Reamde by Neal Stephenson
The default opening for any review of a Neal Stephenson novel is the "cult author, but not really" explanation. Here's how it goes. I tell you that Stephenson is always described as a cult author, and then I list the number of Stephenson novels that have made it on to the New York Times best-seller list - six, five of them at number one - and then I point out that under any reasonable definition of the term "cult author", Stephenson's massive mainstream success disqualifies him.
What's interesting about this argument is the way people keep on feeling they need to make it. "Cult author" seems to be an ineradicable part of Stephenson's authorial persona, even though he clearly isn't one. The reason, I think, is that Stephenson is like that uber-cool kid who sits down the back of the classroom, saying very little, getting near-perfect marks with no apparent effort while giving off a faint vibe of benign contempt.
Even though cyberpunk was essentially dead and buried by the time his breakthrough novel Snow Crash was published in 1992, the book retrospectively turned him into the movement's crown prince. Combine that information-age insider status with his deadpan ironic prose, which is constantly nudging you to see jokes where you normally wouldn't, and what you get is the sense of being invited into the intellectual penthouse suite, for a brief glimpse of a privileged worldview. It's the very essence of cult authorship: reading Stephenson feels like being part of an exclusive club, even when everyone else is reading him too.
I've been pondering the cult author question because of Reamde, which really ought not to feel like a Stephenson novel, and yet does. Another way of stating this is that I really ought not to have enjoyed it, and yet I did. Stephenson's previous book, Anathem, is a 900-page alternative universe novel about hyper-intellectual monks; it recapitulates the entire history of philosophy while quietly dropping a trail of breadcrumbs which leads you - spoiler alert - to realise, midway through the book, that you may be reading an alien invasion action story in exceptionally cunning disguise. The book would have three appendices, except that Stephenson coins a new and far cooler word to replace "appendices".
Anathem, thorny, tendentious and fabulous, is the definitive Stephenson book, and one of my favourite 21st century novels. Reamde is its natural successor only if you start from the position that Stephenson likes to thwart your expectations. It's essentially a gargantuan airport thriller. The earlier Stephenson novel it somewhat resembles is the environmental activist thriller Zodiac, but that's one of his shortest books, and Reamde - the title is a Chinese hacker's misspelling of "Read Me" - is his longest. The difference in scale makes all the difference in the world.
Or so I would have thought. Reamde, which uses an unlikely coincidence involving a computer virus, a Russian mobster and a Welsh Islamic terrorist to throw a huge cast of characters into violent, globe-trotting motion, comes very close to being a book purely composed of plot. And the plot never slows down.
For hundreds of pages you sit on the edge of your seat, waiting to see who's going to live and who's going to die - and then you realise that you're still 400 pages away from finding out.
There are no big ideas in play. The characters are vivid enough to fill their places, but character-driven fiction this is emphatically not. It is, despite its length, the simplest thing Stephenson has ever written, and I kept expecting his marathon sprint for the finish line to lose its grip on me.
It never did. Strip away all the qualities that usually attract me to his fiction except his distinctive narrative voice, and it seems I'm still a Stephenson fan. Don't tell me the man's not a cult author.
David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.