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It's a Made, Made, Made, Made World

The first Neal Stephenson book I ever read was Snow Crash.  About two-thirds of the way through, Stephenson resolves a chapter-long encounter with the following sentence:

  After that - after Hiro gets onto his motorcycle, and the New South Africans get into their all-terrain pickups, and the Enforcers get into their slick black Enforcer mobiles, and they all go screaming out onto the highway - after that it’s just a chase scene.  

One way of looking at Stephenson’s latest work, Reamde, is as a 1000-page chase scene.  It takes a hundred pages to introduce the first third of the characters and the MacGuffin, and by then we’ve had plenty of the signature digressions and dissections that lay bare how Richard Forthrast has comprehended the System of the artificial World of MMORPGs and his own company's game world, T’Rain.  But then Richard’s niece’s boyfriend’s one-off experiment in computer larceny is fatally compromised by a computer virus, and we’re off on a globe-trotting picaresque picking up Katamari-Damacy-style a dozen more characters, most of whom have useful competencies but only a couple of whom have ever played or would normally want to play T’Rain.

I remain an ardent admirer of the street smarts as applied to late 1980s Boston in Zodiac, and I am gratified that Stephenson relocated to my neighborhood to give the same treatment here to early 2010s Seattle (there’s even a cameo by "Sounders traffic"!).  The early specter of "Chinese money laundering" probably ought to have given us idea of how badly our heroes could have ended up, but I was pretty gobsmacked when Sokolov’s crew knocked down that door and determined that a) no, the Troll really was just a gang of gold-farming kids and not a front for a centuries-old cabal plotting to subvert all the world’s currencies, and b) yes, we’re going to spend the next 750 pages hunting down Osama bin Laden’s college roommate.

So there’s foreshadowing, there’s lampshade hanging, and there’s telegraphing.  As soon as we learned that Richard had trailblazed a hidden route across the U.S./Canada border and his fundie brother homesteaded the southern terminus, I had a pretty good idea where this novel was going to end up.  While it clearly stretches credulity to have arranged for all the disparate characters to arrive in northwestern Idaho simultaneously, in the end I was rooting for it.  I was even disappointed that Stephenson couldn’t find a way to get D-Squared and Devlin on the scene, possibly LARPing the War of Realignment.  (In a lesser literary universe, the border crossing dénoument would have featured Devlin as a cosplaying Troll besieging the Schloss and demanding D-Squared’s head on a pike.)

Once again I thought I detected from Stephenson, directed at his more cosmopolitan readers, an apologia on behalf of Stephenson's midwestern, gun-toting roots.  Stephenson is (among others) heir to a literary tradition featuring many Competent Men, and shortly into her captivity Readme’s Zula identifies the confidence and resourcefulness of (some of) her companions as masculine (and attractive) traits (and as she does so Stephenson admonishes any reader who thinks twice about such an identification).  Of course, it is Zula’s persistent confidence and resourcefulness that averts many tragedies, but Stephenson is happy to let Zula (and us) feel grateful that she was adopted by self-assured Iowans who made sure she knew how a firing pin functions.  I don’t terribly mind Stephenson’s conceit that cities and institutions are necessarily sources of corrupting bulshytt, and don’t begrudge anyone’s pride in their facility with firearms.  I will, however, look askance at an ostensibly modern novel that finds its villains in dark-skinned religious fanatics who plot to commit mass murder in an American city full of secular hedonists and who are in no small part thwarted by white Creationists who are in a convenient location because they are running from black helicopters and sex education.

Nevertheless, I was enthralled by the plot and engaged by the characters, and only once or twice did I skim a tedious passage where Sokolov performed some MacGyveresque feat (thereby probably disqualifying me from masculine resourcefulness) .  I don’t know that I’d ever re-read Reamde, but I’m pretty sure that while I’ve never found the time to sample a MMORPG, I’d immediately try a T’Rain if I believed it was designed by someone as resourceful as Richard Forthrast.

Copyright © 2011 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.