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[personal profile] leaflitter
I find Neal Stephenson's novels interesting in that they're stickier than my opinion of them would suggest. Would I tell you I liked REAMDE? Not really. Would I suggest you read it? Only warily and with a number of caveats. How many times have I read it? Probably five or six times (although as is usual with fiction, I re-read favourite scenes or at random, not cover-to-cover).

In addition, I really want to puzzle out what the hell is up with it, structurally.

Contra the acknowledgments, which suggest that this is a carefully researched and plotted novel, the way it reads is this:

Neal Stephenson sits down at his desk. He starts writing, pointing himself at a plot which revolves around gold-farming and culture clashes related to it, particularly US v China, young v old and different kinds of fandom and gaming (Tolkien-like immersive world-building versus metaphor-collapsing gold farmers). In the virtual world, these collapse into the War of Realignment in T'Rain between the Earthtone Coalition and the Forces of Brightness.

But there's wobbles. Russian crime figures with no very large interest in computer gaming and no clear place in the WoR dichotomies have written themselves in: they've shown up, murdered someone and kidnapped several others and mostly want to solve the REAMDE problem in meat space with real guns, and look distressingly like they might do so without much concern for thematic issues. But perhaps they can be folded into the storyline? Let's just see how this plays out.

OK, we're in the basement of the apartment building in China with a couple of kidnapped Americans, a Hungarian hacker, ex-Spetsnaz security goons and a senior organised crime figure. The Russians have guns, and intent, and the Chinese gold farmers have a flimsy Internet connection and not the slightest hint that anyone is coming for them. This isn't good. Perhaps we can distract them! OK, let's see. They break down the door of the wrong apartment, and perhaps what they find there stops them in their tracks and we can get back to our real-world/virtual-world balance? So they open the door and they find...

Abdallah Jones.

And at this point, the novel is just done for, because now Jones is running the show. He's an exceptionally competent, effective and frankly frightening character, not least for any writer trying to keep a lid on their plot. He gets out of the apartment with a hostage who was previously one of the novel's central characters, turns her instantly into a pawn, walks into the street, hijacks a taxi at gun point, and at that point the novel is just done for. He's just flat out walked away from the novel's most effective close up fighter, Sokolov, and never really gets within range again; Sokolov is reduced to one impotent if satisfying phone threat later on. He never gets on the Internet, so Csongor can't touch him on the Internet and Marlon can't best him in T'Rain. Among the heroes, only the Forthrasts, Zula and Richard, interact with him from then on, and he's taken great care to disempower them first. (Both of them believe they have a psychological insight into him at various points, neither of them manage to do more with it than convince him to let them live.)

From then on, it's all about Jones. We just just barely keep enough of a lid on Jones that he only manages to fly into Canada rather than the United States itself, and even there he assembles a terrorist cell, kills a number of people personally, arms himself, and blows up a border checkpoint more or less unhindered. Only his obsession with personally creating havoc in the US keeps him still enough to be stopped. (Seamus wonders if he's a coward who doesn't want to die. I don't think this is true, I think he's an egotist who wants to die the biggest and most colourful death. Hence Vegas.)

T'Rain? T'Rain is just a bank account for Marlon and a way for Richard to find out three week old information about Zula's whereabouts, and the entire War of Realignment and all its colourful cardboard cutout characters just a way to give Marlon enough money to lease a business jet.

And honestly, Seamus could have left Csongor, Marlon and Yuxia behind in the Phillipines without much impact on any plot point other than the very hastily filled in romances, and Seamus can enter the United States through the CIA's normal channels (probably commercial passenger flights, he's a US citizen using his real name) so the entire business jet thing is thoroughly beside the point.

Which is only one of the very very many gaping holes left in the novel by the sudden re-orientation around the very real-world Global War on Jones. The precise details of to what extent Devin Skraelin deliberately incited the War of Realignment thus backstabbing Richard and Donald Cameron both to the tune of (potentially) hundreds of millions of dollars? Totally unimportant. The hints that REAMDE is based on a virus originating in the Philippines and that its creators have connections there? Dropped on the ground. Richard's entire second past criminal career testing out international money laundering channels in and out of China as research for the eventual development of T'Rain's currency system? Blink and you'll miss it, it certainly has no repercussions, although it might have been very useful background in a novel that was actually about gold farming.

