Thursday, October 20, 2011

REAMDE: A review.

Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE is a near contemporary action adventure novel of considerable length (1044 pages).

Stephenson is an extremely well known author; one generally considered to fall within the science fiction genre, although not all of his books are classical science fiction. We discussed an essay of his a short time ago.

The novel’s variety of settings is extremely broad. There are number of somewhat normal settings in Seattle, Iowa, Idaho, and the Canadian province of British Columbia. It also spends considerable time in the City of Xiamen China (on mainland across from Taiwan), and the Philippines. The unusual setting include homesteader-survivalist compounds and the electronic-imaginary terrain of a vast role playing gaming set within what is known as a “massively multi-player online role-playing game” (MMORPG) , called T’Rain.

The book plays the not uncommon game within the adventure novel genre of tracking a number of characters movements to bring them all together for a grand finale. The book actually almost does this twice, at a first meeting for most of the characters in China starting at Day 4 around page 254, and then again at the end of the novel. As with most adventure novels, there is a fare amount of phony baloney coincidence and good luck to make this happen.

There is the usual tendency for the major good guys to suffer injuries or abuse, but the bad guys to wind up dead. The indestructible super bad guy of course is a much tougher nut to crack, and uses up most of his nine-lives in a lot of fortuitous good luck. There are some elements of luck-odd circumstances as to almost wonder if we are to take some of this to be some sort of magical realism ploy within a techno-punk setting.

The major characters in the book are all unattached adults. None of them need to worry about getting home to the wife and kids. Almost all of them have in at least some tenuous way an entrepreneurial life style. This tends to make for some very interesting engagements between some pretty sharp actors. But reality it is not.

A lot of time early in the book is taken with setting up the world of game company “Corporation 9592” with very little of it seeming to get much use latter in the novel. There are some attempts to set up parallels between the wars fought in the imaginary T’Rain world and those fought in the real world. Given the cast of characters lack of attachments, this may seem plausible within the world of this novel, but seems problematic when applied to the real world. To say that the wars in Afghanistan (or Northern Ireland, or…) are simply artifices of made-up tribes, is simply to ignore not only a number of very real issues, but also flies in the face of the group nature of human society. Only in the highly disconnected individualistic, overweight, over medicated culture of (some parts of) the West, would this seem like a plausible argument.

There are a lot of themes within the book that do ring very true. The entrepreneurial nature of the Chinese gamers who play the games to find or earn valuable items that the can sell to Westerners who do not have the time or inclination to do the grunge work themselves.

Granted that good guys tend to be injured whereas bad guys tend to die in the fire fights, the attrition nature of small arms combat is reasonably well played out. There is very little heavy ordinance and lots of shots being fired. Given that the bad guys do not appeared to have worked together as a military unit, I think the author over estimates the advantage that they would have over determined civilians. In a general engagement that only involve small arms, when the civilians stand and fight, it usually comes down to numbers. The author is a bit overly dismissive of the survivalist-homesteaders capabilities. Obviously they would be slaughtered, by a disciplined unit with machine guns and grenade launchers, but that is not what they are facing.

So would I recommend it? Yes, it meanders around through all sorts of territory, and is about as fast paces as a 1000+ page book can be. I don’t agree with some of the authors overarching themes, but that does not mean that the ride is not a fun one. A fun ride where you will a little bit of unusual knowledge along the way is one I would be willing to take again.

As to our usual descriptive (not qualitative) assessments: It is hard to rate on grittiness, because it has a bit of a gritty magical realism feel. I think the magic tends to weigh down the veneer of realism in the end so I am going to say (scale of 1 to 7: with seven high) it is a 5. For readability, I am going to say that it is a five. It is not a light read, and it is long. These are not necessarily bad, but I know a number of people that might like many of the themes within the book, but would have a very daunting task getting through the whole book. Which I guess is my way of saying that it is about as engaging as a 1000+ page book that is actually trying to say something can be.

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