Entertaining contrivance

What little I’ve read of Neal Stephenson’s work has made me want to read more of it, but I don’t really know much about him as a writer. REAMDE certainly wasn’t what I expected from him, being essentially a pastiche of the modern, globe-trotting techno-thriller. I say ‘pastiche’, when it might actually be fairer just to say that it is one, but there is a slight ironic distance and a slightly satirical tone throughout, which I think is there to let us know that he’s playing at this. At the same time, his research is deep and detailed, and betrays a real enthusiasm for the things he includes, guns and gunplay included.

What this book is not is a literary or post-modern reinvention of the thriller. This is not a book to shelve next to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men or Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. Its pleasures are the pleasures of its genre, one which Stephenson clearly enjoys, and to which he has applied the whole of his considerable skill-set with respect and enthusiasm. As such it has a plot to which the notion of plausibility is not really relevant, although Stephenson is careful to make sure that the various mise en scène he contrives are played out as persuasively as possible—I can’t say I’ve fact-checked him, but he certainly gives the impression that he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to special forces techniques, firearms, Chinese street-life, hacking, air transport, hunting, America’s Christian far-right, and all the other topics he touches on in this enormous book.

Some of those topics are ones that I know something about. One of the central characters is the CEO of a game developer/publisher whose one product is an online game in competition with World of Warcraft. The game has been constructed to support an API which enables various uses to be made of it by third parties, such as remote meetings, gamified workflows, and so on. It also supports a considerable real-money economy, and in both of these aspects it actually resembles Second Life rather more than any kind of fantasy game. Stephenson sets it up so that events within the game world are more consequential than they are in any game that would actually be marketed, which imparts a greater sense of peril and narrative weight to those events, and then sets significant parts of the action inside the game. Little of this is really that plausible, but when I used to frequent Second Life (well over a decade ago now), it did occur to me what a handy conduit it could be for criminals to funnel funds around the world, and that is precisely how Stephenson’s fictional game comes into the story.

We spend quite a lot of time looking at the design side of the game’s ongoing development, particularly what it is known in the world of game design as the ‘lore’: its bible of fantasy world design, maps, histories, and spin-off novels. The protagonist has two fantasy authors working for him on the game, and Stephenson takes gleeful delight in ripping the piss out of people like himself… One of them, a Scottish laird and Cambridge historian, insists on writing the first drafts of his stories in the constructed language spoken by his characters—speaking as someone who knows a thing or two about language construction, this is very far from plausible, but it is a very amusing conceit. A couple of that character’s remarks betray the limits of Stephenson’s research (he assumes that an apostrophe always indicates an elision, whereas any real linguist would know that it is sometimes used to stand for a phoneme such as the glottal stop), but there is a vanishingly small pool of readers who would find this immersion-breaking.

The book is an enormous contrivance, a perfectly engineered mechanism designed to bring its characters, its themes, its escalating tension, and its readers’ interest together into the last hundred or so of its one-thousand and forty-two pages. It is so elaborately contrived that I started to see the ending coming several hundred pages out, and I didn’t mind at all, because Stephenson was clearly making no attempts at misdirection—in fact he effectively fills his book with neon signs saying ‘denouement this way’, and then just writes the fuck out of the spaces in between them.

His characters are well drawn and varied, but the kinds of experiences they are having neither afford nor necessitate anything that much resembles character development or subtle shadings of personality. As in Madi, a cyberpunk comic I read a few weeks back, the characters are equipped with some visible distinguishing features if they’re going to be important to the story—the difference here being that, because Stephenson is actually a very skilled writer whether or not he’s on vacation in a commercial genre, those distinguishing features are a lot more fun, imaginative, and cleverly implemented. His ex-Spetsnaz security consultant is so well-endowed with military skills that he requires no other personality features, and it becomes almost a running joke that the only one he has is a chivalric attitude towards women.

I’m not much of a fan of action movies or mainstream thrillers, but obviously I’ll give my time to any book written by Neal Stephenson, and having done so here I found myself enormously entertained. On the limited evidence of the three books I’ve read I’m starting to think that of all the writers I’ve know he most closely resembles the late, lamented Iain Banks, who was also prone to saying ‘screw being serious, lets have some fun for a bit.’ Well in this case, it’s not a bit—it’s for the entirety of a huge volume whose magnitude is usually matched only by epic fantasy novels (of the sort whose authors Stephenson enjoys lampooning here), or hubristically ambitious writers of LitFic. Whether I should really be reading commercial thrillers, or whether it’s just because of the way Stephenson wrote this one that I enjoyed it so much I will probably never know, but I know this much: REAMDE is a hell of a ride.

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