as something that was yet to come, Stephenson was one of the more astute stars of speculative fiction. He threw out ideas like confetti, breaking as much new ground as William Gibson. Even if some of his prognostications didn’t turn out as anticipated (the virtual-reality cyberspace of 1992’s hacker-skateboarder classic Snow Crash), Stephenson still charged ahead with blinding speed, melding bleeding-edge science with dead-to-rights anthropological observations, doing so while zapping readers with a literate snark-stream of ruminative humor.
Stephenson also had a sideline in straightforward adventure fiction. He published a couple of novels in the ‘90s—Interface and The Cobweb—under the pseudonym Stephen Bury (in conjunction with his uncle, historian George Jewsbury) that read like watered-down Stephenson. Each featured quick, gonzo sequences that shone with his trademark humor, but there was a dutiful nature to the plotting that made them feel defanged.
After spending much of the past decade grinding out in William Vollman fashion his dense historical cryptology puzzle the “Baroque Cycle” and the philosophical excursion Anathem, Stephenson circles back to the present day. Reamde is a Bury-esque technothriller that whips up many of his favorite themes and obsessions into one overstuffed and overplotted package.
It begins in one of Stephenson’s favored settings: the flat fields of the northern Midwest. The extended Forthrast family has gathered for a reunion whose central activity is the gathering of the males for the firing of all kinds of light and heavy weaponry into a ravine near the old house. Skulking amidst all the adults and kids who’ve driven in from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis is Richard Forthrast, the clan’s black sheep who is in some ways the central character of the novel but also the person whom Stephenson has the fuzziest bead on.
Having made a name for himself, Stephenson (who’s guaranteed of a New York Times bestselling slot for each novel he writes these days) doesn’t need to gin up a plot right away, and so we just hang around with Richard for a while. It’s teased out that he’s the black sheep for having bolted to Canada to avoid the draft. While up there, he started a business in cross-border marijuana smuggling, and then settled into a nice life running a ski resort built with those proceeds. Later on, Richard stumbled into the world of online gaming by developing a little thing called T’Rain which was little more than a blatant effort to one-up World of Warcraft and appears to have done just that.
Antisocial and eccentric but fiercely loyal to his family (particularly the few who don’t see him as some alien creature), Richard becomes the crux of the novel’s plot when the world of T’Rain is infected by a virus. The virus, known as “Reamde” (playing off the common computer file name), was possibly perpetrated by some Chinese hackers who found a way to make real money trading in the game universe’s virtual currency. That’s when the Russian mobsters show up. The Special Forces, Richard’s adopted Ethiopian niece, private jets, and a jihadi bomb factory are soon to follow in a plot that swoons from the Midwest to Asia to the Northwest and Canada in a looping and occasionally punchdrunk tangle.
Appropriately, Reamde doesn’t bother with the past or the future, plonked right in the middle of the shapeshifting present, where science fiction is embedded into the fabric of everyday life. Stephenson’s omnivorous interests give him a journalist’s ability to throw his characters into settings as varied as a third-rate apartment block in a southern Chinese industrial city or the mountains of British Columbia, and make it seem as though they are places the author has lived in and explored for years. He also refuses to write in depth about anything that he doesn’t comprehend to the tiniest degree. This means, for example, that after experiencing the numerous scenes featuring weaponry (there’s a small war’s worth of firefights in the novel), readers will come away with a pocket textbook’s worth of knowledge about small-arms and field tactics.
Stephenson’s best writing has always deftly paired this knowledge with a wire-taught sense of observational sarcasm. This humor is deftly peppered throughout Reamde, and certainly makes its overlong narrative more palatable. The set pieces are also the equal of anything Stephenson’s done before, with two extended action scenes (one in China early on, the other at the climax in Canada) flowing and exploding like a never-ending string of firecrackers over hundreds of pages each.
Stephenson’s undisciplined writing is normally one of his better attributes, what with its tendency to thrillingly fling caution to the wind, but here it becomes something of a burden; two editors with weed-whackers could have shaved this book down by a quarter and lost none of its appeal. His characters tend toward the unfocused, and occasionally can seem like little more than fonts for monologues on various topics that Stephenson wants to spout off on – online gaming, multi-volume fantasy fiction, eating habits of Iowans, hierarchical dynamics of the Russian mafia – in a way that echoes the worst of Michael Crichton.
Given the world-threatening or -redefining ramifications of some of his other novels, the relative innocuousness of Reamde can be a relief. By mixing the straight-forward plotting of his Bury novels with the sharper, exploratory nature of his ‘90s science-fiction, Stephenson has come up with a bracing concoction. Its loose webs of new-formed friendships stretch over the zig-zagging and border-hopping cross-plotting and keep it all flowing engagingly along in the manner of the better band-of-misfit-heroes narratives. This may be Stephenson’s first book in a while that is not going to be considered important, and that may well be a good thing. With regards to Roger Ebert, it’s a first-rate second-rate book. All the best authors should have a few of them.