Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE, an action-packed roller coaster sparked by an MMORPG-based virus, has all the ingredients of a great thriller. Cunning hackers. A reclusive millionaire. Vengeful Russian mobsters. Heartless Terrorists. The book’s incredible pacing makes its 1000+ pages fly by, and many of the characters are compelling people—individuals we feel we know and care about.
In fact, the only thing truly wrong with Neal Stephenson’s latest book is the palpable absence of Neal Stephensonness. It’s ironic, since there are many elements that bring this book closer to home for Stephenson. It’s not set in the past or on another world. Rather, the events take place just ahead of the present day, with a fair amount of the action in Stephenson’s home territory, the Pacific Northwest.
Nonetheless, as a fan of Stephenson’s work, I found myself missing what I like best about his writing. There’s little world building. Instead, we’re met with what seems like a reality- and morality-free emphasis on stoking the world’s engines of fear and violence that I can only perceive of in this way: Stephenson is really, genuinely trying to write a thriller. Not ironically. Not as a way to telegraph a message about our society and how it should change. Just to entertain. If this was his goal, he’s accomplished it with gusto. It’s an explosive ride, full of action, plot twists, jeopardy and redemption. I couldn’t put it down.
And yet, in retrospect, the book feels like empty calories. Stephenson has done some hard work, most notably in the book’s impressive capacity to build page-turning tension and suspense across long chapters at a time. But there is carelessness, too—in building a male-dominated cast, drawing a strong gender line between what women and men can be good at that leaves most female characters in a reactive or victimized role. In presenting a libertarian-fueling, vigilante fantasy version of patriotism and the war on terrorism, where the roles of good and evil are unexplored and uncomplicated. In celebrating violence with a testosterone-filled catalogue of weaponry deployed that left my amygdala fired up and had me briefly wondering if I should own a gun (a reaction, I might add, that is grossly out of character).
In a story where action is king, the undercurrent of motivation—the core of human complexity—gets little play. This is an essential distinction between this novel and Stephenson’s others. When the sugar buzz of REAMDE wears off, you may miss wish for the return of the deep-thinking, savory and complex Neal Stephenson, a writer whose books have had the power to reverberate like bells, rather than shock and fizzle like firecrackers. By all means, enjoy the ride that REAMDE offers. But then give Anathem or Cryptonomicon a try.