Like many Stephenson novels, Reamde has a large cast of characters that only seems to proliferate over the book's thousand-page span. Two characters, however, act as its lynchpins. Richard Forthrast is a draft dodger turned marijuana smuggler turned ski resort manager turned MMORPG entrepreneur. Zula Forthrast is his twentysomething niece, a recent college graduate who has taken a job with Richard's company. Richard is the creator of the World of Warcraft-esque T'Rain, whose most unusual characteristic--and possibly the root of its success--is that instead of discouraging gold farming and persecuting the players who do it, it courts them and their business by incorporating economic and profit-generating activities into the game, and by making it very easy to convert game currency into the real-world variety. This also makes T'Rain a popular vector for money-laundering, a deliberate choice by the somewhat shady Richard. As Reamde opens, however, T'Rain is being rocked by the War of Realignment, a player rebellion in which the game-imposed conflict between Good and Evil is discarded in favor of a conflict between those players who have hacked their characters' appearance to display garish colors (the Forces of Brightness) and those who have stuck with the game's official, more sedate palette (the Earthtone Coalition). Zula, meanwhile, is launched into a world of trouble by her boyfriend, Peter, a former hacker who has tried to get out from under a crippling mortgage by selling credit card numbers to mobsters. Unfortunately, his contact turns out to be an avid T'Rain player, and the transfer of goods coincides with the outbreak of the virus that gives the novel its name, which encrypts every piece of data on the infected computer and holds them for ransom. The numbers' intended recipient, a Russian called Ivanov, swoops in and kidnaps Zula and Peter, forcing them to help him track down the virus's creators. These turn out to be in China, living next door to an Al Qaeda cell led by Abdallah Jones, the most wanted terrorist in the world, and when Ivanov's strike against the hackers accidentally rousts and destroys that cell, Zula ends up in Jones's clutches.
Just from that plot description, it's pretty easy to see what Reamde's core flaw is. One of Stephenson's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to make the most minute details of the most mundane topics seem endlessly fascinating, but even he can't convincingly argue that we should feel equally fascinated by, on the one hand, operational hiccups in the running of an online role-playing game, and on the other hand, a character who is kidnapped by a terrorist and becomes part of his plan to carry out an attack on US soil. What's interesting, though, is that for a significant portion of Reamde it's actually Richard's strand that is more engaging, more obviously Stephenson-ian. As he delves into Richard's history and the genesis of T'Rain, Stephenson produces a familiar blend of outrageous (if, quite often, highly stereotypical) personalities and situations--a biker gang with the unlikely name of Septentrion Paladins, a home-schooled geology maven with (of course) Asperger's Syndrome. One high concept set-piece, which later becomes known as the apostropocalypse, involves a tense dinner table confrontation between the two fantasy authors whom Richard has engaged to craft T'Rain's mythology--Donald Cameron, a technophobic Cambridge don who writes the first drafts of his novels in the invented language spoken by their characters, and Devin Skraelin, his American counterpart whose prose is as inelegant as his output is prolific, and who is so fat he can barely fit through the door of his trailer--during which Donald ruthlessly extracts, on the grounds of their having no philological justification, most of the apostrophes that Devin has so liberally sprinkled through T'Rain's species and place names. At the core of all this zaniness, however, are deeply practical and businesslike motivations, and when Richard stops to explain how T'Rain has been designed from the bottom up to appeal to gold-mining Chinese teenagers, and, more broadly, to allow its users to find their own applications for its money-changing capabilities, we get a strong sense of how an inherently silly enterprise like T'Rain can be deadly serious at its core
That bedrock of practicality is missing from the early portions of Zula's plot strand, which tries to hang a lantern on the irrationality of Ivanov's behavior--he could easily have ransomed his data for a piddling sum, but instead embarks on an international murder and kidnapping spree--but can't quite get out from under it, and this contributes to the imbalance between Zula's story and Richard's. When Jones turns up, however, he raises the stakes to a point that seems to justify the absurdity of everything happening to and around Zula. It's at this point, also, that Zula's plot strand fractures into several points of view--Sokolov, Ivanov's increasingly dubious security consultant who conceives protective feelings towards Zula and pursues her after she's kidnapped by Jones; Csongor, a Hungarian hacker recruited by Ivanov to help find the virus's creator; Marlon, that selfsame creator; Yuxia, a young Chinese peddler employed as a guide by Ivanov and forced to participate in his plot; Olivia, an MI6 agent on Jones's tail; and Seamus, an American ex-soldier and security wonk stationed in the Philippines, also in pursuit of Jones--who scatter in the wake of the disastrous attack on Marlon's operation and the (literally) explosive destruction of Jones's cell, each to their own involved adventure. Even as Richard's story is winding down--we have, by this point, covered all of T'Rain's origin story and are just marking time making slow and desultory progress with Reamde and the War of Realignment--the China-set portion of the novel starts delivering attacks, escapes, chases, and fights, all of which are very well done. It's hard not to resent being taken away from all this fun and derring-do to catch up with Richard who, still blissfully unaware of Zula's disappearance, is mostly concerned with things that now seem utterly beside the point.