Jones's appearance is not all bad news. It necessitates equivalent firepower (metaphorically, I mean, although also literally) on the other side, in the form of MI6 and the CIA, in the form of Olivia and Seamus, both of whom are interesting, fun, characters. For that matter, Richard Forthrast's personality is much more satisfying when he's in the wilderness in possession of only his clothes and his wit, using his knowledge and cynicism in the service of saving Zula's life and poking gentle and very risky fun at the thoroughly deserving Jones than when he's sitting on a personal fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars while also hypocritically despairing at the woolly liberal thinking of cosseted US manbabies (from whom he differs in essentially no meaningful way except that he's a generation older and once killed a bear).

But it doesn't put a lot of these characters to best use. I have a technical quibble with Olivia's ability to pass for having grown up in China as the plot requires: namely, being raised bilingual does mean she would have native-level fluency in Mandarin, but accents work differently. If she lived almost entirely in Wales as a child as she seems to have done, I am almost certain she would speak Mandarin with what fellow fluent speakers would know was British or at least foreign accent. (I'd guess that people outside the UK would not recognise it as specifically Welsh, but she also wouldn't sound like she grew up in Beijing.) China certainly isn't unified in accents, but if her cover story has her with a specific provincial origin to try and cover her accent, or she's had extensive accent coaching, it isn't mentioned.

Ahem. In any case, quibble aside, Olivia is a pretty interesting character, but her structural role is essentially that of being an information conduit for stopping Richard Forthrast going to China fruitlessly, and getting Sokolov out of China, back to the US and giving him the information and connections required to be anywhere near where Jones is. There's actual explicit mention of her being trained for some other plot albeit an exceptionally boring one, but let's call this the closest thing that the novel does to breaking the fourth wall. She's in the wrong novel. If MI6 had some plausible interest in money laundering (and why not, in the service of terrorism it would be within its remit) she would have been an interesting character from the antagonist side. (I don't think I'm going out on a limb to guess that in a Stephenson novel that was actually about currencies, like Cryptonomicon was, the forces of empire and fiat money would be on the wrong side.)

Likewise, Seamus comes with a fusion of the virtual and real world skill that would be useful in the T'Rain novel that this isn't; he's the only character who is an accomplished real world warrior (like Sokolov) and T'Rain player too (he seems second only to Marlon in terms of skill, I don't count Richard because Egdod is not exactly powered by player skill alone).

I am not honestly clear what the hell is up with the Russian plotline even in this Jones-took-over-the-novel-by-force model. The novel seems keen to rehabilitate Sokolov, which I am not at all sold on. On my initial read through I was fairly sure he'd personally killed Wallace, and even if he instead was more Ivanov's personal bodyguard (which might make sense, Wallace was a known quantity and easily dealt with in physical terms) he was highly complicit in Wallace's murder and in Zula and Peter's kidnapping, and he seems to be, at most, only slightly regretful of either. But there's nothing in the novel that portrays these as minor moral failings even using the novel's own frame of reference. Murder and kidnapping are plenty reprehensible when Abdallah Jones does them. But Sokolov gets past them by harbouring respect for Zula or something? Weird. I actually like Sokolov a lot myself, but only when I ignore the first sixth or so of the novel, which the novel itself shouldn't have the option of doing. And what structural use he would have had in a gold-farming novel is unclear. He knows a bit of computer security, but not as much as Csongor, and he doesn't game at all. Wallace himself, as a financial expert, might have been better.

