#CBR4 Maneuver #21 – REAMDE

Target: Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE

Profile: Fiction, Political Thriller, Suspense?

Summary: From the back of the book, “The black sheep of an Iowa farming clan, former draft dodger and successful marijuana smuggler Richard Forthrast amassed a small fortune over the years – and then increased in a thousandfold when he created T’Rain.  A massive, multibillion-dollar, multiplayer online role-playing game, T’Rain now has millions of obsessed fans from the U.S. to China.  But a small group of ingenious Asian hackers has just unleashed REAMDE – a virus that encrypts all of a player’s electronic files and holds them for ransom – which has unwittingly triggered a war that’s creating chaos not only in the virtual universe but in the real one as well.  Its repercussions will be felt all around the globe – setting in motion a devastating series of events involving Russian mobsters, computer geeks, secret agents, and Islamic terrorists – with Forthrast standing at ground zero and his loved ones caught in the crossfire.”

After Action Report:

My level of dislike for this book borders on irrational.  My first pass at the review had nothing good to say about it at all.  That wasn’t exactly fair, so here’s Version 2.  REAMDE is a fantastic idea that has been tossed into a river with the lead weights of Stephenson’s writing style, 600 extra pages and a dozen extraneous plot lines.  Now, if you happen to be irrationally fond of exposition, you might really enjoy this book.  I didn’t.

Part of this is my fault.  Stephenson and I have had a rocky relationship at best.  I slogged through the Baroque Cycle a few years ago on a friend’s recommendation, and while I didn’t hate those books, I definitely didn’t love them either.  Snow Crash was great.  And Cryptonomicon was solid too, but all of his books suffer from a similar pathology of being overwritten and heavy on the exposition.  REAMDE goes a little beyond that and ponderously drags around extraneous PoV characters, plot lines, and MacGuffins galore for no tangible payoff.

The setup is pretty clever.  A nasty virus targeting players of the MMORPG T’Rain inadvertently hits a money manager for the Russian mob, whose boss then kidnaps Zula Forthrast, niece of T’Rain’s founder, Richard Forthrast, and her hacker boyfriend to try and track down the virus makers in China.  Hijinks ensue.  The problems start coming as Stephenson adds increasingly complicated and unlikely plot twists.  The Chinese hackers have holed up underneath an Islamic terror cell, and when the bust goes bad all hell breaks loose.

Now, it sounds like this could be an interesting thriller story, filled with excitement and explosions, and to some extent it is.  But you have to understand that the events I just described take place over nearly 400 pages, or, the length of a novel.  That’s right, in the same time it would take a typical writer to bring us fully through a Well Made plot, Stephenson barely manages to finish his setup.  “What does he do with all those pages,” you ask.  I’ll give you an example:

Moments after we get our last big reveal of the first half of the book, the hinted at involvement of the Islamic terror cell, the PoV shifts to an entirely new and un-introduced character sitting in a spy nest across the street from the major action.  Her name is Olivia and over the course of the next twenty two pages we are going to learn everything that has happened to her since she graduated from college.  I should mention that the building that our protagonists are in just exploded.

Twenty two pages of character exposition in the middle of what turns out to be the major action climax of the first section of the book is inexcusable.  By the time I got back to the flow of events, I’d lost all interest in Olivia, her newfound role in the increasingly farcical events across the street, or indeed, the events across the street.  I just wanted to shoot the poor woman if only to get the plot moving again.  The worst part is that Stephenson does it again a few chapters into part two.

The infodump has a place in writing, particularly in complex political thrillers that take world events and politics into account.  Stephenson is abusing this necessity.  The kicker is that the book could have been amazing if it had just cut its cast down to one.  Richard Forthrast’s story of dealing with the REAMDE virus stateside, while beginning an international search for his niece, is amazing.  His chapter sections have reasonable infodumps, moments of touching humanity and brilliant detective work, and the great flow of a classic spy/thriller novel.  Richard experiences the events of the rest of the novel as wonderfully complex mystery that slowly boils to a nail biting, if completely unbelievable flashpoint ending.  It’s good.  Good enough to make you wonder if Stephenson is trolling us with an enormous volume of BS just to see if we can get at the treasure inside.

REAMDE has a fair number of positive reviews out there, so some people must be able to get through the crap.  Hell, I really enjoyed the core story when Stephenson could be bothered to write it.  But there is a point where enormous sloughs of exposition do nothing but hinder the pacing of the story.  But if you like Stephenson and his style of writing, then you’ve probably already picked this thousand page bad boy up and loved every overwritten second of it.  Just don’t ask me to respect you for it.

Posted on June 24, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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