When he does realize that something has happened to Zula, Richard naturally drops these matters to concentrate on finding her, which has several unfortunate effects on the novel. First, it means that everything that's happened in the T'Rain strand quickly becomes irrelevant. Richard sets events in motion that might resolve the War of Realignment, but this resolution, if it happens, happens off-page, and what's more important, neither the characters nor the readers actually care about it. Second, Richard, who in the novel's earlier chapters had been a wellspring of new, inventive bits of information as Stephenson introduced us to T'Rain and its storied history, is suddenly behind the curve. He spends the rest of Reamde playing catch up, deducing Zula's movements hundreds of pages after we'd witnessed them (in one case, he is on the verge of flying to China, several days after Zula has left it, and Stephenson has to parachute Olivia in to inform him of this). Third, and most importantly, almost everything that's fun and engaging about Stephenson as a writer fades from the novel. As T'Rain and all other discussions of technology are sidelined, Reamde devolves from a technothriller to a plain thriller, and not a terribly thrilling one at that. The China segment turns out to have been the highpoint of the novel. As Zula and the other characters make their way back to North America the novel frequently becomes bogged down in long, tedious passages--a play by play description of Jones and his cohorts soundproofing a bedroom for Zula in an RV they've stolen reads like a home improvement manual; the frequent descriptions of the Canadian wilderness in which they camp, like particularly dull travel writing. The novel's final sequence, in which the entire cast converges on Richard's old marijuana smuggling route, which Jones plans to use to get into the US from Canada, feels interminable--too many characters spread out over too many locations, all doing essentially the same thing, trying to stay alive and kill terrorists (and, along the way, indulging in some strange and completely avoidable continuity errors--Olivia, who introduced herself to Richard and his brothers under an assumed name, is greeted by them by her real one; Richard meets Seamus in real life and forgets that they met in T'Rain only a few days ago). There's very little tension--even if Stephenson had given the impression of being willing to kill major sympathetic characters, he rarely puts them in enough danger to warrant that concern--and the only nagging question is who gets to kill Jones, which Stephenson takes forever to answer. It's a damp squib of a conclusion to a story that has worn out its welcome by hundreds of pages.
Reamde's prevailing concern--and the only theme that seems to tie the T'Rain and kidnapping strands to one another--is with tribalism. In the T'Rain story, the War of Realignment has divided those tribes along objectively meaningless lines, as Richard tries to argue to Devin--who, Richard suspects, has sparked the war in an attempt to wrest control of T'Rain's mythology from Donald. Devin responds that it was the original division written into the game, between Good and Evil, that was meaningless--Good and Evil players, he points out, did exactly the same things but were still classed in different groups. The current dispute, according to Devin, actually reflects a true, ingrained division between T'Rain's players.
