Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Read Me First

Yowza! Reading Neal Stephenson's latest opus, REAMDE, feels a little like getting sucked into the engine of a jet airplane. It's impossible to resist.

As is usually the case after I've finished reading one of his books, my head is still kind of spinning. I was debating whether to throw up my thoughts now, while the experience of reading is still fresh, or to wait a while, to give things a while to settle. I've decided to press ahead for now, but I reserve the right to post again in the future if it seems warranted.

Let's start off with that spinning head. In the last books that Stephenson has written, that head-spinning sensation is the result of volume; here, even though REAMDE is over a thousand pages in hardcover, the spinning is a result of velocity. I've tricked myself into thinking of a "typical" Neal Stephenson novel as one with a sprawling plot, a multitude of characters, incredibly broadly branching ideas and theories, and clever writing. REAMDE's plot is tremendously exciting, but it feels more linear and comprehensible than the plots of, say, The Diamond Age or The Baroque Cycle. For the most part, the plot is about A leading to B leading to C leading to D, unlike some other books where A, B, C, and D are all occurring more or less independently of one another, smashing into each other from time to time. If I were to graph it, the REAMDE plot would consist of only two arrows, but with lots of twists within them; other recent Stephenson books would require a dozen arrows.

The characters are just as varied as in his other books, and I think they may be his best set to date. I'll get into more details in spoilerville down below, but he covers a lot of ground among them (ages, genders, interests, capabilities, personalities), and everyone feels both cool AND essential to the action, which is no mean feat. He does a great job of introducing them as well. We get a core of key characters, mainly orbiting around the Forthrast family, in the first few chapters of the book. This group mostly remains throughout the book, but we're treated to additional major characters until quite far into the story. That tends to be a bit risky, just because the author doesn't have as much time to establish the characters' personalities, but Stephenson is a pro at this - when necessary, he'll break from the main action to fill us in on the new character's background, but focusing on their actions and interesting contributions in the past, so that it feels like a flashback and not like exposition.

Stephenson seems to have tamped down on the wildly meandering digressions that have long been the hallmark of his books. I'm a bit sad to see them go, but that doesn't mean that we don't get discursive passages with interesting and fully developed ideas in them; it's just that those passages tend to be more obviously germane to the story than they used to be. We learn a lot about how firearms work, and the technical and political processes that go into developing a flight plan between two cities, and the care that must be observed when attempting to offer assistance to Midwesterners (I can vouch for the complete accuracy of that last part).

One thing that especially struck me about Stephenson's storycrafting in this book is how masterfully he portrays characters' thinking. I think a lot of authors try to make their characters smart by having them KNOW things - one person will be confronted with an obstacle, and then go, "Ah, I know how to solve this problem," and we're impressed by their solution. Throughout this book, though, Stephenson's characters impress us as they're confronted with situations where they don't know the answer; over a page or two, we'll see how they study the problem, perhaps try out one or more hypotheses, draw conclusions from their failures, and eventually LEARN a better solution. We see one woman trying to figure out a Chinese numbering system; a group of urbanites attempting to steer a boat through a storm; some criminals cleaning up the evidence left behind. It's highly engaging and rewarding to read this; we aren't just asked to admire someone's excellence, but can track them through their progress and struggle.

Stephenson's writing is as clever and sharp as ever. I'm reluctant to pull quotes here, maybe I will later, but he just has an absolutely amazing knack for pithy phrases and memorable phrasemaking.

A few minor technical notes before I plunge into the plot proper:

The paper stock and binding for this book is very similar to that used for the Baroque Cycle, and unlike that used for Anathem: the paper feels rough, and the edge lengths are varied, which lends it a slightly antique character. I haven't decided if I should read anything into that or not... it totally made sense for the Baroque cycle, given its historical milieu; this book doesn't share that setting, but if there is a reason for those pages, it may have to do with the occasionally rural and anti-modern themes of the book.

This book is written in a standard past tense ("Zula looked him in the eye"), unlike Stephenson's occasional present tense ("Hiro races down the street").

I think this is the first book I've read that uses a new system of punctuation popularized on the Internet: the combination of an exclamation mark and a question mark to indicate extreme surprise. He only uses it within dialog ("You think!?"). It totally works, and if the technique enters into the literary mainstream, I'm pretty confident that this book will be cited in whatever equivalent of the OED gets used for punctuation.


