Neal Stephenson


I’ve long been a fan of Neal Stephenson, the Pacific Northwest’s “other” prominent author of cyberpunk and beyond. So it pains me more than a little bit to have to be so negative regarding his latest offering, Reamde.

Reamde is a misspelling of “readme,” the name of that catch-all text file that accompanies almost anything you download from the ‘net. Stephenson likes these little insider jokes, as anyone who’s read much of his work knows.

This time, unfortunately, the title isn’t the only wrong word in Stephenson’s tedious and overlong opus. There are hundreds of pages of “wrong” words, if wrong means needless, self-indulgent, or over-detailed.

Now, I’m not always so intolerant of Stephenson’s infatuation with extraordinary length. After all, I loved all 981 pages of Anathem (reviewed on this blog),  and most of the 1,152 pages of Cryptonomicon. 

And I read all eight volumes, and the more than 3,000 pages,  in the trilogy “The Baroque Cycle.” (The fact that this trilogy has eight volumes tells you a lot about the author’s excesses.) I liked the “Cycle” as a group, but there were those unfortunate middle 1,000 pages, an endless pirate saga that would have made a good 250-page novel.

And that’s pretty much the problem with Reamde. It’s a good 250-page novel that’s 750 pages too long.

The MMORG (“massively-multiplayer online role-playing game,” for the uninitiated) and hacker stuff is well done, if pretty standard by now, but the endlessly protracted terrorists vs. spies storyline that spins off from it gets bogged down in interminable detail. Stephenson is well known for indulging his penchant for minutiae — he famously devoted several pages in one of his early novels to the delicate art of mixing milk and cereal in just the right way — but here he outdoes even himself.

I suppose that he was just having fun, but when Stephenson’s deus ex solution to the imminent murder of a major character relies on the timely intercession of a man-eating cougar (the real, feline kind), I almost stopped reading right then. But what are you to do? After you’ve read 700 pages, to stop with only 300 to go would render all those hours of reading not only pointless but fruitless. Long books trap you that way.

I’m not saying that Stephenson has suddenly become a bad writer. Not at all. He writes with crisp clarity, and taken in isolation many of his detailed episodes are entertaining, often with a touch of irony or celebratory nerdishness. But when you add all of these set pieces together, the result is not so effective, and not so entertaining.

And, when you get to the end, you’re treated to an endless live ammo version of a(n) MMORG, one that goes on and on and on and … . I get it that Stephenson is playing a clever game here, having his “real” characters act out the kind of action at which their online avatars excel. But do we really need dozens of pages of detail on each player’s equipment and firepower? A few pages on how best to pour milk over cereal is fun; a fewhundred pages of chasing each other through the woods is just self-indulgent. I got bored, something that a good writer should really try to avoid whenever possible.

Reamde bears comparison to the superficially-similar but much better novel HaltinG StatE, by Charles Stross. William Gibson (the other writer referred to in the first paragraph) calls Stross’s book “keenly observant of our emergent society.”

Gibson, who “invented” cyberpunk, knows what he’s talking about. Stross’s novel also revolves around a sinister computer hack, and it also features techno-savvy spies as major characters. It, too, is entertaining, often with a touch of irony or celebratory nedishness.

But the best thing that it has going for it, in comparison to Reamde, is that Stross accomplishes his tale in 350 pages. That’s plenty. It works. There’s no feeling that the story is rushed. Characters are adequately motivated and filled out. The author’s concerns with the effect of technology on near-future society are clearly visible.

Yet after we’ve finished Stross’s book, we have many extra hours of free time that we don’t have available while we finish reading the bloated pages of Reamde.

Sadly, my final advice about Reamde is this: “Dot’n.”


One thought on “Reamde

  1. I finished this book yesterday; I thought he wanted it to be a Pynchon novel quite badly.

    A six-word review:

    Bemused deus ex machina is bemused.

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