Neal Stephenson wasn’t particularly successful early in his career. I imagine having trouble for a few years is rather common amongst successful authors, and obviously Stephenson has gone on to establish himself as a big name, especially in the nerdy science fiction community. But, as he snarkily wrote in his author bio on my copy of Snow Crash:

His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984 and vanished without a trace. His second novel, Zodiac: the Eco-thriller, came out in 1988 and quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers. It was also enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists.

While writing Snow Crash, Stephenson started looking into other options. Because who would want to read a book where a hacker/pizza delivery boy/cyber-ninja researches Sumerian mythology and linguistics theory? In an old interview, he comments on his career thusly:

I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, ‘Let’s give this a try.’ The whole idea was that ‘Stephen Bury’ would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I’ve written them. It just goes to show there’s no point in trying to plan your career.

Indeed! I actually rather enjoyed the Stephen Bury books, and they actually presage Reamde in their thriller genre roots. But Stephenson has gone on to write impenetrable books that have become quite popular amongst a certain type of geek (i.e. me). Unfortunately, this presents something of a problem. Long time readers of this blog know that I’m a huge fan of Stephenson, but in reality, I’ve never actually met a person that really loves his books (the online world is another story). This makes it quite difficult to recommend my favorite novels to other people, because I generally know they’re not going to like it (I generally settle on Snow Crash as a recommendation, but there are things about that book that often don’t go over well with normal folks). In particular, Cryptonomicon (which is my favorite novel) seems to polarize readers. Shamus describes the phenomenon best:

In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.

Similarly, The Baroque Cycle (basically a 2700 page prequel to Cryptonomicon) is not a series for normal people. The subjects are similar, but weighted differently. Much less programming, and much more history and monetary theory. Anathem probably appeals to folks who love Philosophy and/or Quantum Physics, with some linguistics thrown in for fun. The common factor with all of this is that Stephenson’s books aren’t particularly accessible to mainstream audiences. Thus it’s hard to find a way to introduce people to his work.

Enter Reamde, Stephenson’s latest and most accessible novel. Well, accessible for folks who don’t mind reading 1000+ page novels. Ironically, this accessibility seems to have garnered the only real complaints about the book. Which isn’t to say that people don’t like the book. Reviews seem to be overwhelmingly positive, but the one thing that comes up again and again is that it’s “just a thriller.” It is not a novel that plumbs the depths of technology or philosophy, nor does it wrestle with big questions the way a lot of Stephenson’s other works do. For my part, I finished it a few weeks ago and find myself thinking about it often. This isn’t to say that I think there’s something profound going on beneath the surface, but who knows? Maybe a second reading will unearth something more. But then, I don’t really need it to be a profound life-changing book. It’s a page-turning thriller written with wit and humor, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Stephenson’s fans will certainly not be bored. Despite the fact that many seem to enjoy the inaccessibility of his earlier novels, I do think there are plenty of Stephensonian digressions that will keep fans interested. Take, for instance, “The Apostropocalypse”, wherein one of our main characters explains how two writers he hired to provide background material for his video game argued over the semiotics of fantasy naming conventions. The video game itself is rather cleverly designed, and Stephenson spends a lot of time describing its mechanics, allowing him to delve into geography, monetary theory and the practice of gold farming in MMORPGs. Stephenson even addresses how this game came to compete with World of Warcraft by catering to the Chinese market. Later in the novel, there’s an interesting digression into how great circle routes work. These are things that Stephenson excels at, and there’s certainly a lot to chew on here. He’s taken standard genre tropes and overlaid his own style, ultimately elevating this book from much of its competition.

The basics of the plot itself are rather straightforward. Richard Forthrast is one of our primary characters. He was a draft-dodger who figured out a way to cross the Canadian border undetected, parlayed that knowledge into marijuana smuggling, then turned legit serial entrepreneur. His latest venture is a fantasy MMORPG video game called T’Rain, and it’s become quite successful. He’s hired his niece, Zula Forthrast, to work for his company. As circumstances would have it, Zula ends up getting kidnapped by Russian mobsters who are afflicted with a virus from the game (this virus has locked up the mobsters’ monetary livelyhood). Pissed off to no ends, these Russian mobsters want Zula to help find the virus writers (no doubt Chinese kids) so that revenge can be exacted. Along the way, we run into a lively cast of characters, including a group of Jihadis (who eventually become the main villains of the novel), a Hungarian hacker, a Chinese mountain-girl, the Chinese kid who wrote the virus, an MI6 agent, and, of course, a badass Russian security consultant. The terrorists want to kill lots of people, and most of the other folks want to stop them. Typical thriller stuff, I guess, but done with more nuance than you’d normally expect.

