I discovered Neal Stephenson (not actually the man himself, you understand) in my local library. I was browsing for something hefty, preferably by an author I hadn’t read before, when I chanced on Cryptonomicon. It seemed to fit the bill. I borrowed it, read it, returned it and almost immediately went out and bought my own copy, because I knew this one was a keeper.
Some time later, over the course of one delirious summer, I read all three volumes of Stephenson’s monumental Baroque Trilogy (it literally is monumental – have you seen this photo of the manuscript?) back-to-back, the volumes in question being Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World. I’ve since doubled back for Snow Crash, devoured his recent Anathem and now inevitably succumbed to his latest, Reamde.
Stephenson is one of those authors I tell my friends to read. If you’re reading this blog I count you as a friend so, assuming I’m not preaching to the converted, I advise you to check him out. If you’re new to him you could do worse than start with Reamde, as it’s perhaps his most accessible book to date. Confusingly, you’ll probably find it in the science fiction and fantasy section, but this placement is just a legacy from the author’s early cyber-savvy SF novels; Stephenson’s books are actually rather hard to categorise. The Baroque novels are an alternative romp through the history of the Enlightenment and Reamde is probably best described as a modern-day technothriller.
When it comes to Stephenson, however, descriptions fall short. Opening one of his books is a bit like turning on a very bright light – you know, that lamp you keep for really close, detailed work. Or putting on a pair of 3D glasses in the cinema and suddenly seeing all those extra dimensions you’ve been missing. Or falling down a rabbit hole and finding the tunnels lead to way more interesting places than you’d ever imagined. All of which is intended to describe, however inadequately, the sense of hyper-real clarity that accompanies all of Stephenson’s writing. That and the author’s uncanny ability to balance monumental (yes, that word again) scope with vivid and intimate human points-of-view.
I’ve called Reamde a technothriller, and I suppose it is. It follows the rather intense escapades of an unlikely fellowship comprising – amongst others – an American billionaire game developer, a Russian mobster, an English MI6 agent and a Chinese computer hacker. They’re up against a grab-bag of fundamentalist foes, not least the distressingly charismatic psychopathic Welsh jihadist Abdallah Jones. The action springs nimbly from British Columbia to southern China and back again and, thanks to Stephenson’s witty, articulate prose and snappy switches of viewpoint, the pace never drops, despite the novel’s almost extraordinary length. Pace is everything here, really. Roughly one hundred pages in, Stephenson kicks his story into overdrive with what I assumed when reading would be one of his outrageously vivid signature set-pieces. Eight hundred pages later, and nearing the finale, I realised the set-piece still hadn’t stopped – was, in fact, still running faster than Jack Bauer at full throttle.
I’ve called Reamde accessible, and it is. In the Stephenson canon it’s also a standalone. There’s no sign, for instance, of the mysterious Enoch Root, a Wandering Jew character who crops up in several of his novels, despite the fact their time frames are centuries apart. It’s not science fiction and there are no parallel realities. But the fans (of which I’m one – hadn’t you guessed?) will find a few familiar touchstones. The pursuit of gold, for instance (which in this case manifests itself in virtual form within the novel’s online MMORPG called T’rain), a castle location on a remote island that is at least a kissing cousin of Qwghlm and quite a lot of gunfire. There’s also humour and those sneaky moments that catch you out with entirely unexpected jolts of emotion. All strapped to a complex interlocking story that rarely misses a beat.
Although Cryptonomicon remains my personal Stephenson favourite, Reamde is probably my favourite read of this year so far. Given that it’s now the tenth of December, I don’t see that changing. If you’ve read it yourself, tell me what you think. If not, what are you waiting for?