I got the book on Wednesday night. On Thursday night, I laid down in bed around page 250, having gotten to the part in Xiamen when they're closing in on the Troll. "This is pretty exciting," I thought. I decided that I'd keep reading until they finished that scene. Little did I suspect that this is where the afterburners would kick in. I FLEW through Yuxia's kidnapping, the casing of the Troll's apartment complex, Zula's electrical gambit, the INSANE introduction of Abdullah Jones, the holocaust on the fifth floor, the AMAZING introduction of Olivia, the way everyone fractures into a half-dozen groups of survivors, the flight from the explosion, the premeditated hijacking, Sokolov's incredible reorientation from sole survivor to capable operator, the various nautical piratings, MI-6's potential double-cross, and, of course, Zula's totally bad-ass approach to self-defense. That brought me up to... um, about page 540. I was pretty tired the next day. But, I'm convinced that I wouldn't have been able to sleep if I'd tried to stop at any point in between those two spots. It's seriously the longest, most intense and most exciting sequence that I recall having ever read in a book.

This seems like a very plot-oriented book, but for some reason I actually don't feel like writing about the plot - it would take forever to recap, and I can't do justice to how awesomely it all spins out. So, instead, here are a few brief thoughts on each of the characters.

Richard Forthrast: I kind of get the feeling that he might be Neal's alter-ego in this book. Oh, to be sure, they're very different: Richard is older, and heavier, and used to be a marijuana smuggler and presently owns a Fortune-500 company. Still, I get the impression that many of Richard's concerns are Neal's concerns as well. Richard spends a lot more time observing and thinking than many other characters in the book get to, and that leads to come great insights. I wanted to picture him as being kind of a Richard Garriott figure - more on the inspiration below - but the text makes it pretty clear that he isn't. He primarily wanted to solve a technical problem and make money; the other people in his company, who we don't spend as much time with, are more of the world-centric fanatics of Garriott's stripe.

The Forthrast Clan: I really, really liked this family. Not to put down the Shaftoes or the Waterhouses, but the Forthrasts seemed more varied and more believable: there's a lot of different types of personalities, different histories there. I particularly loved the intricacies of the internal politics, and the simplicity of the external politics: the family can talk darkly about one another, but they present a unified front as soon as any one of them comes under threat. I really related to this large, sprawling, Midwestern-originating family. The King clan on my dad's side is similarly large, and I know all to well the feeling that Richard gets when he encounters "cousins" (Stephenson nails the way that this word gets used in this context) who he doesn't remember at the re-u. This is pretty fertile ground, and I can easily imagine Stephenson doing another Forthrast book, perhaps with Richard as a minor character who pops up in a scene or two.

(Another fun thought experiment: would there ever be a book with the Forthrast and the Shaftoes/Waterhouses? Or, to ask the question slightly differently, do you suppose that this book is in the same universe as Cryptonomicon/The Baroque Cycle; and as a corollary, if they are, is it the same as our own universe? Cryptonomicon and REAMDE are particularly interesting because they're all set more or less in the present day, but that present day is going to be obsolete in the near future, so it's kind of tempting to view them as occurring in an alternate universe one or two steps away. Farther up the wick, perhaps?)

Zula: Oh. My. Gosh. She's gotta be the most bad-ass heroine this side of The Bride. I love that what makes her so deadly is her mind. She's dealing from the most limited deck that anyone gets, and somehow manages to find the cards to make her survive. I cringed and cheered when she did for Khalid on the plane. When you take a step back, it's a bit harder to cheer for her as hard - her decisions to help save herself also result in touching off Jones' bloody flight from China, and later she puts her family directly at risk to save her life again. Still, who can fault her for making those decisions? She extends life into a future that she wouldn't otherwise have. She breaks up Jones' planned assault on the Taiwan conference - it seems clear that Olivia and MI-6 weren't going to be able to stop him, and if that had gone down, who knows, it might have touched off a series of events leading to World War III. And turning Jones towards the Schloss ultimately leads to the eradication of not only the survivors of his China network, but also flushes many Canadian and American jihadist sleepers out. It's impossible to do moral calculus on human lives (125 innocent civilians killed in border crossing, but saving an unknown number in Las Vegas or the Mall of America), but we can cheer for Zula in each decision she makes. I also think that Zula may be the best female protagonist from any of Stephenson's books, with the possible exception of Eliza from The Baroque Cycle. Zula is a believable, awesome, independent and intelligent woman, and one of my favorites in a book with lots of good candidates.

