the Little Red Reviewer

not-a-review of Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

Posted on: October 10, 2011

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.

So I don’t have to go thru the plot bits again, please read my first blab on Reamde, found here.  Amazon plot blurb can be found here.

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.

13 Responses to "not-a-review of Reamde, by Neal Stephenson"

I’m only a couple hundred or so pages in to Reamde and so far I’m enjoying it. I do agree that it is more “mainstream” than his last few books, but it reminds me of Zodiac, which I loved, so I haven’t minded so far.


the first half or so is very Zodiac, and I loved loved loved those sections. And then it went into more of a James Patterson thriller direction. Nothing against thrillers or Patterson (I love his stuff), but what I really wanted was 1000 pages of Zodiac-esque nerdy snark.


I’ve been mixed on Stephenson. I loved loved loved Anathem, and I liked Zodiac, but found Cryptonomicron too ponderous and self-important.

I will probably pick this up at some point, but aren’t really in a big rush to.


I recently picked up a copy of Anathem, and even tho I ended up being lukewarm on Reamde, I think Anathem will get read pretty soon. I had similar feelings towards Cryptonomicon. There were parts that I loved, but for entire chunks of that book I wanted to throw it across the room because it annoyed me so much.


Aww. I was hoping for another Snow Crash or Anathem, I admit – what I love about Stephenson is that he takes insanity so far (Sumerian neuro-linguistics hacking brains!) that it comes out the other side into far-fetched and very clever geekiness. I loved Anathem so much (the Faraday cage scene, most of all). Still, I’ll definitely be reading this.


is that he takes insanity so far (Sumerian neuro-linguistics hacking brains!) that it comes out the other side into far-fetched and very clever geekiness

too true! and I love that too. I love the nerdy aspects of his books, how he finds these super geeky connections between things and makes them hella cool. as annoyed as I was by parts of Cryptonomicon, it got me voluntary reading about WWII, and the first Baroque book had me headed back to the library for more non-fiction. and i usually hate reading non-fiction, so that’s a win in my book.


Yep, same! (I was actually just reading some non-fiction because of him – ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter’, actually). Anathem was absolutely my favourite for that.


I’m not sure why, but Stephenson’s books have never been so appealing to me that I want to pick one up to read it. I suspect their length is one big turnoff as I am not generally a fan of the weighty tome. Sounds like if I do so this is the book I would pick up. I do like a good Bond-esque thriller. And by the way the “real” James Bond (the one created by Ian Fleming) is also gadget free.


Try Zodiac. It came out in the 80s, and runs maybe 250-300 pages. It’s got the signature Stephenson geek-outs, without the ridiculous length. You might like Reamde too, just don’t push yourself to read it quick, like I did.


I actually just told my husband about this book. He slogged through Anathem and picked up the entire Baroque Cycle (though he hasn’t read it yet) His latest acquisition was Snow Crash. I’ll eventually get to reading Stephenson…once I’m done with my backlog of books. 🙂


Thanks for the review, Redhead. My first intro to the Stephenson universe was Snow Crash. I appreciated his vision of the future and his ability to describe it as though it were next week. I think I’d be less interested in his writing if it weren’t somehow informative in a similar manner.
Speaking of infodump science and speculative fiction, have you ever heard of Somnium (The Dream), by Johannes Kepler? (Yes, the astronomer.) He wrote a fictional account of a journey to the moon, published all the way back in 1620. Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan regarded it as the first modern science fiction novel.


I have this book on my ‘to read’ list. The only book by Stephenson I’ve read is Cryptonomicon, which I enjoyed a great deal. Eventually I’ll get to Reamde, I hope. Thank you for the insightful review!


Nice review RedHead 🙂 I will pick up this book soon.. thanx for the review..


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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