you did it yourself when you saw the billboard at the airport. "Ugh! Blue hair! How tasteless!" ... it has been the case for a long time that those people we have lately started calling the Earthtone Coalition have always looked at the ones we now call the Forces of Brightness and seen them as tacky, uncultured, not really playing the game in character. And what happened in the last few months was the F.O.B types just got tired of it and rose up and, you know, asserted their pride in their identity, kind of like the gay rights movement with those goddamned rainbow flags.That reference to gay rights aside, what Devin is essentially talking about is some strange commingling of class and the culture wars. It's a division that the rest of the novel keeps returning to, whether in the familiar guise of the red/blue state divide--on her way to the American end of Richard's smuggling route in rural Idaho, Olivia passes through a town that "had all the indicia--brewpub, art gallery, Pilates, Thai restaurant--of a place where Blue State people would go to enjoy a high standard of living while maintaining nonstop connectivity and assuaging their guilty consciences in re global warming, fair trade, and the regrettable side effects of Manifest Destiny"--or in more exotic forms--musing about a split in his gold-mining group, Marlon reflects that "really it boiled down to pride. Some of the miners were ashamed that they were living in crowded apartments and doing this kind of work for a living ... Marlon's group, on the other hand, was fine with what they were doing. They saw it as no worse than any other occupation"--and ultimately serves to tie the two plot strands, however loosely, together. Where T'Rain's players reject a division between Good and Evil for being arbitrary and choose to focus on cultural differences, the real-world strand--whose action scenes grow increasingly video game-like as the novel progresses--sees characters from disparate backgrounds, including Richard's survivalist brother Jake and his neighbors, setting their cultural differences aside to join together in the fight against Jones's evil.
Which sounds like a heartening message, but this is to ignore how muddled, and how frequently dismissive, Stephenson's handling of tribalism is. What the intersection of class, cultural preferences, interests, and opinions that distinguishes approved characters from mockable ones boils down to is a distinction that Stephenson has made before, between Doers and Talkers, those who are concerned with concrete matters and those who natter on about meaningless ones. But that's a false distinction that doesn't hold up very well, even in a universe that Stephenson has built to support it. When she's first kidnapped, Zula muses that Peter and Csongor, having made their own way in the world
had a kind of confidence about [them] that was not often found in young men who had followed the recommended path through high school to college and postgraduate training ... This quality that she had seen in Peter and now saw in Csongor was--and she flinched from the word, but there seemed little point in trying to distance herself from it through layers of self-conscious irony--masculine. And along with it came both good and bad. She saw the same quality in some of the men of her family, most notably Uncle Richard.Bear in mind, as Zula is thinking this, she's in the clutches of Russian gangsters, and has her confident, "masculine" boyfriend to blame for that predicament. And yet despite her sop to the potential negative effects of "masculinity" (here defined as competence and confidence, even though there are plenty of competent, confident women in the novel), it is for the most part held up as a positive--when Peter, later in the novel, turns out to be a coward and abandons Zula, the narrative suddenly decides that he is stupid and lacks a firm grasp on his situation. Zula is exasperated with him (and Csongor, who admittedly is portrayed more positively) for "trying to solve the technical problem of locating the [hacker]. Which might have been Ivanov's problem, but wasn't theirs. Theirs was Ivanov." And Sokolov muses that "Peter would, sooner or later, do something stupid and cause enormous trouble. Peter would do this because he believed he was clever and thought only of himself."
What Stephenson is doing is trying to depict competence as a function of character. When really it's almost always a situational trait--a person may be extraordinarily competent in one setting and helpless in another, may have a firm grasp of their situation in one instance, and a completely unrealistic confidence in their abilities in another. Reamde, which valorizes confidence and the general competence that has been a hallmark of, yes, masculinity, in all of Stephenson's novels, doesn't quite know what to do when that confidence turns out to have been unfounded. In Peter's case, its response is to decide that he must not have been terribly masculine--which is to say, competent, intelligent, possessed of a firm grip on reality--to begin with. But in Richard's case, Stephenson's approach is to double down, to continue to insist that Richard is, as Zula thinks of him, the epitome of masculinity, even as he piles on the evidence to the contrary.
Most of the reviews I've read of Reamde have found Richard charming or heroic, but to my mind he is one of Stephenson's most aggravating creations, if only because it's not at all clear whether we're meant to be aggravated by him. Richard is a perpetual fish out of water--a black sheep among his staid, law-abiding, Midwestern family, but too steeped in their values to fit in among West Coast liberals or his fellow board members. In another man, this perennial ambivalence might have led to humility, a willingness to see the other guy's point of view. Richard uses it as a justification for feeling superior to everyone around him--to his Red State relations and his Blue State colleagues, to the fuddy-duddy Donald and the trailer trash Devin, to the Forces of Brightness and the Earthtone Coalition, to his young, gadget- and Facebook-obsessed cousins and his old, computer-illiterate ones. It is "a belief that had been inculcated in him from the get-go," we are told, "that there was an objective reality, which all people worth talking to could observe and understand, and that there was no point in arguing about anything that could be so observed and so understood." But for Richard, that objective reality seems to mean whatever he thinks about the world, as when he loftily explains to Zula why T'Rain, a game aimed as much at Asian customers as Western ones, draws solely from Western mythology.
