not-a-review of Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
Posted October 10, 2011on:
Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
published Sept 2011
where I got it: library
why I read it: I suffer from Stephensonitis masochism
It took me a while, but I got through Reamde (a play on words of the ubiquitous readme file that comes with most software), Neal Stephenson’s latest door stopper of a book. This isn’t so much a review as it is a reaction, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A mainstream book review site (Salon? Slate? someone like that) blurbed Reamde as being Stephenson’s most accessible book yet. And it is. No weird futuristic monks or cyberpunk guys with odd names, no generational flashbacks, nothing “weird” or inaccessible on that front. A globe spanning thriller that falls somewhere between a Ludlum style “pick off the bad guys one by one” and a Doctorow-esque “the Chinese gold farmers aren’t the bad guys!” , Reamde is surprisingly normal, or at least normal compared to what I’ve come to expect from Stephenson. It is in a word, it is utterly accessible.
For us Speculative Fiction fans, accessible is the double edged sword of the decade.
On the plus side, accessible means mainstream. It means the book gets much more attention than something labeled “speculative fiction”, or “fantasy” would get. It means people outside our little SF/F niche world (sorry to break it to you, but we are a niche world, and a little one at that) will hear about it. And if you ask me, the more people who know the name Neal Stephenson, the better.
On the not so plus side, accessible means mainstream. It means the book lands on the normal side of the spectrum, instead of the weird side. And us SF/F fans? We tend to prefer our books speculative, strange, and sometimes weird and/or nerdy. One of the best things about reading science fiction is all the fiction that’s about science!
If you’ve always looked at those massive toe-breaking Neal Stephenson books, read the back and thought to yourself “this is too strange for me”, then Reamde is the Stephenson for you. Filled with James Bond style action (complete with three letter agencies and James Bond jokes, but hold the gadgets) and gun toting fundamentalist whack jobs with helicopters, there is nothing in Reamde that couldn’t happen with existing technologies, even the perfectly put together deus ex machina moment. If you enjoy fast paced contemporary thrillers you will love Reamde.
However, if you’re like me and cut your Stephenson teeth on Cryptonomicon or Baroque Cycle and got off the nerdgasm a-ha moment infodumps on such things as the development of trade and banking in Europe, cryptography, social structures, New World exploration and politics, and science and alchemy, Reamde may simply bore you, as it lacks those chapter spanning infodumps that masochistically kept you coming back for more.
I fell somewhere in between. I always appreciate a good thriller, and Stephenson’s writing style never disappoints. His characters are well drawn, fully developed, and we get enough background to understand why they do the things they do. But this is Stephenson. He’s my go- to guy for connective infodumps regarding the nature of well, everything, and while I had a good time with the fast paced thriller aspects, I could have used some more nerdyness and a little less mainstream. As the nerdy bits happened less often and the action sequences took center stage, I found myself falling less and less in love with Reamde.
I’ve always considered Stephenson to be a speculative fiction writer, which in my mind screams “SF”. I need to start realizing he’s just a guy who writes books. Books that are increasingly hard to categorize.