Neal Stephenson’s 1999 Cryptonomicon is a doorstopper (918 pps). So too is 2008’s Anathem (937 pps). 2003-2004’s Baroque Cycle is borderline encyclopedic (averaging 878 pps each across the three volumes). Packed with truly varied and sundry points of interest, cultural observations, history (esoteric,imagined, and otherwise), conjecture, humorous digressions, and dynamic, interwoven storylines, the books may be lengthy, but they are rich, enjoyable reads. 2011’s Reamde, though weighing in at a similar 1044 pages, has a very different verve.
In interviews, Stephenson states that with Reamde, he wanted to get back to basics and write a good, old-fashioned thriller. I will discuss the meaning of ‘thriller’ in a bit, but for the moment will give Stephenson the credit of having accomplished his goal. More Robert Ludlum meets Charles Stross than the quirky, unique perspectives on science fiction that have defined Stephenson’s oeuvre thus far, the novel’s aura is indeed his most mainstream to date. About a scam run inside an online game, the effects ripple until the Russian mafia, terrorists, and game developers are caught up in a worldwide chase involving murder, shootouts, spies, light romance, intrigue, and revenge. All the familiar game pieces of the genre in place, Reamde delivers on expected content.
But it’s precisely in the realm of content, quality that is, that Reamde wavers from common course. Stephenson deliberately taking his time to unpack every moment and situation, there were many times I commented to myself: ‘This thriller would be more thrilling if it didn’t beat around every bush.’ As it stands, Reamde moves like an escalator, never faster. There is an action “scene” about one-third of the way through that lasts for roughly two-hundred pages, and a major 250-300 page “scene” that closes the novel. But the actual action could have easily been pared down to less than half that—and made all the more exciting for it. Arm movements, twitches of the eye, measurements of nearby tables or piers are described in constant, plodding detail. I’m aware there are readers who enjoy such a tactile level of exposition. If you are, then Reamde is perfect for you. I’m also aware a thriller need not move a mile-a-minute to fulfill its mandate. It’s just when a narrative slogs through its action sequences in the same monotone voice that it relates all other aspects of the story, that the excitement level drops. See the following excerpt from said first action “scene”:
Sokolov rolled out onto his feet, pulling the garbage bag behind him. He executed a 360-degree pirouette, scanning in all directions for witnesses. Seeing none, he completed another spin, moving faster, and let go of the garbage bag. It flew about four meters and sank in water that probably would not have come up to the middle of his thigh, had he been so unwise as to wade into it. But that was enough to conceal the bag perfectly, since this water was not easy to see through, and the bag was black. (369)
In Cryptonomicon, Anathem, or the Baroque Cycle this same textual interstice would have been filled with an entertaining/educational tidbit, elided, converted into brilliant simile, or spun in some other, more interesting direction. In Reamde it is as it is: spurious detail, resulting in a 400 page novel stretched to 1000 pages. Not so thrilling.
I can’t help but compare Reamde to Charles Stross’ Halting State (2007)—another techno-thriller about a crime perpetrated inside a massive multiplayer online game, and the subsequent fallout amongst lawyers, forensic programmers, game developers, insurance underwriters, government agents, and secret police. A fast paced and occasionally humorous story, Stross tells his tale in a relatively economical 351 pages. Apparently not having read the Stross novel, Stephenson wrote something very similar premise-wise, only triple the length.
Has Stephenson lost it? I think not. There are occasional bits of humor that remind the reader why Cryptonomicon can be so delicious. (My favorite would have to be the epic fantasy writer and his trailer park paradise of pulp production.) There are still the occasional digressions into little niches of info Stephenson hopes the reader will find as interesting as he does. Nothing is left hanging; the numerous plot points that develop are tied up satisfactorily. But most importantly, every writer reserves the right to change things up and write something different. For Stephenson, that book is Reamde. As long and monotonous as it is, that’s the way he wanted it.
(And just in case you’re looking at the cover and wondering who wrote the novel, yes, it was NEAL STEPHENSON, the title incidental.)