As characters go, the Forthrast clan, Iowa natives, will strike most Stephenson fans as being familiar. Not quite Waterhouses (from Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle), but Richard certainly leans in that direction. The Forthrasts also bear a resemblance to the family clan in The Cobweb. Sokolov, the Russian security consultant, is more of a Shaftoe kinda guy. This isn’t to say that the novel is completely derivative of Stephenson’s earlier novels – there are plenty of wholly new characters, and I generally enjoyed most of them. Depth seems to be reserved more for the Forthrasts, Richard and Zula, while the others are more surface-level affairs, but they’re generally a likable bunch. And they’re all pretty damn competent too. Indeed, most of the time, they’re downright Sherlockian. Take this quick sequence, in which Sokolov deduces what’s happening from very little information:

Sokolov retrieved his spare clip and other goods from the wreckage now strewn around the conference table, but paused on his way out of the suite to shine his flashlight over the dead man’s face. He was ethnic Chinese.

Why had they taken his clothes?

Because something about them made them useful.

A uniform. The guy was a cop, or a security guard.

Thought processes like these are peppered throughout the book, and our intrepid heros and nefarious villains are all pretty damn good at this form of deduction.

The book does start off a bit on the slower side, and you’re not really sure where it’s going until about 50 pages in, when things kick into high gear and don’t really let up for about 600 or so pages, and even then, there is only a brief respite as various characters are maneuvered to the ultimate showdown. And there are a lot of concurrent storylines being maintained here, much moreso than Stephenson’s recent work. He may not have been shooting for profundity when writing this novel, but he sure amped up the complexity, to the point where calling it “just a thriller” doesn’t do it much justice. I’m not a particularly accomplished thriller reader, but I from what I have read, this is far more complex and adroit than I would have expected. And it’s funny too.

She picked up her phone, navigated to the “Recent Calls” list, and punched in Richard Forthrast’s number.

It rang a few times. But then finally his voice came on the line. “British spy chick,” he said.

“Is that how you think of me?”

“Can you think of a better description?”

“You didn’t like my fake name?”

“Already forgot it. You’re in my phone directory as British Spy Chick.”

And then there’s this bit, from perhaps the funniest chapter in the book:

How could your cover be blown in Canada? Why even bother going dark there? How could you tell?

After which we get to witness a hysterical chain of emails with two spys basically berating one another while getting actual espionage work done. Great stuff.

There were perhaps a couple of times where the MMORPG side of the story seemed a bit incongruous, like maybe Stephenson was writing about it for its own sake rather than advancing the story, but he manages to tie it all together by the end. Stephenson sometimes gets dinged by folks for his digressions and his endings, but this is a tight novel, and the ending is an epic gunfight ranging over a hundred pages (or maybe even more). There’s even a chapter of wrapping things up. Another minor complaint is that Stephenson seemed to go to extreme lengths to get his characters romantically paired up. Actually, I didn’t really mind it, but at the same time, I did find it a bit odd in at least a couple of cases (Alex mentioned that it may be a preemptive strike against fan fiction authors who would pair the characters up, but if that’s the case, then I actually kinda hate it. I think it’s really just that Stephenson likes his characters and wants to see them together…)

Ultimately, it’s a fantastic novel and I loved it. This should not surprise you, as I tend to love all of his novels, but as a longtime fan of Stephenson, it is really nice to be able to point to a book that anyone could read and enjoy without being scared away by weird SF tropes, mathematics, obscure history, detailed monetary theory, existential philosophy, the creation of a new vocabulary that is similar, but not quite the same as ours, etc… There’s enough Stephensonian digressions into obscure topics that it will give a new reader a nice introduction to Stephenson without drowning them, and I appreciate that because while I love Snow Crash (the book I used to recommend as a place to start with Stephenson), it’s got a few things that seem to turn off “normal” people. As for the accessibility issue, I don’t really get that as a complaint. No, the book hasn’t changed my life, but few do, and I don’t think all art needs to be like that. Indeed, artists often overreach when they try to shoehorn “profound” into a story that doesn’t need it. And this story doesn’t. What it needs is action and thrills and laughs, which are present in abundance. It’s an excellent book, and a good introduction to Stephenson. For those who aren’t scared of long books, that is…

Update: Otakun comments with some interesting MMORPG perspectives.