Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Mrs. Speculator and I are fans of the BBC America program, Top Gear. She is a big fan of cars, especially high-end ones, and they are what Top Gear specializes in. For myself, while I can appreciate a high-performance vehicle, I don't lust after them as she does. It's not really the cars that cause me to watch the show, nor what has made it into a hit international television program, available in (they claim) 170 countries.

Three things bring me back again and again to Top Gear. First, there are the presenters—three wildly different men, each with their own likes and dislikes, trying to get along with one another through the course of each episode. A large portion of the delight the show inspires is the unnatural chemistry the three men share with one another and the camaraderie they share as they present their pieces about the cars or attempt their weekly stunts. The bonhomie is so deep, the viewer feels like they are a part of the group on screen. The second is those near-weekly events, which range from driving a group of second-hand cars across the Kalahari to trying to build their own space shuttle out of a used hatchback. These stunts also quickly pull the viewer in, but viewed from a higher level, they are generally silly and somewhat head-scratching in their ludicrousness. But the one thing that brings me back to the show again and again is the stupendous BBC cinematography. Even when just driving down London streets, the photography is on a par with Oscar-nominated movies, both for content and framing. Imagine the photography standards from a high-end BBC documentary like Blue Planet placed on a weekly car show, and you have an idea of how beautiful and skillful the camerawork is.

Neal Stephenson's Reamde is very much like Top Gear. The fairly twisty thriller is a delight to follow but examined from a high level, it seems ridiculously silly. Beginning with Richard Forthrast, a game development millionaire shooting rifles at a Thanksgiving reunion in Iowa, the plot pulls in seedy hackers, closed-door accountants, MI6 agents, Russian gangsters, and black Welsh terrorists (to hint at just a few of the characters). The setting itself travels all over the west coast of North America and into the Rockies, then back west into China and the Philippines. It's convoluted and twisted and while undeniably silly, breathtaking in its rambunctious helter-skelter pace. There are gunfights and buildings that blow up, and major internecine warfare on a scale only an electronic role-playing game can offer. And it's simply delightful; though I recommend trying to explain the plot to someone who has not picked up the book yet to get a feel for just how impossible it is.

A great deal of that delight comes from the rich and full characters that Stephenson uses to populate his world and then throws together in outrageous circumstances as they pursue their individual goals. Taken on her own, the concept of an Eritrean orphan raised in the farmlands of Iowa and now employed at a software company is enough to satisfy most any other author, but Zula Forthrast has depths that go beyond merely her background. And when she finds herself kidnapped not once but twice, the reader is given the opportunity to not only appreciate her resourcefulness but to empathize with her for every decision she has to make. A similar level of detail is given to Sokolov, a Soviet security expert from Toronto who finds himself being hunted by Chinese police after he mistakenly uncovers a nest of Islamic radicals. Stephenson doesn't just play favorites: pretty much every named character is given enough attention (and quirks!) so that they are not remotely flat but instead likable in their fullness even if they are despicable curs. And then the plot just throws them all together in seemingly random combinations, at times feeling like a global version of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World as they race in many different paths toward the same final destination, asserting their humanity—their richness—in ludicrous and trying circumstances.

But the real draw of Reamde, as it is with most of Stephenson's books, is the economy and elegance—and pure beauty—of his writing. Part of me is always angry when I read a Stephenson novel;his every sentence feels so effortless and yet there are no wasted words. His descriptions of places are practical and yet comely, combining important information for the advancement of the plot with beautiful style and word choice. But it all happens with tremendous ease—the words and sentences flow off the page with no hiccups other than the occasional lexicographical errors that the copy editors missed. Unlike his most recent work, Anathem, very little of Stephenson's talent and text in Reamde is devoted to world-building, so he can directhis resources to the craft of putting word to page instead of imagining the place he seeks to describe. In fact, there is practically no world-building at all, and it would be overstating the case to describe the novel as science fiction. At best it is a techno-thriller, ultimately concerned with how computers have established themselves in every aspect of our lives, from gaming to transportation, and how sometimes those helpful devices get in the way of real work.

There is irony here, as we watch Richard deal with an unexpected and massive war between factions of players in his MMORPG at the same time as most of the rest of the characters are trying to hatch or thwart a terrorist plot. Stephenson also uses the magnificent landscape of British Columbia, Washington, and Idaho as a stark contrast to the relative clean landscapes of interacting with other people online. Information is always at hand in the computer age, except when it isn't, and it is those moments when Stephenson's characters and plots shine the brightest. And all of it is organic and compelling: the book nearly refuses to be set down once it is picked up.

It's tempting to describe the novel as popcorn fare, since the events and characters stretch credulity. But if it is light entertainment, it is the Citizen Kane of popcorn books, crying out both for haste in reading and meticulous study of every sentence. I'm pretty certain that, once read, this book will delight and haunt the reader reflecting upon it such that it has to be reread on a regular basis.

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