Three Novels: Signal to Noise, Reamde, and Destiny’s Road

The list of authors whose new books I will unquestioningly read is very short, and just got shorter by one.

In the middle of reading a terrible Science Fiction novel, called Signal to Noise, I happened to hear Neal Stephenson speak in Iowa City, promoting his new book Reamde. I bought a signed copy, mistakenly thinking it would be of the same caliber as Snow Crash, The Diamond Age (mentioned in a previous blog), Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and Anathem, all of which were mind-blowingly awesome.

“Caliber” is an appropriate metaphor, since the narrative begins with the protagonist, Richard Forthrast, attending a post-Thanksgiving family reunion in Northwest Iowa, to which the attendees arrive “with shotguns, hunting rifles, and handguns in the backs of their SUVs” (3). The novel starts strong, with the barrage of firepower directed by the Forthrast family at unoffending targets set up along a stream bed matched by a rapid fusillade of Stephenson’s brilliantly constructed prose and wry, humorous, observations. We learn that Richard is the creator of a massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game called T’Rain, and that he has an adopted Eritrean niece Zula.  Interest is further piqued by hints at Richard’s past killing bears and smuggling marijuana into the States from British Columbia.

The plot thickens nicely when Zula’s scumbag boyfriend, Peter, sells stolen credit card information to a man who, it turns out, works for the Russian Mafia. Having given Wallace (the contact) the data on a flash-drive borrowed from Richard, Peter has unwittingly passed on a virus called Reamde.  The program is designed to hold user’s data hostage until the victims deliver a ransom, in the T’Rain game, to the hackers responsible. A delightful scene occurs when a much-flummoxed Wallace shows up at Peter and Zula’s apartment, and they (or rather their characters, since Wallace is an inveterate T’Rain player) attempt to reach the drop point with the requisite amount of gold, retrieve their files, and avoid being killed by a Russian crime-boss.

So far so good. Stephenson seems to be setting up a plot similar to that of Little Brother (the 2008 novel by Cory Doctorow that I highly recommend) in which the action switches between virtual and real, and the characters have to navigate both challenges in the fantastic game-world and threats from the flesh and blood. This juxtaposition is set up nicely when Ivanov, the mafia boss, arrives and kills Wallace, kidnapping Peter and Zula so that they might assist him in tracking down the “troll” responsible for the REAMDE virus.

Granted, the mafia element did seem a little cliché, but I had trust in Stephenson, as an artist, not to fall into the degraded mode of hackneyed shoot-em-ups and formulaic action. I can pinpoint the exact moment at which I lost that trust. It occurred when, after tracing the hackers responsible to the virus to an apartment in Xiamen, the russian gangsters break into what they think is the REAMDE creator’s hide-out. As a result of subterfuge on the part of Zula, they end up in the apartment directly above that of the hackers, and find that it is, by sheer unlucky coincidence, inhabited by a cell of Islamic terrorists, happily cooking up ammonium nitrate, surrounded by Kalashnikov rifles and a “cheaply printed poster of Osama bin Laden.”

Really, Neal Stephenson? Really? I was willing to accept that the man Peter sold the stolen credit card data to happened to be a mafia crime-boss, and that Peter’s girlfriend, Zula, happened to be the adopted niece of the creator of T’Rain, perfectly positioned to help track down the REAMDE hackers, and that said uncle happened to be a bad-ass bear-hunter with an incredibly well-armed extended family, but for me to accept that the best hackers in the world happened to be living directly beneath a nest of Islamic terrorists, I would have to stretch my suspension of disbelief to the point of auto-lobotomizing that part of my brain that calls bullshit when I smell it.

By way of explanation, let me go back for a moment to the novel that I had been reading, that was now sitting with a book-mark half-way through, waiting for me to finish Reamde: Eric Nylund’s Signal to Noise. What bothered me about Nylund’s novel, despite an initially promising techno-futuristic setting complete with “bubbles” of holographic telepathy and academic intrigue, was it’s ridiculous and childish improbability. Jack Potter, the main character, happens to be a world-class cryptographer, who happens to become the focal point of international espionage, and who happens to be the first human to contact alien life and start a multi-billion dollar company.  With a head of super-secret spy implants, Jack uses extra-terrestrial technology to teleport over the Earth in a series of tedious and predictable heroics. Similar to Stephenson’s novel, there was a point at which I lost all respect for the novel: in this case when Jack realized that his use of the teleportation device was slowing the rotation of the planet, and that he was consequently single-handedly destroying the world–which he would then, of course, have to single-handedly save.

Perhaps Signal to Noise is a more extreme example of the moronic Hollywoodesque escalation of plots into hyperbolic heights of heroism, gun-fights, and explosions, but with the introduction of the jihadists into Reamde‘s already untenable story-line, Stephenson’s narrative dropped, in my estimation, to a similar level of infantile wish-fulfillment and super-hero mentality.  Reducing potentially interesting developments to inane action sequences strikes me cynical pandering to an audience incapable of ingesting subtlety, artistry, or genuine surprise.

In summary: don’t read Signal to Noise at all, and if you want to read Reamde, wait for it to come out in paperback. Stephenson is a brilliant writer, but in Reamde his novelistic brain, so reliable until now, seems to have been taken over by Fox News and the National Rifle Association.

What is the point of this review, then, other than warning you away from a novel you might otherwise have high expectations for? The two bad novels I’ve mentioned so far can serve as a platform to introduce a third, which I can genuinely recommend: Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road.

The opposite of the super-hero mentality in which novelists flatten out their settings into improbable, lifeless maps that their giant-sized protagonists and villains can step across, is the masterful world-building of someone like Niven. Destiny’s Road tells the story of a distant colonized world, arranged along a single road burnt by ship’s engines into a strip of molten rock, at one end of which is Spiral Town, where the main character, Jemmy Bloocher, is born. After reading Signal to Noise and Reamde, Destiny’s Road was like having annoying blinders taken off and peripheral vision restored, so that the edges of your sight, the imaginative landscape is constantly calling with suggestiveness and life. The vibrancy of the universe exceeds the narrow needs of the narrative itself, and although confined to a single stretch of road on a distant planet, it exudes detail, plausibly sketched biology, technology, characters, communities, and society. Jemmy is not some puffed-up superman, but a hapless wanderer in a world he doesn’t fully understand, driven by circumstance and wonder to discover more and more about the alien places he inhabits.

It is speculative Science Fiction at its best, where genre becomes a means to contemplate the complexity and beauty of the universe, rather than a tool to beat such complexity into submission, into the procrustean bed of predictable plot development. Niven allows his world to emerge from within its own rules of plausible possibility, like a bright yellow moon lifting itself up above a fixed horizon.


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