29 January 2012

Books I should have read last year - Reamde

Continuing on with the next in our occasional series of "Books I should have read last year", we arrive at the first work of fiction in our list, Neal Stephenson's Reamde.

Fiction is a rarity for me, ten years ago it was probably all I read, but spending a few years in a college town in the US with a pretty good second-hand bookstore or two while hanging around with a group of ridiculously knowledgeable post-grads flipped a switch somewhere in the cavernous recesses of my then pop-culture-obsessed brain and I began to devour knowledge with a thirst that would have put my own post-graduate self to shame (my Masters was something I did by accident, not even my supervisor could explain why studying the Reformation and the Enlightenment would be a good idea), beginning with many of the books I should have read as a student and then expanding out into other topics, philosophy, history, politics, sociology, linguistics, theoretical physics - my bookshelves are littered with the remains of temporary obsessions as the index of one book would lead to the purchase of several others, most of whom loom down over me now as a constant reminder of all those things that I do not, and will never, understand fully.

With so much guilt radiating from my shelves, I find fiction problematic, a consumption of time that could so very well be used for something more fulfilling, a problem compounded by the fact that when I do read fiction I somehow seem to fall into the trap of reading ridiculously long books. While I do read fiction at a much faster speed than non-fiction, I cannot escape the nagging thought that in the time that it took me to finish all 1,042 pages of Reamde I could have zipped through a Badiou or two (or several Virilio).

Reamde is best described as a thriller, a return to the style of novel Stephenson first explored with Cryptonomicon, and just as that earlier book dealt with the then exotic world of off-shore data havens, electronic currencies and encryption, Reamde combines an exploration of the economics of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORG - think World of Warcraft) with the War on Terror, though not in the usual red-top "terrorists training in Second Life" meme. I'm not a gamer (not a computer gamer at least), and have never played a MMORG, but I do understand enough about the business model behind them to appreciate this aspect of the book, and in the end it serves more as a vehicle for the interpersonal relations of the characters than as the main plot element of the book. In fact the MMORG mainly acts as a massive Deus Ex Machina to bring the characters together (and keep them together), then gets left somewhat awkwardly on the shelf in favour of some large explosions and a climax that manages to be both abrupt and maddeningly long in its execution.

I enjoyed the book, but have to admit that at times it struck me as an over-long airport thriller desperately in need of a good editor. I don't read airport thrillers, yet anyone who has ever spent time in an airport bookshop knows the type - think Tom Clancy or Dan Brown - and it has always struck me that these books seem to have a fetishistic approach to brand names, every car, gun and watch is described in great detail with make, model, year, colour and accessories as if the author cut and paste directly from the dealer's catalogue. My political awakenings coincided with the publication of No Logo, and twelve years later I still bristle at the unthinking worship of brands, almost inescapable now in a world of "promotional considerations" and "marketing synergies". While there is an unhealthy does of gun-fetishization in Reamde, it is the constant name-dropping of mass-market Web 2.0 giants that really got me down. It's not enough for the characters to look at an online map, they have to use Google Maps (and they do, a lot), and Wikipedia is name-checked almost as frequently.

I appreciate that "to google" has entered the English language, but reading the phrase "he/she looked it up on Google Maps" sounds as linguistically clumsy as someone saying "I searched for it on Bing" (which nobody says except on TV when Microsoft has paid them to do so, and even then they look pretty embarrassed about having to do so). When used as extensively as it is in Reamde it seriously jars, I just cannot understand what contribution to the story repeated reference to a specific brand actually makes.

It is not just technologically-inclined business folk who love the web-giants, a post-lecture conversation with Susan George (Grande Dame of the alter-globalisation movement) about my then web-giant employer lead to an invitation to join her group for dinner, and our own Grande Dame of Ireland's Occupy Movement, Helena Sheehan, has embraced Facebook whole-heartedly and regularly holds online salons on her page. Both George and Sheehan spoke to me in glowing terms of the difference to their research abilities made by the web-giants.

Working at the centre of this all for so many years, it could just be a case that I can no longer see what a transformative effect these companies have had for many folks (in fact I often find myself frustrated by how poor some of their offerings are, at least in comparison to the internal-only versions I remember with fondness from my time as an employee). I am reminded of the Simpson's episode where Bart captivates an audience far in the distant future by showing them a yo-yo, to which a man gasps, "What's normal to him amazes us. He will be our new god!", where things that only serve as a frustration for me because of their limitations are for the majority of users so great an improvement over what came before that it instills an emotional response beyond simple loyalty in the user.

It still doesn't explain Zune Guy though, nor does it explain why Stephenson felt the need to pepper Reamde with so many brand names - did he do it because he loves them or because he thought his readers do?

Anyway, its a reasonably good book, certainly not as strong as Anathem, but with less made-up words.

Unless you count 'Google'.

You can find out more about Stephenson here, and Reamde is available from Amazon here.



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