Friday, 21 December 2012

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

I probably haven't had as much fun reading since childhood as I had reading Stephenson's Baroque cycle - Quicksilver, the Confusion and System of the World - a few years back.  It's a huge and ambitious epic set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, taking in science, alchemy, cryptography, politics, exploration and piracy and laced throughout with wit, adventure and nerdy erudition.  His sci-fi monastic tome Anathem is very different but fantastic as well.  And his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, although highly regarded in the genre, is one of the worst books I've ever read.  Really terrible.  REAMDE is certainly no-where near as bad as that, but I wouldn't call it a success.

It starts off really well - the main character is Richard Forthrast, a former cannabis smuggler who's now in charge of the next generation of online games called T'Rain, which appears to be played by a good third of the population of the world.  You get to meet some of his strange family and colleagues and various mysteries and secrets are alluded to. It sort of feels like the begining of one of Ian Banks' family sagas, but with the potential to be even richer, because the virtual world of T'Rain is also so well imagined and thought out.

However it takes a very strange turn.  A couple of strange turns actually. The title refers to a virus which is being used to extort money from players.  This isn't what the story is about, but it does trigger an unpleasant encounter with some Russian gangsters, and then an even more random encounter with some even more unpleasant customers.  There's globetrotting, shootouts, explosions, crash landings, murders - even boondocking in the car parks of Wall Marts like my folks do.  And I hate to be the one to complain like this - but this isn't the book I was looking for.

I think I was mainly disappointed to have Forthrast basically dumped as the main character for much of the book.  What I especially liked was the it looked at his day to day working life.  It showed some of the problems he faced, and who he talked to to sort them out.  You rarely get a novel about a businessman and entrepreneur like this without a deep veneer of sneer.  I wanted more of this, but instead I got very detailed - and very well done - action scenes on the other side of the world.  Except I didn't need all that to be interested in the characters - in fact it felt like a distraction.

I don't know - it's definitely a pretty good thriller, and I know how unfair it is to criticise a book for what it's not rather than what it is.  And it's a hell of a lot better than Snow Crash.  It's just I know Stephenson can write books which are among my favourites of all time, and this is just adequate.

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