Multilayered but one-sided

Reamde by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic)

Context is everything. Ethnic and gender ­stereotypes might ­actually be entertaining in a world without lynching, ­genocide and rape. Where such ­horrors are commonplace, our laughter dies. Such stereotypes may be unintentional and individually trivial, but cumulatively they ­naturalise prejudice and permit ­persecution.

Violence, too, gets naturalised by repetition, as fierce debates around the sadistic misogyny of much ­current crime fiction are highlighting. If books are any good, they can have an impact on thinking and action. Nothing is ever “just a story”.

Is that an argument for censorship? Of course not. Freedom is a precondition for creativity and there is no law that every reader must enjoy the results. But it is an ­argument for engaging with texts, rather than viewing books as the venality that booksellers view them as: simply as commodities to be ­passively consumed.

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (pronounced “reem-dee”: an anagram of “read me”) centres on Richard Forthrast, former Vietnam draft dodger-turned-millionaire owner of the world’s most successful multiplayer online game, T’Rain. When his niece’s venal boyfriend starts ­selling digital credit information to Russian gangsters, killings, kidnapping and a chase from Seattle to China and back to the mountains of British Columbia ensue. The chase entangles with the activities of ­Chinese hackers and Islamic terrorists. The hackers have created a virus that ransoms ­virtual gold from the T’Rain game for real-world profit; the terrorists simply want to kill people.

There are themes here that readers of Charles Stross (Halting State) and Cory Doctorow (For the Win) will already have encountered. In a much bigger book — Reamde weighs in at more than 1?000 pages — Stephenson employs his layered gaming metaphor to discuss the militarisation of societies across the world and the ways in which the fictions of ­gaming parallel the fictions that support espionage, crime and the war against terror.

The “sides” in T’Rain mutate from simple good versus evil to a more complex set of identifications and allegiances, echoing the role of propaganda and “othering” in creating real-world foes.

A clear moral compass

Along the way there is both wit and action: hilarious satire on the world-building of bad fantasy and ­genuinely harrowing and moving deaths. The book has a clear moral compass: violence is always the worse choice, even when unavoidable, and it scars those who commit it.

These are impeccably liberal ­premises and yet the book is deeply flawed by its treatment of the leader, Abdallah Jones (he was born in Wales), and his group of terrorists.

About war in T’Rain, one character observes: “It’s really a sport — but it has to be story-driven.” And Stephenson grants all his other characters — Russian Mafia, American and British special forces, gun-toting Christian survivalists — the courtesy of a story; they too may kill and maim, but we learn their reasons and feel their pain.

The terrorists, by contrast, are simply mad, murderous and ­misogynistic. If they have a ­reason, Stephenson locates it implicitly in their religion: there are repeated allusions to theology, prayer and Islam as “submission”; none at all to American policy in the Middle East.

As ostensible balance there is cheap pop psychology: how “powerful” wearing an explosive vest makes the formerly powerless feel. And there is the usual throwaway line — straight from the department of homeland security rendition handbook — about how such characters are an affront to the majority of decent Muslims.

These few lines are presumably intended as balance. For the rest, the second half of the book is content to ride with the official United States propaganda picture of primitive, not particularly smart, theologically justified killers and rapists “with the sand of Waziristan still in their turbans”, manipulated by Jones’s more sophisticated “Western” mind (­Stephenson has both Jones and Western special ops make that assessment). If such a representation is not classic Orientalism, I do not know what is.

Jones, the ironic, oddball Welsh-Afro-Caribbean terrorist leader, could have been the character to pull us up short and subvert our stereotypes. He does have a story, even if it seems to have been culled from British tabloids and English National Party propaganda. But Jones is so clearly a literary ­creation — a fabulous beast, like a dragon, or Darth Vader, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld — that he can subvert nothing.

Perhaps the choice of genre ­creates a prison of its own imperatives. ­Stephenson is unashamedly riffing on blockbuster, action-heavy espionage fiction and has talked a lot about Reamde’s intended “accessibility” and thriller-writer Alistair Maclean as an early influence. Certainly the book’s structure — a rather short set-up, with the rest of the text devoted to both real-world and game pursuit and battle — reinforces this as yet another exploration of, for him, new stylistic territory.

Stephenson’s interviews label the book a thriller about gaming. And in “accessible” thrillers the baddies need to be convincingly bad and not much else. He has not talked much about Reamde‘s characters or political context, except in answer to a question from the Denver Post about Jake, Forthrast’s right-wing survivalist brother. “There are ­people associated with that world that sometimes believe some repellent things,” he said, “but my sense is that the overriding mentality there is something to do with wanting to live an extremely simple life and not be bothered. I don’t agree with them about most things, but they are a part of this country and there are many people who may have a family member or friend who is attracted to that way of thinking or that way of life. The idea here isn’t to ­glamorise or idealise them, but to depict ­America as it is.”

Shallow, stereotype-led writing

It is a pity that same informed, nuanced tolerance is not extended to any Muslim. Jones and his band may be bad people; they undeniably commit terrible acts. But they are portrayed using shallow, stereotype-led writing that damages literary quality and could reinforce belief in, and violence based on, those “­repellent things”.

Stephenson usually researches meticulously, and there is a long closing paragraph thanking the friends and experts who aided with China, maps, the Russian ­language, weapons and more. He apparently felt it necessary to talk to no one about Islam or the Arab world.

The book ends with the survivors — Russian, Brit, Chinese and American — skyping one another in a hug fest of mutual admiration. Outside on the creek, the rest of Forthrast’s family shoot off their guns in an ­amiable display of mom-and-apple-pie militarism. Now that scared the hell out of me, although I do not think it was meant to. But, after all, it’s “only a story”.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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