It's a Small World After All

Why Neal Stephenson Doesn't Play World of Warcraft Anymore

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NEAL STEPHENSON Separating war-ravaged inferno from chillastic gore storm.
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The impetus behind Neal Stephenson's excellent new novel, Reamde, is a childhood love of the thrillers of Alistair MacLean, the author, Stephenson explains, of "Where Eagles Dare, that sort of thing. I think he wrote The Guns of Navarone." There's a pause. Even over the phone, I can hear the nagging sensation of a slippery bit of trivia gnawing at his frontal cortex. "I'm going to google him while I'm talking to you," he says, and then there's the clicking of a keyboard. Google confirms MacLean's authorship of The Guns of Navarone, and adds Ice Station Zebra besides.

Of course, the world that Stephenson describes in his book is fundamentally different than the world of Alastair MacLean. The protagonist of Reamde, Richard Forthrast, is a Vietnam draft dodger, marijuana smuggler, and creator of a World of Warcraft–like MMORPG (that's massively multiplayer online role-playing game, for those without a crippling Dorito addiction) named T'Rain. After the historical fiction of the Baroque Cycle and the space operatics of Anathem, Reamde is Stephenson's first book in well over a decade to be set in contemporary times, and his first in almost two decades to take place in Seattle and the Northwest, where Stephenson lives. Or at least, it begins and ends in the Northwest, while traveling, MacLean-like, around the world. But the globe that the book spans is much smaller than MacLean's world—all the characters, including radical jihadists, Chinese hackers, Russian mafiosi, and British spies, are connected by ubiquitous internet cafes, affordable international jet travel, and the cell phones they're constantly prodding and poking. Next to Where Eagles Dare's analog thrills, Reamde might as well be science fiction. (Even the name of the book is influenced by technology; the jumbled title—Stephenson pronounces it "ream-dee"—comes from a Chinese computer virus hidden inside a misspelled document.)

Which is not to say that members of the sprawling cast of Reamde are chilly or robotic. There are plenty of visceral thrills—hostage situations, car chases, shootouts, cold-blooded murders, domestic invasions, suicide bombers, helicopter crashes—and more complex intellectual pursuits to be puzzled out. Stephenson seems to be enjoying the ride, displaying a metatextual glee—"Reader, they bought his IP," he writes in an early description of how Forthrast went from a criminal to an internet mogul—and a darkly satirical edge that has been missing from his most recent work. He quotes a daily electronic newspaper published in T'Rain that reports on a virtual war's mortality count reaching the 1,000,000 percent mark: "The one million percent benchmark is considered by analysts to be an important psychological barrier that separates a war-ravaged inferno from a chillastic gore storm." This lighter hand helps disarm the intimidation inherent in hacker-friendly bits of dialogue like "Some compilers will mess with the object code to make it harder to decompile."

Even at a thousand pages, Reamde is sprightly enough to jump between 9 or 10 plot threads without getting tangled and tripped up in itself, and, refreshingly, it does so without employing the annoying modern thriller trend of rat-a-tat sprays of two-page chapters. Stephenson explains the tricky real-world relationship between China and the Philippines with the same intelligent buoyancy he displays in his description of the aforementioned apocalyptic virtual war, which erupts over a disagreement about color palettes. The cleaning and care of obscure Russian automatic rifles feel as integral to some characters as is, for others, the ritual of setting up a pee bucket and mountains of junk food by a computer in preparation for a marathon game session. (Stephenson played World of Warcraft for a time, but he abandoned it because "this is maybe way too much information, but your character at first can go around alone and make progress and beyond a certain point, you need to work with other people," and he wasn't willing to align his weird writer's schedule or his temperament with "a random 10-year-old on the other side of the planet.")

These interplays between wildly different motivations, and the ascent from a relatively harmless computer virus into an international hostage situation, make for an addictive reading experience. You don't so much read the book as tear whole hundred-page chunks out of it with your eyes. The publicity for Reamde is thick with one particular word, hailing it as Stephenson's most "accessible" book yet. "I chuckled when I saw that," he says. "I think it's just a code word for 'this is not science fiction.' Anathem was science fiction with big ideas in it and I think [publisher William Morrow is] just trying to say 'this is not one of those.'"