Peter: I hesitate to say "He got what he deserved," but... yeah. I do, however, like the way that Stephenson introduced the character. We don't get inside his head for a while; instead, we see Richard trying to figure him out. He's elevated by Zula's aura, so it takes a little bit to recognize what a jerk he is. Even then, he isn't evil - we all know lots of people like him - and he's kind of cut adrift of our sympathy and interest.

Ivanov: I was getting an Uncle Enzo vibe from him at first. You eventually realize, though, that he's consciously projecting that vibe. He isn't really Uncle Enzo, just a wacked-out crime boss who can turn on the charm when it benefits him to do so. The biggest plot twist in the book is probably when Ivanov exits the action and Jones enters it. For the last 700 or so pages of the book, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: after we learn that Ivanov is just a player within this larger organization, it seems inevitable that they'll get around to investigating the incredible mess he made, and bring in their own guns against al-Qaeda. That never happens, but it seems like yet another good opening if Neal ever decides to write a sequel.

Solokov: Another guy who made my favorite-character short-list. Ivanov stays a bad guy all the way through his end, but Solokov gets to play both sides, an intimidating villain in the early pages and probably the most capable of the heroes after the jihadists appear. I loved his Jason Bourne-esque movements through Xiamen; it's a testament to Stephenson's great writing that his infiltration of a luxury hotel and acquisition of a stolen suit made a bigger impression on me than him counter-ambushing and machine-gunning three Public Security Bureau agents. He's skilled, but more than that, he's incredibly adaptable and a quick learner. I was initially going to complain about his timeline - he cut his teeth in Afghanistan, and I thought he seemed too young to have fought there - but it never says that he was involved in the invasion, and I presume that the USSR kept their own anti-insurgent forces in there well through the 80's.

Csongor: Less exciting than the other characters, but really decent; he's certainly the nicest criminal of the group. His affection for Zula was really touching; heck, even Ivanov thought he'd make a better boyfriend than Peter. I liked his humility, his loyalty, and his intellectual tenacity. For a hacker, though, he really doesn't get to do a whole lot of hacking; he basically runs traceroute in Xiamen and installs Linux in the Philippines, not exactly the most technically taxing tasks. But, I think that Stephenson was able to get at his hacker mindset, and show how Csongor could apply that to different situations he found himself in. I probably related most strongly to Csongor out of all the characters in the book.

Yuxia: She's... interesting. She sometimes comes off as a potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. When she first showed up, I had wondered if she might represent some other, hidden layer in the rapidly thickening plot - perhaps she was a secret agent for the Chinese government, or had ties to the Russians or the Troll. Nope - she was what she seemed, which in itself is surprising. She's incredibly resourceful and determined, but often seems out of her element, even in Xiamen and definitely after leaving China. Still, when confronted with the unknown, like everyone else in this book she buckles down and figures out how to make it work. She's a striver, much like Marlon in her own way, and I think she'll have an exciting story of her own in the States. I can easily imagine Richard fronting her seed money to open a distribution channel for her mountain tea in America.

Marlon: Much like Csongor, he's out of his element for most of the book; a city-dwelling professional video-game player is thrust into the stormy world of international terrorism. Unlike Csongor, though, we get to see him at his peak: marshaling a vast army of real and virtual followers, capping off a long-running criminal extortion scheme (that we nonetheless can't help cheer him for - hey, it was their fault for not updating their antivirus programs!), bridging the gap between the virtual and the real worlds. It's interesting to finally meet the Troll after such a long chase, and he proves quite likeable; I particularly liked how he prepared his roommates for the zombie apocalypse. I got a kick out of his approach to thinking of things - I think that at one point Csongor asks, "Should we grab their weapons?", to which Marlon replies, "That's what we'd do in a video game" - which, of course, means "Yes". A life of playing video games proves to be a surprisingly good preparation for the crazy situation he finds himself inside.

Olivia: I think she was the last major character introduced who I really got. Stephenson kind of takes a break from all the totally crazy stuff going down across the street, but it's totally the right time to introduce her: the first we hear about her is after we realize that there's this entirely different threat that's completely orthogonal to everything we've seen up until now. Olivia's passages are really fun to read - Stephenson isn't as obviously POV-centric as George R R Martin, but like GRRM he lets each passage's character's personality somewhat color the prose, and I loved reading the various dry and sly Britishisms that pop up when Olivia is thinking about her situation. The various references to James Bond are quite fun as well. Unlike most of the other characters, Olivia is probably more important for who she is than for what she does, but she crucially serves the plot and does it with style.

