Neal Stephenson’s novels are nearly always populated by very intelligent, intense and practical men who win recognition from a small group of peers who share similar technical expertise.
But beyond that group, these men struggle to find recognition, companionship, affection or influence, in part because they feel it is a compromise, or simply not worth the effort, to endure the company of those who lack their skills.
These characters are everywhere.
Snow Crash’s Hiro invented the Metaverse but lives in poverty, works a dead-end job and can’t talk to girls. Cryptonomicon’s Randy is in pretty much the same boat – an internet/Unix pioneer, he lives in a doomed relationship with a woman he does not love, his capacities ignored and potential unrealised. The same book’s elder Waterhouse is a genius, but is utterly unable to integrate with society. Anathem’s characters all rise from geekdom, are exposed briefly to, and dazzle, the rest of the world, but then retreat to build an uncompromised community of the mind. The Diamond Age’s Hackworth is a tolerated technician who fakes his way through polite society. The Baroque Cycle’s Waterhouse and Newton are proximate to power and influence, but only when they pursue useful vocations whose intricacies baffle others. The various Shaftoes in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle are used by others for their martial prowess, but feel themselves outsiders.
Most of these characters also voice sentiment along the lines of “I’m a geek. I understand this stuff really well. If only you would let me explain you would understand too and then you’d see how right I am and how you could profit from what I know and understand.” That sentiment falls, largely, on deaf ears.
Stephenson’s essay, ‘In the beginning is the command line’ articulates this all beautifully in an exchange depicting a hacker trying to sell Linux on the desktop to someone who just wants to buy a nice computer. Stephenson likens Linux to a free tank competing against the Windows station wagon, the euro-sedan Mac and the fully functioning Batmobile (Be Inc. – remember those guys?) and offers this exchange:
Hacker with bullhorn: “Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!”
Prospective station wagon buyer: “I know what you say is true…but…er…I don’t know how to maintain a tank!”
Bullhorn: “You don’t know how to maintain a station wagon either!”
Buyer: “But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator music.”
Bullhorn: “But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!”
Buyer: “Stay away from my house, you freak!”
The sheer number of characters voicing similar emotions has me suspicious: I don’t think an author writes so many characters the same way unless the fictional inner dialogues mirror their own.
Which brings me to Stephenson’s new novel: REAMDE.
The main character is, of course, a geek. But Richard Forthrast broke out: his intense practicality paid off by allowing him to develop a tremendously successful multiplayer online role playing game called T’Rain. He’s rich, thanks in part to caring about very geeky things and understanding how to get geeks to apply their skills uesefull. He’s not really had to compromise his geekiness to succeed and he’s gone from being wielded to using his geekiness to direct others.
Online, he has the powers of a God.
Forthrast and his T’Rain character, Egdod, are the centre of a cracking yarn which unfolds in the real world and online. Stephenson can write tremendously kinetic plots and REAMDE has one, complete with intelligent, intense and practical men going about their business in ways that make dangerous situations navigable and survivable.
But unlike nearly all of Stephenson’s previous works, there is not a shred of metaphysics. As the action ripples across various bits of south-western Canada and north-western USA, China, the Philippines and even bits of Britain, the big bit of metaphysical exposition Stephenson readers are familiar with never materialises.
If you understand evil, good, fealty to family and the proclivities and behaviours of intelligent, intense and practical men, you have the metaphysics of REAMDE nailed. You won’t find a platonic mind-bender, Sumerian excursion or genetic data transmission network to delight or befuddle you and make you wonder about some grander metaphor woven into the plot.*
That’s not a bad thing – REAMDE is billed as a thriller and certainly roars along and thrills. You also get more than enough glimpses of its characters’ evolving inner landscapes, so you’ll never feel you have been thrust into an airport novel that just happens to be rather geeky. So while it moves with the speed of a Matthew Riley, it’s well beyond that kind of book in terms of characterisation, density of plot and worldliness.
Forthrast’s eventual realisation that his geekiness makes him both central and peripheral to his game’s success, for example, is a significant piece of introspection and means the book is more than just the sum of its gunfights, explosions and improbable airborne events.
A lot of people will like REAMDE, because it is clever and fun. And part of the fun is a gentle mocking of intelligent, intense and practical men, who for the first time I can recall in a Stephenson book are sometimes depicted as extremists.
I think that is important. Stephenson has been enormously successful – he’s sold lots and lots of books, topped best-seller charts and been hailed an important cultural figure. But he’s not to everyone’s taste: reading about very intelligent, intense and practical men is not everyone’s cup of tea.
He’s also prickly. Reports I have read of his public appearances suggest he is uncompromising. Check out this Radio National interview, for example. As soon as I heard it I felt his attitude was that the interviewer and listeners were ‘civilians’ – coddled non-geeks who’ll never experience the many unpleasant viscera of life at the front.
The presence of a very definite, very clear, ending in REAMDE is therefore interesting. Almost every character’s fate is neatly tied up, without a deus ex machina to grease the narrative wheels. That’s a considerable contrast to his other works, which some have been criticised for not ending well. Or at all.
It was widely reported that Stepheson got a big advance for REAMDE. The kind of advance that came with the understanding he would deliver a more accessible novel.
It all got me thinking that just as Richard Forthrast found a way to stay geeky but bring his values into the mainstream, Stephenson may feel he’s done the same.
By way of evidence I point to the fact that his novels up to and including Cryptonomicon managed to become more clever and more dense. But The Baroque Cycle was dense, obscure and confronting. Stephenson’s next act, Anathem, was also hard to approach. It was eventually very rewarding, but also very baffling – not many other novelists would offer readers a conclusion in which characters phase in and out of timelines in alternate universes and it becomes hard to understand which events happen when and where.
REAMDE’s accessibility and narrative neatness are such a swing away from his previous work, and also seem less ambitious. I therefore found myself wondering if Forthrast’s geeky success story might mirror Stephenson’s own.
Certainly, no-one will, if offered a copy of REAMDE, say “Stay away from my house, you freak!” Most will enjoy it and many will evangelise it.
But I feel Stephenson fans will find it hard to classify as better than a minor work.
Indeed, REAMDE feels like an intelligent, intense and practical man’s response to the challenge of writing an above-average but very accessible thriller. It succeeds. But the absence of metaphysics means it’s not a gateway drug to Stephenson’s dense, mind-bending best. As such, it may not deliver this very intelligent, intense and practical author the wider recognition and affection his characters crave.
*Some have suggested that the book is a giant videogame metaphor because characters fall into identifiable ‘classes’ have various degrees of competence (think levels) and acquire skills as the story unfolds. I think that’s reading too much into REAMDE, which can happily be interpreted as a story, not an extended metaphor.