18 Read me? Well …

by Malcolm Redfellow

It took a week of Malcolm’s spare time. He is still musing whether it was a worthwhile investment.

What we have with Neal Stephenson’s latest is an inventive conflation of the cyber-world with a conventional thriller, but inflated over a thousand pages. Don’t drop it: the binding could hardly take the weight: three pounds and half-an-ounce, since you didn’t ask. And … oops! … there goes a large chunk of your carry-on baggage limit. If there was a reason for a Kindle this is it.

Are we really interested in Chinese teenies being able to rip off overweight, over-wealthy bourgeois on-line gamers? Particularly when the westerners are doing so well out of peddling such pap to the lesser breeds without the law? Did we even understand the intricacies of the on-line game which makes so much money for so many people?

The whole thing seems too self-indulgent.

Many of the minor walk-on parts were gratuitously developed to the point when we could begin to take an interest, and they are then neglected. For example, “Pluto”:

Richard’s crazy idea was to eliminate the possibility of such fudging by having the availability of virtual gold stem from the same basic geological processes as in the real world. The same, that is, except that they’d be numerically simulated instead of actually happening. Idly messing around on the Internet, he discovered the mind-alteringly idiosyncratic website of P. T. “Pluto” Olszewski, the then twenty-two-year-old son of an oil company geologist in Alaska, homeschooled above the Arctic Circle by his dad and his math major mom. Pluto, a classic Asperger’s syndrome “little professor” personality now trapped in the rather hirsute body of a full-grown Alaskan bushwhacker, had spent a lot of time playing video games and seething with rage at their cavalier treatment of geology and geography. Their landforms just didn’t look like real landforms, at least not to Pluto, who could sit and stare at a hill for an hour. And so, basically as a protest action—almost like an act of civil disobedience against the entire video-game industry—Pluto had put up a website showing off the results of some algorithms that he had coded up for generating imaginary landforms that were up to his standards of realism. Which meant that every nuance of the terrain encoded a 4.5-billion-year simulated history of plate tectonics, atmospheric chemistry, biogenic effects, and erosion. Of course, the average person could not tell them apart from the arbitrary landforms used as backdrops in video games, so in that sense Pluto’s efforts were all perfectly useless. But Richard didn’t care about the skin of Pluto’s world. He cared about its bones and its guts. What mattered very much to Richard was what an imaginary dwarf would encounter once he hefted a virtual pick and began to delve into the side of a mountain. In a conventional video game, the answer was literally nothing. The mountain was just a surface, thinner than papier-mâché, with no interior. But in Pluto’s world, the first bite of the shovel would reveal underlying soil, and the composition of that soil would reflect its provenance in the seasonal growth and decay of vegetation and the saecular erosion of whatever was uphill of it, and once the dwarf dug through the soil he would find bedrock, and the bedrock would be of a particular mineral composition, it would be sedimentary or igneous or metamorphic, and if the dwarf were lucky it might contain usable quantities of gold or silver or iron ore.

Reader, they bought his IP. Pluto moved down to Seattle, where he found lodging in a special living facility for people with autism spectrum disorders. He set to work creating a whole planet. TERRAIN, the gigantic mess of computer code that he had single-handedly smashed out in his parents’ cabin in the Brooks Range, gave its name to T’Rain, the imaginary world where Corporation 9592 set its new game. And in time T’Rain became the name of the game as well.

With that quantum of character detail into “Pluto”, he gets name-checked just six dozen times in the whole thousand-plus pages: a fair quota of them in that extract.

Much of the middle phase takes place in Xiamen. Huh? — in Malcolm’s younger days that was Amoy, and we were always ready for the Chines Communists and Nationalists to open hostilities across the strait. Earlier still, it was a treaty port, and appears in the history of the Opium Wars. As “Xiamen” Malcolm had to look it up.

Any way, should one believe that it is that easy to hijack a private jet, whizz round a fair bit of the globe, and crash it conveniently close to the castle/theme park in British Columbia that happens to house the main character. Or is the “main character” said main character’s adopted niece?

Well into the story (page 295) an alternative piece of totty is introduced: she just happens to be a British secret service spook under cover in Xiamen. She has to be provided with the usual Stephenson back-story, which takes another dozen pages … and so on.

The “action” repeatedly hangs on considerable unauthorised acquisition of convenient modes of transport. Not to mention the conventional Russian heavies. All with lots of hardware. All, we know, will be coming to a bad end.

And swathes of blood and gore, some of it described in ghoulish detail.

The final chase sequence is interminable, itself the length of a reasonable cheapo thriller. And — oh! — it would be helpful to have one of those cast lists that Russian heavyweight novels include.

After all that the wind-up is so trite it defies empathy. Unless one is an addict of and so they lived happily ever after stuff.

According to the puff on the dust-cover front:

‘Stephenson has a once-in-a-generation gift … his novels are funny, heartbreaking and thrilling’ Time

Four adjectival descriptions. To which Malcolm responds, in order:

  • overstatement,
  • not true here,
  • you jest!


  • well, that’s what a thriller is supposed to do.