Likewise, I'm not clear on why Peter is so loathsome from the novel's point of view. No individual action of his is unusual in the novel's context. He steals credit cards, but organised computer crime is Marlon's livelihood and structurally enabling it is one of Richard's. Csongor seems to have done pretty much identical things to Peter. He's an autodidact but that ought to be a plus. I think there's some political point about the particular loathsomeness of young US men other than veterans that I'm not buying here, probably because the book isn't selling it nearly well enough. (Likewise, the repeated stabs at people who aren't into killing bears and cougars, or who believe them to be not dangerous, which have no structural use since there's no in universe character or power arguing against their danger or against killing them. Stephenson can make his points about conservation and/or lily-livered pampered US Millennial manbabies in non-fiction in future thanks, and I will give them a miss.)

And the novel is a criminal waste of Zula, the refugee-scientist. She is very resourceful and brings her intelligence, bravery and survival skills to bear every moment she can, but her opponents are too formidable. She has a core of decency, completely unused mathematical and computing skills and decent psychological insight. They have guns, death wishes, misogyny and jail-building abilities, with predictable results: they win almost all the time. Damsels in distress aren't a lot more fun when they're highly resilient damsels who can thoroughly document the borders of their distress. What a waste of a great character. And her great escape is in the service of saving Richard, on whom I won't even spend a paragraph. I don't loathe him, but he's Randy Waterhouse all grown up, the clear-minded objective (white US male) observer/businessman/Stephenson stand-in.

Anyway, in the form that it has, the novel has Abdallah Jones, a verily awesome villain, versus a bunch of people who mostly aren't really worthy protagonists, because they're in the wrong novel with the wrong opponent. And Jones thus ends up surviving the combined efforts of Sokolov and Seamus only to be shot by Richard, and only because Jones happens to be shooting at a cougar at the time. Very unfortunate. They should have all been in two or three different novels which didn't conclude with a few hundred pages of, firstly, a bunch of people all independently re-reaching exactly the same conclusions as the previous group of imperfectly informed characters eventually did, and secondly a number of small groups of people with guns stalking each other in a very difficult to follow slow moving action sequence.

And don't even get me started on the romances. Firstly, why are there romances? I don't buy Csongor/Zula for a second. His attraction to her, sure, whatever, she sounds plenty attractive. Her attraction to him? Why? Her psychological bond in captivity is with Sokolov (and later, far more ambiguously with Jones, mostly because he's charismatic and funny while also being evil), and while I don't favour some horrid Stockholm-ish Sokolov/Zula romance and Jones/Zula would have stopped me reading, it seems better for her to escape the whole thing and go and get some somewhere else than to circle back to Csongor. And Yuxia is again an interesting (if structurally unimportant) character, but her pairing with Seamus seems based on the idea that every woman who appears in more than one scene of the novel must end up with some white guy by the end of it (none of the women are white, note), and he's just the only one she gets to meet aside from the one who has already fallen in love with Zula. Here's your official white dude, Yuxia. Too bad he lives on the other side of the world from the family you are so close to and miss so much.

Finally, Sokolov/Olivia at least makes some sense in terms of predilections on the woman's side, specifically, that Olivia has a thing for special forces types. And there's no horrible power imbalance; she and Sokolov both do each other significant favours. I think she has better chemistry with Seamus, though, and it's not clear why she doesn't get to try both and, if necessary, choose. It is OK for the person with the most on-screen sexual partners in a novel to be a woman. It is OK!

In conclusion: why do I keep re-reading this? I think I do want at least two novels related to this to exist: one which really is about gold-farming and culture clashes, and a completely different one with Abdallah Jones as the villain.

Date: 2014-07-26 03:47 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] vaurora
Hahahaha this is great! I have similar love-hate relationships with Stephenson books, but not this one for some reason (possibly because I was out of my mind on Ambien most of the time I was reading it, especially the gun battle bit).

If you want a gold-farming book, I like Charles Stross' "Halting State." Of course, I like basically all Stross.

Date: 2014-07-27 01:23 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] vaurora
Yeah, the "criminalizing childhood sexual experimentation" thing struck me as a strange thing to focus on, too.

The Laundry Files are absolutely where you should start! The horror is a very small part of the story, and the impact is somewhat muted by its frequent combination with basic programming concepts. :) I'm fairly sensitive to horror and gore relative to the apparent norm and I've never had problems with Stross. Pretty sure you'll like it!

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