Abdullah Jones: Holy cow, he's scary. Stephenson spends a lot of time with him, and like Ivanov he shows us how charming he can be. That charm just makes him all the more horrible; he isn't a faceless villain, but someone who believes deeply enough in the rightness of his cause that he's comfortable joking with his victims or parlaying with them. He's a far more capable villain than Ivanov: he's more intelligent, and crazy more in a sociopathic sense than a psychopathic sense.  He's less impulsive, which drives MI-6 nuts; where Ivanov flies off the handle and takes huge risks to uphold his respect, Jones gets cold, thinks through the problem from all angles (just like our heroes), and because of his care he's able to survive many situations that would otherwise leave him dead (again, just like our heroes). We're well rid of him.

Seamus: He arrives a bit late to the party, but is still fun to have around. It seems pretty clear to me that, despite what he might say, he probably is looking for a T-Bird after all; he fell for Olivia while she still had her pageboy, and Yuxia's similar haircut was sending signals to the Russians and others (incorrect signals, but still). Like Olivia, he's important for what he is: he's the only significant US military character in the book, and is in the right place with the right status to bring Csongor, Yuxia and Marlon into the final level.

T-Rain sure sounds like fun, doesn't it? I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about MMOs in contrast to how little I play them, and I think that Stephenson is fascinated by the same theoretical aspects that attract me: the formation of virtual communities, and how they do or do not relate to communities in the real world.

REAMDE is the second book in the past two years I've read that deals intensely with a fictional MMORPG. The first, of course, was Charles Stross's "Halting State." HS is like REAMDE in that it's set in the very near future, using technology that's pretty familiar to us, with just a few comprehensible changes (most importantly, someone proving P == NP). HS's Avalon Four (run on ZONE) bears some similarities to REAMDE's T-Rain; besides an obvious fantasy-inflected flavor taken from World of Warcraft, both also assign real monetary value to in-game assets, and both plots are initially driven by money-related shenanigans taken place within their in-game worlds. The details are a bit different, though. The crime there was a bank robbery, and the underlying problem was the dissemination of encryption keys that were meant to protect such transactions. Ultimately, it's the encryption that's the biggest threat, and the ways the platform is being put to use. My favorite line from that book is "They're tunneling TCP/IP over AD&D!"

In contrast, the crime in T-Rain is... I guess blackmail, or kidnapping, if you can kidnap data. What's interesting is that, from the perspective of both the criminals (Marlon) and the game owners (Richard), there really isn't a problem. Sure, the governments are mad, but T-Rain was explicitly designed from the ground-up to support the transformation between real-world and virtual wealth. Someone paying a ransom in-game isn't Corporation 9592's fault any more than someone paying a ransom in New York City is Mayor Bloomberg's fault, or someone sending a ransom note through the mail is the US Post Office's fault. Stephenson doesn't exactly defect the virus-writing, but he assigns some of the blame to the victims as well, and in the grand scheme of things, the hackers here are far from the worst criminals.

I should also point out that I preferred the writing in REAMDE. Partly because Stephenson's awesome at everything, also because I was never able to get into HS's second-person narration.

So: on a more lateral note: I'd briefly mentioned Richard Garriott before. Garriott is the creator of the Ultima series, which may be my favorite fantasy RPG of all time (though the Baldur's Gate games certainly give it a run for the money). One of the cool things about Garriott's approach to making games was that he had a very world-centric approach. Before starting on a new Ultima, one of the first things he would do was draw out the map. He'd sketch in the main continent of Britannia, draw in the islands, draw castles and mountain peaks and dungeons and villages. Working with other artists and creators, he would come up with a really complete map. Only then would he start work on the actual story of the game.

I think that's quite similar to Pluto's approach to creating T-Rain. Making the game world first creates all sorts of wonderful benefits that may not be immediately obvious, but that turn it into an incredibly rich and deep experience. I remember so many hours of pleasure from my time exploring the world of Ultima VI, just wandering through the wilderness, stumbling across interesting places and encounters. The game world included some pretty massive and complex structures to explore that were completely optional in terms of the plot; if memory serves, you only had to enter something like three of the eight dungeons in order to beat the game, but if you decided to go into any or all of the other five, you'd find thoughtfully designed and challenging environments to explore. There was an entire castle that filled most of the Isle of the Avatar; just from looking at the map, you'd assume that that was where you'd go to fight the ultimate villain, but no; it's just a place in the world. Of course, these things all contribute to a sense of "realism," of existing in a fully-realized world. You might be on an epic quest to save the world, but not every single thing you encounter has to be related to that quest; you'll also see farmers harvesting cotton from their fields, and weavers in town spinning that cotton into cloth, and merchants carrying cloth between towns, and tailors creating and selling fine garments from that cloth. You don't need to ever think about cotton in your quest, but the fact that numerous characters are devoting their lives to carrying out such activities makes it feel more like a real world, and all the more important to save.

