I struggled for quite some time trying to figure out how to start this review. And I do mean struggled. There were unicorns involved. You don’t want to know.
The problem I face is that while some books are door stoppers, Reamde is closer to being an actual door, and there is much to both love and hate in its vast pantheon of pages. So for the sake of simplicity I’m going to start with the beginning. Not the opening scene, mind you, I’m talking about the first thing you’ll see when you lay eyes on this book. The cover.
Now do my eyes deceive me or does that word there were the title should be say Reamde? It does? So would it then be a safe assumption to believe that something called Reamde is going to be central to the plot of the book? Yes, I thought so too.
But. It. Isn’t. (Due to the sad limitations of typography you’re going to have to imagine me saying this through clenched teeth.)
Reamde, a computer virus designed to infect a World of Warcraft-style game call T’rain is a complete MacGuffin. It’s like a flint that lights the story’s fire, but does not ever actually become part of that fire.
Now normally I wouldn’t mind this so much. But in a sense Reamde is for me an emblem of the biggest problem with the whole book.
See, Neal Stephenson has a niche of sorts. He’s a writer for geeks. There is nothing at all wrong with this. But because he has begun his career as a keeper of the keys to literary nerdvana I imagine he feels some pressure to continue playing to that audience as much as he can. Which is the only reason I can fathom for his insistence on including large portions of his book to detailing the workings and operations of a computer game that has nothing to do with the actual story.
And I’m not talking about a few throwaway references here and there. I’m talking about nearly a third of a thousand-plus-page book being devoted to something that never advances the story one iota. And the frustrating thing is that because of the bulk of time given to the T’rain/Reamde plotline, it feels like its going to matter. It feels important.
I was ready for it to be important. My writing brain was doing all kinds of geeking out wondering how Neal Stephenson was going to tie all this together at the end. And then he didn’t. Instead after hundreds of pages devoted to T’rain, the whole thread finally peters out with one of the characters actually saying, “Well, that was a colossal waste of time.”
Which is a shame, because if you push aside all that nonsense about digital terrain creation and using gaming for airport security there is a really good book in there. It’s got gangsters and hackers and terrorists; it’s got spies and Russian security consultants and gun nuts so far right-wing that the Tea Party wouldn’t know what to do with them. It’s got twists like you wouldn’t believe, cliff hangers that will leave you gasping for breath, and and the coolest bad guy this side of Darth Vader.
In short, this is a fat book with a skinny book inside trying to get out. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Just take my advice and skip over anything at all related to T’rain; it’s nothing more than a long and treacherous path that leads to a dead end in a valley without a view.