"Elves and dwarves, c'mon, how could you be so Eurocentric?" Zula said.Something I haven't mentioned yet about Zula is that she was born in Eritrea, orphaned during the war with Ethiopia, taken to a refugee camp, adopted from there by Richard's sister and brother-in-law, and raised in Ohio where she spent a portion of her teenage years calling herself Sue. So it's likely that she has a better grasp than Richard on the whole issue of cultural imperialism and its effects. And yet she doesn't call him on the enormous straw man he just dropped in her lap. Which is, in a nutshell, the core of my frustration with Richard--he is so obviously a buffoon that it seems impossible that Stephenson hasn't written him so deliberately, and yet the narrative never calls him on it. What are we to make, for example, of Richard's repeated musing, in the novel's early chapters, that he doesn't want to come off as creepy in his attentions to Zula? Surely Stephenson realizes that this is creepy in and of itself, and yet nothing is made of it after Zula's kidnapping, and Richard ends the novel by stepping into a more prominent parental role in her life.
"Exactly, but in a way it's almost more patronizing to the Chinese to assume that, just because they are from China, they can't relate to elves and dwarves."
Contributing to my confusion over how Reamde intends for us to see Richard is its treatment of Sokolov, who is in many ways Richard's opposite. Where Richard has happily curdled into a middle aged complacency that mistakes his perspective for "objective reality," Sokolov is defined by his ability to sympathize with those who are different from him and get into their heads: "Sokolov owed his life--his survival in Afghanistan, in Chechnya--to his ability to see things through the eyes of the adversary ... This reversal of perspective was not always easy. One frequently had to work at it for some days, observing the other, gathering data, even conducting little experiments to see how the other reacted to things." (Richard, meanwhile, whose ex-girlfriend "had barely been able to make through a paragraph without invoking the O-word ... always writhed uncomfortably during O-word conversations, since he had the general feeling, which he could not quite prove, that certain people used it as a kind of intellectual duct tape.") We get the chance to see Sokolov in action during the China chapters, in which the city is seen mainly through his constantly evaluating eyes, and conclusion are drawn about culture, social organization, and customs. This helps him to become what is probably the most competent character in the novel, who can make his way out of a massive security cordon thrown by a decidedly unfriendly government, secure travel around the world, show up in Idaho in the time to save the day, and along the way kill a lot of bad guys in terrifyingly effective ways. And yet it's Sokolov who is treated to Reamde's sole concession to the point that confidence is not a virtue in its own right, when he lambastes one of the goons he used in his original capture of Peter and Zula, who has stolen from their apartment and is now in trouble.
"Doing time. Getting in trouble. All very normal for a man who breaks into another man's house and steals his computer and his rifle. If you had just followed my orders--"By any reasonable standard, Sokolov is much more of a hero than Richard--who for all his posturing and gnashing of teeth spends the novel constantly scrambling to catch up, who contributes nothing to Zula's rescue besides his very existence, as Zula uses the promise of his money and knowledge of a bootlegging route to the US to buy her life from Jones after they arrive in Canada, and who, when he is inevitably captured by Jones, does the least of any of the novel's characters who spend time in captivity to resist, subvert Jones's plans, or try to escape--and a much better exemplar of Reamde's version of masculinity. But not only is Richard's certainty that there is an "objective reality" on which he has a handle never punctured, while Sokolov's more (but by no means entirely) justified confidence is, in the novel's climactic battle between Jones and the rest of the cast, Sokolov makes good account of himself and is sidelined, while Richard, of all the many characters who have sworn vengeance against Jones--Zula, Yuxia, Olivia, Seamus, and Sokolov himself, most of whom have far greater reasons to hate him than Richard--gets to deliver the coup de grace.
"Why should I take orders from you, motherfucker?"
"Because I actually know what I am doing."
"Then how did you end up in this fucking situation?"
It was a fair question, and it rocked Sokolov for a moment.
It's possible that Richard's triumph at the end of Reamde is intended as a sort of ironic joke, a sly puncturing of the conventions of the technothriller which sees a hapless, self-satisfied, useless man lauded by those he has done little or nothing to save. But that sort of irony has never characterized Stephenson's writing, and if that was his intention with Reamde then the rest of the novel, which does so little to question its core assumptions, and whose other characters, particularly Zula, are entirely earnest, can't support it. So we're left with Richard as our hero, and the purveyor of what is presumably Stephenson-approved wisdom.
