The journey was captivating, thrilling, and brilliantly educational
I was 30 pages into Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge in Hell when I came across the word “T’rain” and I remembered that a) this book was a sequel from Stephenson’s 2011 Reamde and b) I had never finished reading Reamde. In fact, a bookmark had been sitting close to halfway through the mammoth 1,000-page behemoth for nearly a decade.
Unfortunately, within minutes of picking Reamde back up off the shelf, I realised that I had no memory of the first half of the book – only impressions of mayhem in a small Chinese city.
So, eight years after I first started reading Reamde, I have finally finished it. In that time I have read and reviewed dozens of other books – including another Neal Stephenson book, his 2015-published Seveneves, reviewed here. I genuinely love Neal Stephenson books, but as he has gotten older, his books have gotten progressively longer, and my ability to stick with his particular Neal Stephenson-specific style of writing has gotten tricky.
In my review for Seveneves, I said that the book was “the result of a brilliant writer surrounded by editors unwilling or unable to tell him to stop, rewrite, condense, or anything else an editor is supposed to do with a book.” Further, and in summarising my feelings about the book, I wrote:
“What we are left with is two-thirds of a book that is a complete and full story – but that reads more like a think-tank’s novelization of their doomsday preparations – and one-third of a book that is so cramped, condensed, and rushed – while representing a think-tank’s novelization of their preparations for rebuilding human life – that it either should have been its own book, or removed entirely.”
As it turns out, however, Neal Stephenson’s excursive tendencies is specifically why some people love Neal Stephenson so much.
As a long-time listener of the iFanboy podcast (and a financial supporter through their Patreon) I have had the privilege of listening to Josh Flanagan, Conor Kilpatrick, and (though less recently) Ron Richards rave about their love for Neal Stephenson. Recently, with the release of Fall, or Dodge in Hell, we had a discussion on the iFanboy Patreon Facebook page about the various pros and cons of Neal Stephenson’s oeuvre.
What I found fascinating was the fact that not only does iFanboy host Josh Flanagan not read prose novels with the same critical eye that he reads comics and views movies and TV, but that it is Stephenson’s penchant for long technical asides that is so attractive about his writing in the first place. Specifically, Flanagan said, “I know that technically, all of these asides and swirling description are technically wrong. I can spot them in comics and movies where they do not belong. In a book, if they’re interesting and make me smile, or illuminate a thought I am attracted to or even just an attractive turn of phrase, I’m OK with it.”
In brief, for Josh Flanagan, this specific trait of Stephenson’s is what makes his work “delightful”.
Which brings us back to Reamde.
Reamde is a very Neal Stephenson-esque book. The author had obviously been reading a lot about Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), China, global economics, terrorism, global flight paths, boats, North America’s missile defence system, and the border between Canada and the United States – specifically, the Idaho/British Columbia regions. The reason this is so obvious is because a large chunk of the 1,000-page book is taken up with intense, minute diatribes about all of the above.
In some areas, Stephenson plays fast-and-loose with reality to support his story, while at other times he allows reality to dictate his story. One example of this duality is the fact that Stephenson’s grasp of how MMORPGs work is either limited or swayed by the dictates of narrative, and often fails to depict realistic gameplay. Conversely, his understanding of how flight paths, North America’s radar and defence system, and China’s flight departure laws, heavily dictate what his characters can and cannot do and where they can and cannot go.
With my previous point of view in place – prior the recent iFanboy discussions I was party to – these excursions into shipping, terrorism, and global flight paths would have been a negative. Simply put, they are long-winded and unnecessary to the plot of the story. Summaries and vague hints of the technicalities of flying from China to the Western Coast of North America would have sufficed.
However, with the fact in mind that some people specifically turn up to read Neal Stephenson for an intense lesson in whatever Stephenson had been reading the previous five years, I was able to read Reamde with a different lens and enjoy it much more than otherwise. Certainly, this approach to writing is not going to be approved of by everyone – verbosity rarely being heralded as a desirous character trait for prose authors – but with a little judicious skimming in places, I found myself enthralled by Reamde.
Because, in the end, that’s the underlying truth of Neal Stephenson’s novels: He’s a bloody good storyteller. While Reamde suffered a little bit from a “They All Lived Happily Ever After” conclusion to the story, the journey on the way there was captivating, thrilling, and brilliantly educational. This is a very hard book to put down – not least of all that the first two-thirds of the book span only a handful of days, and each “Day” is its own chapter: trying to find a sensible place to pause is nigh impossible. The way in which Stephenson tells his story, though long-winded, is nevertheless utterly enthralling.
So, while there might be reasons to critique Neal Stephenson’s storytelling choices, if you’re willing to simply accept an ad-hoc introduction to video game design and global financial systems, you’re in for a rollicking good time.
Review by Joshua S Hill
Fischer from Australia
Really enjoyed the majority of it, but yes: also felt like it could have been edited down heavily, and while I also agree that it tied up a little too neatly for the main cast, there seemed to have been one glaring omission in that regard: what happened to C-Plus? He was heavily invested in the search and rescue of Zula, one of the the last people to have spoken with her before her disappearance, and the last one to have spoken with Richard before his disappearance. He knew where Richard was, was monitoring all the main cast's activities in the game, would have realised something was amiss by watching the stats, but then just dropped out of existence. Seemingly didn't bother to contact any of Richard's family (or the cops) to suggest they should check in on Richard at the Schloss, Didn't realise that something was obviously seriously amiss when his boss left the game's most powerful character wandering helplessly un-controlled around the world for days, risking complete in-game chaos and potential financial ruin? Didn't check back in with the 'gang' when they logged back in to the game to see if they knew what the hell was going on. Surely C-Plus's experience over the last few days of action would have been a more worthy inclusion than the dozens *hundreds?) of pages devoted to the clothing choices of virtual game characters and the living conditions of its storytellers. Also VERY corny dialogue from characters in high-stress situations: characters seemingly willing to risk their own lives to pause mid gun fight or mid-torture so they can squeeze out a little pun or witty insult. Not sure if it is unique to the e-book, but there are quite a lot of grammar/word errors in the book. Surprised they made it past the editors. What I did like: Interesting locations obviously well researched, unique characters for the most part, some real tension with high stakes.
Andrew from United Kingdom
I raced though this when it first came out - and must confess to enjoying his rambling. Though the occasional feeling of "please get on with it" meant I have not rated it a full 10. Great plot with lots of humour. Dont be daunted by the size!
8.3/10 from 3 reviews