But it's not "just" an airplane-friendly thriller, either. Reamde focuses on our time in a way that only a science-fiction-minded author can. Stephenson's voracious brain is always eyeing cultural and global trends, and though Reamde is more reportorial than his speculative work like, say, Snow Crash, it still represents a world you've never seen before. recommended

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Reverse Polarity 1
I can't wait to read this. Stephenson is one of my very favorite authors.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on September 21, 2011 at 10:39 AM · Report this
I gave him a shot, last year. I really wanted to like Cryptonomicon, but the following sentence poisoned the well: "Half an hour later, they are doing tongue judo in the back of a horse-drawn taxi galloping over the cobblestones toward the nightclubs of Malete." (57)

The phrase "Tongue Judo" rotted in my soul for 650 pages more, but I kept reading because the content was interesting and I like intrigue and spy-stuff. Then there was the "Mary-fucking" chapter and I decided that the author was stuck in junior high. I think he's super-smart and catchy, but I'm still baffled that people consider him a good writer. And I am a reader of genre fiction.
Posted by Jude Fawley on September 25, 2011 at 8:33 PM · Report this
TacomaRoma 3
I've read his stuff in the past and some of it I enjoyed very much. Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon were both fun, to a point.

When his writing is at its best it's hilarious and thrilling, full of rich description and truly engaging characters. When it's at it's worst, it's mysoginistic and boring, full of overly complex descriptions of things that he seems to not really understand himself. For example, cryptography in Cryptonomicon, and women and money in his Baroque Cycle books. Both of those books could have benefitted greatly from a strong-handed editor.

However, these sins are minor compared to the one thing Stephenson cannot seem to do: write a satisfying ending to any fiction he has written. Any fiction I have ever read by him just stops on the last page. There's no conclusion, no closure and no satisfaction in finishing a Stephenson book. You're left there at the last page, sure you must have missed something in the previous chapter that explained what just happened. But you haven't. It was never there.

Personally, I'm going to leave this one on the shelf, but thanks for the review, Paul. As always, you deliver.
Posted by TacomaRoma on September 26, 2011 at 12:37 PM · Report this
I read it. It swallowed up the entire weekend and I couldn't put it down (I'm a slow reader and it is 1000+ pages long). It's good.
Posted by RVPMB on September 26, 2011 at 1:20 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 5
I've been unwilling to finish any of his shorter stuff. At 1000 pages, I doubt this is the one that will break the trend.

I"ll read the free portion on the Kindle. If you can't hook someone in that span, there's probably a basic problem with your storytelling.
Posted by Free Lunch on September 26, 2011 at 7:47 PM · Report this
Stephenson needs a better editor for his fiction, but the best thing he ever wrote was a long - very long - non-fiction feature for Wired magazine in 1996 (when Wired was still sort-of relevant.)

It's called Mother Earth Mother Board and is about the laying of FLAG (Fiber-optic Link Around the Globe), a relatively early and important trans-oceanic cable system. This sounds like a deeply dry topic, but the article decidedly isn't. Anyone wishing to understand the difference between the internet and magic without having to learn a bunch of technical jargon should read it.…
Posted by momb on September 26, 2011 at 10:26 PM · Report this
... baffled that people consider him a good writer.

His descriptions of real places (The Phillippine islands, of your quote) and fictional places (Qwghlm) really define the world for his reader. Creating a world is an important part of the novelist's craft.

For example, cryptography in Cryptonomicon...

What part of cryptography did he not understand?

However, these sins are minor compared to the one thing Stephenson cannot seem to do: write a satisfying ending to any fiction he has written. Any fiction I have ever read by him just stops on the last page. There's no conclusion, no closure and no satisfaction in finishing a Stephenson book.

Well, Anathem ended with the first day of an entirely new era on Arbre, with the protagonists building something unprecedented; all of Arbre's previous eras had ended with the sudden and violent destruction of the existing order.

Both novels were ~1,000 page works about philosophy, with plenty of (for me, anyway) laugh-out-loud jokes. ("No, a scone is a small cake.") How often do we encounter philosophical humor?
Posted by tensor on September 26, 2011 at 11:09 PM · Report this

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