Stephenson’s books are usually like the third season of Battlestar Galactica: silly, epic, genius, immersive, and addictive. Although his breakthrough 1992 book, Snow Crash, is usually seen as a seminal cyberpunk novel (it coined the use of ‘avatar’, for example) – it isn’t. Stephenson was always too erudite to be a proper cyberpunk believer, though he played its conventions well: libertarian capitalism cross-fertilised by post-human, urban Darwinism, and an anti-materialist disdain for the flesh.
Which is why it was so great to see Stephenson out to play in Reamde. He makes William Gibson’s prolific recent output look like throwback chaff (Gibson’s books seem to be populated by the same boring archetypes – Case by a million other names).
I won’t even begin to summarise the crazy plot. One central character, Richard Forthrast, has made $ billions through an MMOG, T’Rain. Central to the success of T’Rain is that players can make real money in its imaginary world. Forthrast makes gem and $-farming not just legal, but part of the game’s lore and life. T’Rain even comes replete with a crazy temple where in-game riches get whooshed into the sky as offering to the ‘gods’/paypal accounts.
“Video games were a more addictive drug than any chemical, as he had just proven by spending ten years playing them. Now he had come to discover that they were also a sort of currency exchange scheme.” p34
To cut 1050 densely typeset pages short, the message is: ultimately, virtual reality doesn’t help when Jihadists invade North America. When that happens you need guns, lots of guns: preferably described in salacious, pornographic detail. Although amusingly, both the Jihadists and Forthrast’s survivalist relatives (or, as the Russian Sokolov wryly dubs them, the ‘American Taliban’) get armed up at Walmart. (In fact, the whole plot arc was quite like Anathem, his brilliant previous novel, in which a cadre of bookish monks morph into space-swimming, martial arts experts, before dishing out some hurt to the alien baddies, waxing philosophical even as they capture the bridge of spaceship).
Anyway, it was nice to see some online shenanigans divested of the usual sf hyper-libertarian, ‘wouldn’t-it-be-great-if-we-could-all-like-download-our-brains’ ideological façade. Reamde, the biggest ever MMOG (bigger than World of Warcraft…) is about $$$.
Reamde is worlds apart from Peter F Hamilton’s latest book, which I also just finished. Hamilton is best known for his Night’s Dawn trilogy, which while awesome also polluted the science fiction genre with all the worst hallmarks of fantasy: over-sexed teenage-brained protaganists, pneumatic air-brushed female characters, derivative plots and bad writing. (There must be an equation somewhere in which you can plot the quality of the sf inversely to the number of zero-g sex scenes). Still, Hamilton’s books are a guilty pleasure.
The bloated Great North Road has lots of silliness to commend it. Newcastle (the upon-tyne version) has become a pan-galactic hub for bioil, which flows in via some gateway-thingie from the planet St Libra. St Libra, luckily, has no sentient life to colonise, just lots of spiky but virginous green. And its of course the only place where the spice melange bioil can be manufactured, distorting free market forces and shoring up a nasty oligarchy of cloned corporate uber-barons.
There is a truly dreadful ‘police investigatory’ side-plot, but the main ‘story’ is revealed slowly. Giving it all away, the plants of St Libra turn out to be a gestalt consciousness. For narrative purposes the gestalt is embodied by a wood-skinned, dagger-fingered villain who goes around gutting, eviscerating and generally behaving un-hospitably. Tssk, pesky native.
It turns out that this ‘being’ knows how to defeat the real villain, the trans-dimensional Zanth who threaten not just the galactic economy, but the survival of humanity (the Zanth? Seriously?). So a bargain is struck: St Libra is turned into a wilderness park, humans learn how to make bioil on a terraformed planet instead: deal done. There probably is some tortuous eco-message in here about that which we recklessly exploit being the only thing that can save us, but after 1085 pages of sexist drivel I couldn’t be bothered to think about it.
As a palate cleanser I’ve looked out some good old feminist sf to read: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Sheri Tepper’s Grass.