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Friday, March 16, 2012

REAMDE: Neal Stephenson's "Thriller"

If you're part of the small but vocal "Neal Stephenson can do no wrong" contingent, you may want to turn away. I'd suggest taking a breath, climbing the stairs of your parents' basement, going outside, and doing your light saber exercises.*

While this is the first Stephenson novel I've read — I'd been meaning to read him for awhile because his fans are always raving about his novels, particularly Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon — and while I didn't care for REAMDE, it wasn't enough to put me off him forever. That said, after finishing REAMDE, I put the novel down and breathed the hugest sigh of relief I've let loose since finishing Gravity's Rainbow. Again, it wasn't all terrible, but it was a gigantic relief to be finished.

The novel is a thousand-page doorstop about a computer virus called REAMDE that infects players of a World of Warcraft-like video game called T'Rain. Three groups of characters with vastly different backgrounds — including a Chinese gamer, a Hungarian computer nerd, a sexy Asian MI6 agent, a Russian gangster, an international Islamic terrorist, and an adopted Eritrean-refugee who is the niece of the impossibly wealthy creator of T'Rain — are thrown together by circumstance, and then literally blown apart in all directions. Traversing the globe — from an island off the coast of China, to the Philippines to the British Columbian wilderness — they must reunite to stop the Islamic terrorist from doing really bad things on American soil.

I'd love to tell you that because this is an "international thriller," it hums along at breakneck speed. It does, sometimes. Mostly, it doesn't. If you're familiar at all with Stephenson, then you know that "concise" would never be a word used to describe him. Normally, I don't mind verbosity — my favorite writer is David Foster Wallace, for God's sake. But here, a lot of the "information dump" feels really superfluous and really slows down the pace of the novel. Indeed, the last, supposedly high-drama scene, as all the characters find their way back together, takes place in the wilderness of Idaho — and reads like part hiking instructional tome, part gun manual, and part, yes, actual thriller. Also, it takes place over almost 300 pages! THREE HUNDRED PAGES! Just this part could've been it's own freakin' novel.

So I wasn't a fan, but if you're into gaming, guns, the Idaho wilderness, or China, this might be a novel you enjoy much more than I did.

*Apologies to non-geek Stephenson fans, but after suffering through this thousand-page novel, I'm well within my rights to make fun of his notoriously geeky fans, I think.

8 comments:

  1. I am going to tackle this novel sometime in the next few months. I have been deterred by its size but since I finished another very thick book, 1Q84, and finished it, I think I can get this one down too. Keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks for your clear review.

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    1. I wish you the best of luck - it wasn't so much how long this one was (well, mostly it wasn't that), it was that everything Stephenson seemed to explore here in excruciating detail wasn't very interesting to me. So, as I said, others may like it more than me.

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  2. Jesus I can't believe you finished this one. I would have given up after a couple hundred pages.

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    1. Hehe - yeah, but you know my thoughts on DNFing...

      I actually feel so much better about having finished it. ;)

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  3. Thanks for the review. Confirmed my view that Stevenson uses to many words. I tried to read one of the Baroque cycle novels and was impressed by the historical detail but otherwise found the whole thing deeply tedious and lacking any direction and pace.

    May the force be with you.

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    1. Tedious is the perfect word here, too - which isn't a good thing for a novel that is supposed to be a "thriller."

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  4. I've had people recommending Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon to me for what feels like forever, but I've always been hesitant about Stephenson. Not sure I can stomach the too many words and the gamer aspect of all of this, though... and not sure I really want to pick up his backlist, either. I can't believe you finished this; Rachel was right about getting you to embrace the unfinished read!

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    1. There's no embracing the unfinished read! ;) Actually, I really do believe you can't form a complete opinion about a novel until you finish the whole thing. I never would've learned about those gun nuts in the Idaho panhandle had I not plowed through and finished this!

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