Similarly, Pluto's simulation of five billion years of physical processes, plate tectonics, magma flow, erosion, and other arcana have allowed him to create the most realistic game world ever. I can totally buy that this would be one of the things that allows T-Rain to challenge WoW: people can FEEL it when the creators have paid attention to the environments, and that's the sort of thing that would make someone want to actually spend time in the world, and not just run quests. Heck, it's even more important for T-Rain, given that they're asking many of their players to spend their lives harvesting ore.

It's also fun to look at the literary/creative input into the game. Donald is, of course, a proxy for Tolkien: the Englishness, the fact that he's a professor, his love of language, all cry out "Tolkien." I can't immediately think of a counterpart for Skeletor, but I think that's part of the point; I certainly have the impression that there are some fantasy writers out there who can churn out an incredible number of books with very little effort. The clashes between those two was fun to read, since it wasn't just the mixing-up of two fictional writers, but a not-too-thinly-veiled manifestation of the endless conflicts between High Fantasy and Swords & Sorcery, between Low Magic and High Magic worlds, between thoughtful literary epics and action-packed pablum. My sympathy's with Donald, of course.

Now that I think about it, I guess that this is one of the plots that ends up not really going anywhere, at least not that I remember. Richard eventually figures out that Skeletor had been actively (if furtively) agitating the War of Realignment, then gets him and Donald to take more active roles in leading their respective factions. But it doesn't really have much to do with what's clearly the main plot, to stop the terrorists. Well... I guess that the havok they create does keep any one faction from taking over the Torgai Hills and preventing Marlon from reclaiming the gold that he'll eventually use to fly them home, so I guess it does tie in after all. Still, I did love everything related to the game, and am sure that Stephenson could have written an entertaining (if shorter) book that was only about 9592, the WoR, and Reamde.


Maybe I'd been primed by the Q&A session at the Swedish-American Hall, but as I read I kept on thinking, "Wow, this would make an AMAZING movie!" It's very kinetic writing, and there are long stretches with pretty much non-stop action, occasionally interrupted by extremely witty dialog. That, in turn, got me thinking about why Neal Stephenson would want to be a novelist instead of a Hollywood scriptwriter: what's the point of putting something in a novel instead of in a movie? For starters, we're privileged to actually move around inside the heads of the characters; even the best actors in the best movies can only give us limited access to their thoughts. You can get around that problem with a voiceover monologue, but that seems to kill the dramatic impact of a movie. I think the pacing can help too. In a movie, exactly one person (the director) can decide when things should happen, and then sets the beats. It's like pressing "Play" on a CD. When you read, it's more like you're the conductor of your own personal orchestra. You can progress fitfully, or race ahead, or slowly ponder the themes and variations as you encounter them.

I'll be very interested to see how people respond to REAMDE once the reviews trickle in. I suspect that people who've first come to Stephenson in the past decade will be caught off-guard by the book; it's about the same length as each of the Baroque volumes and Anathem, but reads much more easily, and is less dense and more action-oriented. Most people who met Stephenson through Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon will feel a bit more comfortable here; the pace of this book feels like the most active portions of Snow Crash (like that killer opening chapter), married to the setting and some of the interests of Cryptonomicon (present day, business drama, international travel). But I think the people most at home will be those who've gone into Stephenson's deep cuts. The overall trajectory of this book feels very similar to something like Zodiac or Interface, and the midwestern/Iowa milieu matches that found in The Cobweb. Crucially, REAMDE is longer than any of those books (heck, it's probably longer than all of them), but... well, to use what might be a slightly dirty word, they're all thrillers. They're highly literate thrillers, which are much more interested in a broader range of topics than you would get from John Grisham or Tom Clancy, but they're anchored around engaging and highly kinetic storylines. I think that that's how I'll remember REAMDE, as another entry along the Zodiac/Interface chain that displays the author's incredibly heightened powers.

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