Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

'REAMDE' by Neal Stephenson

Anyone who has read Stephenson's latest knows it's not a historical novel. So, I'm straying somewhat from this blog's purported theme by writing about it. Stephenson has, however, written some of my favorite historical novels (The Baroque Trilogy, Cryptonomicron), so it's perhaps not that large of a departure. Without going into a plot summary, let's just stipulate that the novel is set in the very-near-future, containing nothing which can't become reality in the next few years. So, some of the same criteria normally used for historicals can be applied to REAMDE. Specifically, how accurate is the novel's portrayal of the current world?

Any story line that brings on-line fantasy gamers and hackers together with Russian mobsters and radical Islamic terrorists must be read with some suspension of disbelief. That is, however, part of the point of the novel. In an increasingly interconnected world, the strangest bedfellows are only separated by a few mouse-clicks. The cascade of unlikely events that bring all these characters together sometimes has a Keystone Cops air that can be humorous and horrific at the same time. Regular readers will, of course, recognize such deeply ironical juxtapositions as a Stephenson specialty. The factual basis underpinning the plausibility of the story is mostly very solid - another quality we've come to expect from Stephenson. The man does his research. I learned lots of new stuff about hacking, computer gaming, modern small-arms, China and the Pacific Northwest.

The one aspect of the plot that seemed like a big stretch was the idea that an Al Qaeda terrorist leader could unexpectedly arrive in a remote region of northern Idaho and, within a few days, find a dozen accomplices already living in the U.S. ready, willing and able to join him and become part of a terrorist/suicide operation. Maybe I'm not sufficiently pananoid, but I don't buy it. The 9-11 attacks, for instance, required years of careful planning and preparation. On the other hand, those late recruits were not essential to the story. The extra guns just allowed for a bigger shoot-out at the book's climax.

In the end, despite the abundant entertainment value, I found the novel mildly disappointing. That would not be true if the author were not Neal Stephenson. REAMDE lacks the really mind-bending ideas of his SF novels, or even of The Baroque Trilogy. In the end, it's a fairly standard modern techno-thriller with the requisite large doses of guns, explosions and chase scenes. Stephenson doesn't spend much time on sex scenes, so that guilty pleasure is missing. Still, it was a fun ride and I was sorry when I reached the last page.