Remixing yourself

I just finished Reamde, which I’ve been meaning to pick up and serendipitously ran across at the library on Thursday, just before spending a bunch of time on a plane and then in bed with a cold and a renewed pain in my ankle (probably from selfsame traveling).

I was only about 250 pages in when I realized that this was going to be another one just like Cryptonomicon, where you can’t just stop reading after a decent length of time because he’s suddenly brought in new and interesting characters and you just know that this is going to lead to a final confrontation where everything you’ve learned throughout the book’s meandering among different storylines will come together in interesting and slightly unpredictable ways.

And that’s not the only way it’s like Cryptonomicon. It doesn’t jump back and forth in time, but some of the characters almost fit the same roles — Richard is like Randy, Sokolov is like Bobby Shaftoe; the younger characters play a role much like the Randy-orbit characters do in Cryptonomicon, with Zula being like a projected-forward Amy. There are no five-page discourses on breakfast cereal consumption techniques, but the same discursive style is present, where Stephenson describes each person’s thoughts in various situations in precise detail. Instead of focusing on data havens and encryption, it’s about gold farming, viruses, and terrorism. (Both of them, interestingly, are about the human [dis/in]ability for pattern recognition, and the way that causes events to play out in the real world.)

After a while I developed the theory that it was like a remix of every Stephenson novel in the style of Cryptonomicon. There’s the fascination with China from The Diamond Age, the use of the RV and attitude to suburbia and modern American culture from Snow Crash. The heavy use of, and reference to, West Coast irony compared to Midwestern earnestness that pretty much pervades both. And I started to wonder if it wasn’t done on purpose, like it’s a joke on the readers, or if he really was just being derivative. One thing I’ve noticed about Stephenson novels is that if you ‘get’ them, it makes you think you’re maybe a bit smarter than everyone else, because his writing style is intellectual and clever — he has these nice ways of observing and describing things, and setting things up with these little discourses, so that you think you’re getting some kind of deep and interesting insight. And the characters are clever people, with various emotional hangups that the writing style makes sound profound. But his characters really aren’t all that interesting in most cases, and it’s all layered on top of interesting and well-planned-out but otherwise kind of basic, and occasionally implausible, storylines. Wars, war games, academics, tech industry/politicking. The writing is fancy goat cheese frosting on pretty basic vanilla cake.

In Reamde, the thing I found really perplexing, and which I don’t see anyone mentioning in reviews, is that Marlon’s T’Rain character is a troll named Reamde. If this were really the case, the track that the investigation takes is a bit inexplicable. It’s clear from conversations between Richard and Corvallis that Corporation 9592 has figured out which groups of accounts are involved in activity connected to the virus, although they aren’t planning on taking much action on it — on page 563 they describe it as ‘Chinese hacker kids’, and then Richard asks Corvallis to monitor the group of accounts that have been associated with gold movements in the area. They even figure out (after Richard tasks Corvallis with monitoring the accounts) that there is a liege lord of all these accounts! The name and address are fake, but that doesn’t mean the characters’ names wouldn’t show up on checking out this account (the way it does when Corvallis pulls up Zula and Wallance’s characters). There’s no way that Corvallis, Richard, or anyone else at Corporation 9592 could have failed to finger him specifically as the creator of the virus. They would still have needed to know something about his account, which would not have been easy to find out, but it would have been clear that that specific account was the one to watch, and that’s never really mentioned. This is just flat out nonsensical, and there’s no good reason ever given for it. Why would they never search all the monitored accounts’ character names for anything resembling that string?

This isn’t the only implausibility, but it’s one that just seems incredibly stupid, and easily dealt with even by post-hoc editing. Conclusion: Either Stephenson has exhausted his capabilities as a writer, or chose to deploy them in a way he knew would be successful and enjoyable to his existing readers but not terribly new or profound, and so some of the story construction and editing is sloppy. Either way, disappointing, but not bad. I’ve read a lot of derivative novels in my life and this was one of the more enjoyable ones.

Leave a Reply

Your email will not be published. Name and Email fields are required.