Reamde, Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, 2011, 1056 pages, US$35.00 hc, March 2015

If I’m to remember anything about Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, it’s going to be that this is the book that turned me off reading fiction for nearly a year.

Let me explain.

I’m writing this review roughly a year after reading Reamde. I had the best intentions of writing a review shortly after reading the book, but life happened. Now that I have a few spare moments to go through my review backlog, what’s become obvious to me is that in the months since I’ve read Reamde, I’ve read only two novels, and one of them was a beta-read for a friend. (The other? Andy Weir’s The Martian, which gave me motivation to read and review again.)

With a lead-up like this, you’d be justified to expect a scathing denunciation of Reamde as something along the lines of the end of fiction as we know it, an affront to genre fiction, or a reader-killer. Otherwise, how else to justify how someone like me, who could reliably knock off 200–300 books per year, spent the twelve months post-Reamde barely scraping by reading half a dozen books?

The answer is wholly external to Reamde, of course. A child. A wife. A house. A job. A renewed interest in movies accompanied by a checkbox-ticking intent to catch up on those must-see films. It’s easy to form a habit in which reading is relegated to a distant runner-up position once everything else has been settled. Except, of course, that nothing is ever settled.

Still, I’m not entirely absolving Reamde. Because, more than once during the time I spent reading it, I caught myself thinking “that’s it, after this novel I can take a break”. At 1192 pages, this isn’t just a novel: it’s a trilogy contained between two covers, a modern epic published as a single unit.

Or it would be if it actually had something to say.

Because while The Lord of the Rings in its uncut director’s form runs for nine hours and change, that’s still less than an average season of your usual TV network show. (A single season of Elementary, to name one of the rare shows that I watch, will take you roughly 17 hours from beginning to end.)  But take a look at the overall story and tell me if the TV show season is denser with material than the movie trilogy. Of course it isn’t. There are a lot character-building moment and scene-to-scene material in TV shows, but the overall plot movement can be glacial. So it is with Reamde’s pacing and overall content, which expands to 1192 pages thanks to intricate exposition and a damnable absence of editing, but doesn’t quite amount to much more than a TV series in the end.

It starts semi-promisingly near Seattle, as a young man sees the content of his laptop encrypted and locked by a nasty piece of ransomware. Unfortunately for him, what’s on the laptop is of crucial interest to a branch of the Russian mob, and they don’t play around. Before long (actually, no, after long), they kill the young man, kidnap his girlfriend (who’s the real protagonist of the story) and jump on a plane to China, where they hope to be able to identify and inflict a lot of pain to the developers of the ransomware. This is all taking place on the periphery of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, the details of which are explained in fastidious detail along the way.

By the time a normal novel would have had the time to wrap up at the 350th page or so, Reamde is not only just getting started, but pulls off an amazing coincidence that either breaks the novel or makes it. Because, you see, staying right next door to the ransomware developers is the world’s most hunted terrorist. As a confrontation goes wrong and an entire building blows up, that mastermind terrorist kidnaps our heroine and starts hatching a scheme to go back to Canada and sneak into the United States for his expected nefarious purposes. The rest of the novel is pretty much exactly that, with our heroine’s uncle (founder of the MMPORG) stepping in as a secondary hero. It’s a good thing that he also happens to own a vast resort, and has a past as a frontier-crossing drug-runner.

If your suspension of disbelief snapped somewhere during the preceding paragraph, then welcome to the world of the novel’s readers, whose sensibilities are somewhat blunted by the fact that it takes hundreds of pages of procedural detail before those elements are gradually revealed. Neal Stephenson writes long, as we know (most of his last few novels are physical door-stoppers, and his Baroque Cycle trilogy clocks in at a staggering 3300 pages) but with Reamde, his worst tendencies have exceeded the boundaries of acceptable info-dumping to become actual problems. The novel’s ludicrous plotting is only exceeded by its numerous lulls in which nothing happens.

Now comes the question: Is this a bad thing? After all, I did have a reasonably good time reading Reamde, even as I was cursing its length and pacing. I’m someone who audibly delights in info-dumping and excessive exposition. I’m often amused by authors who have the guts to go against the formula of good fiction (such as, ahem, hinging an entire plot on a freak coincidence half a world away), and my past reviews have shown that even when I don’t understand half of a Stephenson novel, I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But for the weeks I spent slogging through Reamde, I was also struck by the fact that, to put it bluntly, I don’t have time for this nonsense. I’m busy right now and for the foreseeable future, and my tolerance for the excesses of fiction has been eroded to nothing. I may watch a lot of movies, but I’m doing a lot of dishes (or research, or housekeeping, or cooking) during that time. My lifestyle, in other words, is not currently compatible with a lot of written fiction.

This is not going to be eternal. I’m not metaphorically burning my library and claiming that I’m done with the whole fiction shtick. I’m just recognizing that right now, I’m not a dedicated reader. This, I’ve been told, is fairly common for parents of small children, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt and telling myself that there is a time for everything.

But it took the gruelling experience of making it to the end of Reamde to give me a good hint that I didn’t have to push myself in reading if I didn’t feel like it. Stephenson, by being so verbose and meandering, has freed me in a way, by inoculating me against guilt if I didn’t pick up a book immediately afterward. After Reamde, I felt spent; done with fiction. The next few books I picked up were chunk-sized nonfiction, easy to pick up in separate unpredictable sittings. It would take The Martian, which I really wanted to read but didn’t want to spoil before the movie, to get me going again.

So, thank you Stephenson, I guess? Some people will find Reamde useful to prop up objects, protect themselves from attackers or keep the fireplace going for an hour or two. I’m more likely to remember it, perhaps unfairly, as the novel that sent me in a fiction sabbatical.

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