Which brings us back to that supposedly heartwarming climax in which British spies, Chinese hackers, and American survivalists band together to thwart a terrorist plot, and the realization that that erasing of cultural difference is cut from the same cloth as Richard's supercilious dismissal of Zula's accusation of Eurocentrism--I'm not being Eurocentric, I'm just giving non-Europeans the credit of assuming that they are capable of embracing my culture. Stephenson wants us to realize that deep down, we're all the same, but that same has a suspiciously Western, technophilic, geeky cast (the sole outlier, Yuxia, is sidelined for much of the novel's second half). Zula, for example, rarely draws on her experiences as a war orphan, or on her life before coming the US, for solace or guidance during her captivity, and it's probably no coincidence that so many of the novel's characters, even those who aren't connected to Richard and Zula, are either gamers at its outset or become gamers over the course of its events (and that all of them play T'Rain). Genuine attempts to understand the other, as exemplified by Sokolov, are rejected in favor of the assumption that the other doesn't really exist, or that if they tried hard enough they could be just like us.
None of this, of course, is new. In my review of Anathem, I took Stephenson to task for constructing a world in which the Platonic ideal of humanity consisted solely of Western civilization, and Cryptonomicon famously presages Reamde's casual dismissal, to the point of erasure, of anyone who is not technically- and practically-minded in an opening scene in which Randy Waterhouse (who feels a bit like a younger Richard, or rather Richard feels like one of the worst versions of what Randy might become) listens exasperatedly to his academic girlfriend's insufferable friends as they enact every cliché of the out-of-touch, ivory tower liberal intellectual. In Reamde itself, we could also note the handling of women, which gives the definite impression that Stephenson has read the many accusations that he is unable to write women as actors (particularly in response to Anathem), and that though he wants to prove them wrong, he can't quite overcome his antipathy towards the people who voiced those accusations and their ideology. So we get smart, strong-willed, level-headed characters like Zula, Yuxia, and Olivia, but also an incessant stream of snide comments about feminism--"Yuxia was not the type to deploy terminology like "feminist" or "matriarchal," but the picture was clear enough to Zula"; "Feminist thinkers might argue with social conservatives as to whether women's tendency to be extremely self-conscious about personal appearance was a natural trait--the result of Darwinian forces--or an arbitrary, socially constructed habit"; Olivia's casual assurance that Richard and his flunkies can call her "chick": "I shan't file a complaint"; Zula's rejection, noted above, of any reticence towards equating competence and masculinity as "self-conscious irony"--as if to assure us that women can be kickass without any of that silly feminism guff. (Not helping matters is the fact that all three women end the novel in romances--two of them with much older men--which are seen solely through the eyes of their male paramours, all three of whom make decisions about the relationship without ever consulting or discussing matters with the object of their affection.)
The truth is, Stephenson's novels have always been characterized by a sort of snide condescension towards those who don't share his interests and worldview. Which raises the question: am I so down on Reamde because Stephenson's crankiness towards anyone outside his narrow box of approved interests and attitudes has turned a corner, or because Reamde is poor enough stuff that there's nothing in it to compensate for that crankiness, or because this time around, it feels as if that crankiness is directed at me? That's a question that I've found myself asking more and more often in the last few years, as artists I'd previously held in high regard--people like Aaron Sorkin and Steven Moffat--have started producing work that I've found risible and deeply insulting (judging by the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan may be the next across that threshold, and no, I don't think it's a coincidence that these are all men known for clever, cerebral work, who have trouble writing well, or at all, for women). Am I growing less indulgent, or are these writers growing more cantankerous, digging further into stances that originally gave me pause, and now stop me in my tracks? Perhaps a more generous way of phrasing that question is, what is it that I saw in these men's writing that made it easy to look past its serious flaws? In Stephenson's case, the answer is, to a great extent, fun--the sheer exuberant joy of inventing a new world or discovering an existing one, in all its glorious complexity. It is that sense of fun and joy that is missing from Reamde and makes it so much easier to see Stephenson's limitations in other areas. Perhaps he'll rediscover it in his next work, but who knows if I'll be able to keep turning a blind eye to what this novel has laid bare.