Skip to main content

Reamde - Neal Stephenson (SF) ***

Like most people who have worked a lot with computers, I immediately saw the title of Neal Stephenson's book Reamde as a variant on 'Readme' - as indeed it is. I've really enjoyed his science fiction work like Cryptonomicon and Anathem before, and have even managed to overcome my loathing of extremely long books, as in these works Stephenson is not indulging in drivel, but really fills them with content. However, Reamde has left me with very mixed feelings.

I loved the plot segment that the book's title refers to. Reamde is a virus that takes computers hostage, linked to a massive multiplayer online game called T'rain, which was created as a way of using the virtual coinage inside the game for far more than simply buying a new sword. If you are interested in computer gaming, the parts of the story that revolve around the game are brilliant - as is the twist of the virus resulting in an organised crime gang trying to track down its creator.

However, this only accounts for around 1/4 of the 1,000 plus pages, and I was far less happy with the rest. Firstly, while the multiplayer game storyline is borderline SF, the rest is just a straightforward action thriller with good guys versus evil jihadists. This mostly consists of two huge set piece battle sections, each lasting several hundred pages. I'm not particularly interested in this kind of storyline, which despite being page turning in its intensity at the peaks had a lot of dull troughs. It didn't help that where previously Stephenson's expansive writing was a result of having lots of content, in the battles it really did feel like there was far too much padding and I found myself skipping whole pages at a time to get to something happening. I'm afraid he has strayed into late J. K. Rowling-itis - too famous now for an editor to dare to suggest cutting out the woffle.

Two more issues. Stephenson uses a large numbers of points of view, which I find tedious - while the T'rain part of the story was running I wanted to switch back to the main character's view, and got irritated with all the switches away, while in the battle scenes, and pretty much the last half of the book, the main character hardly features at all and is just a minor character of many - this isn't my favourite style of writing.

The final problem probably reflects my being British. The good guys are pretty well all rabid gun enthusiasts, which plays a major part in the storyline. I'm afraid this just leaves me cold - it was, at times, as if two lots of terrorists were fighting each other. I appreciate that this may have been in part to reflect the nature of battle in an adventure game, drawing real world parallels, which was decidedly clever, but it still left me feeling the 'good' guys all deserved to be locked up at the end for the safety of everyone else. Only the sheer momentum of the writing carries you past the fact that their response to have having an armed hoard of terrorists on the loose is not to call in the authorities but to try to kill them themselves.

This, then, was a book with lots of promise in what should have been its main theme, that became hijacked to become a very lengthy action thriller. Disappointed.


Paperback 

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…