I HATE to be that guy but I just wasn’t expecting Reamde to be so … mass-market. Here’s the review from Tor.com, which cements the problem I have in general with most reviews of celebrity writers with the very first sentence:
Itâ€™s becoming increasingly clear that throwing all expectations overboard whenever Neal Stephenson releases a new novel is a good idea.
Um… no. Expectations are why we have celebrity rock-star writers. Neal and Neil are two of my all-time favorite science fiction writers for a reason, and I read them because I want to read a Neal or a Neil story. I don’t want a Grisham novel or a Steele book. I want more of what I love. In this, Reamde failed spectacularly to deliver, despite starting out with a concept that was almost tailor-made to set alight all my dopamine receptors: gold-farming and MMORPGs. (I don’t intend to rename the blog sindorei.info anytime soon, but it would probably be more apt).
I find reviews of that sort to be empty of any real value. In contrast, Mark writes an honest review in praise of Reamde which makes a far better case for any fan of Neal to pick it up at some point – I don’t have such serious qualms or complaints that I can’t agree with most of Mark’s assessment. But oh my god, Anathem was such a monumental masterpiece! And the Baroque Cycle literally expanded my horizons, historically speaking. (Yes, I’m aware it was fiction. And in an alternate universe, where gold has a stable isotope.)
I guess I expected something similarly mind-blowing with respect to MMORPGs, and i was certainly happy to see what Neal had to teach me about gun lore, liberal biases aside. But (and this is where I nitpick in spoilery fashion) I found the MMORPG part curiously shallow… for example:
Neal certainly got some of the tropes of MMORPGs right, especially the naming conventions for items. But the big Idea for T’Rain, his fictionalized competitor to World of Warcraft, was to make the game gold-farming-friendly, by actually encouraging people to exchange gold in-game for real money. Before I start picking nits though let me bask in a moment of true awesome, where Neal gets a little self-referential:
The opening screen of T’Rain was a frank rip-off of what you saw when you booted up Google Earth. Richard felt no guilt about this, since he had heard that Google Earth, in turn, was based on an idea from some old science-fiction novel.
Look, this pretty much proves that Neal Stephenson is still Neal Stephenson. I mean, if you’re a Fan of Neal, you’ll need a few minutes to just sit and appreciate the sheer rapture the above paragraph is causing you. (If not, never mind).
Anyway – here’s how T’Rain operates:
* Warrior mages and other interesting characters were expensive to maintain. Corporation 9592 charged the owners of such characters more money. Miners, hunter-gatherers, farmers, horse archers, and the like cost virtually nothing; teenagers in China could easily afford to maintain scores or hundreds of such characters.
* Miners, farmers, and the like didn’t require a lot of intervention by their owners. A miner character would reliably generate gold with no human intervention at all, provided that its player had the good sense to plonk it down in a part of the world that had actual gold mines and to protect it from raids by bandits, invaders, and so forth.
* The social structure was feudal. Any character could have between zero and twelve vassals, and either zero or one lord. A character with no lord and no vassals was called a ronin, bugt except among rank newcomers, there were few of these; more typical was to set up a moderately-sized network of vassals who spent their lives doing things like mining and farming. A character who had some vassals but no lord was called a Liege Lord and, obviously enough, sat at the top of a hierarchy; most Liege Lords were small-timers running one-or two-layered networks or miners or farmers, but some ran deeper trees comprising thousands of vassals distributed among many layers of the hierarchy.
By making such provisions and tweaking them over the first couple of years of T’Rain’s existence, Richard and Nolan had managed to pull off the not-so-easy feat of making a massively multiplayer game that was as accessible to the all-important Chinese teenager market as it was to the podgy middle-aged Westerners who were dependent upon those Chinese teenagers for virtual gold. From one point of view, the Westerners got to have more fun, since they could purchase gold pieces and use that virtual cash to fund spectacular building projects and wars that were simply out of reach to the kids in China. But on the other hand, those kids in China were actually making money; playing the game, to them, was a source of income rather than an expense.
Now, this sounds brilliant on the surface, and there’s an even longer excerpt later on in the book describing how money is actually transferred out of T’Rain – virtual in-game gold is “sacrificed” (destroyed) and becomes a deposit to the player’s bank account. But economically, this makes no sense – fundamentally, if gold is generated in-game according to some rate N gp/min, and the exchange rate is X dollars per gp, then the game could theoretically have to pay out NX dollars per minute. Since the system is setup to actively encourage gold farming of this sort, it’s a guarantee that the efficiency of the gp->$ conversion efficiency is going to approach 100%. Even if it’s 1% though, it’s not like Corporation 9592 can print money In real Life. So the payouts have to come from game revenue. In other words, the amount of money paid out to Chinese kids is fundamentally constrained by the amount being paid in by Western podgies.
In Warcraft, we Western podgies pay in, straight to Blizzard’s coffers. AND some Western podgies pay an additional amount directly to Chinese kids for some gp to use in-game. That is, it goes $->gp, not the other way around. And, Blizzard gets a cut too, because those Chinese kids are paying Blizz for accounts just like the Westerners are. In T’Rain, the economics are inverted, and it seems impossible that Corporation 9592 would have any profit at all.
Maybe I just don’t understand economics but I don’t see how this works at all. It’s not metaphysics or alternate realities, it’s basic game mechanics that I think should be fairly obvious to anyone who has played Warcraft for a length of time (as opposed to dabbling on a free account, perhaps to do research on a book).
Here’s my complaint. The true richness of the MMORPG world isn’t evident in Reamde – it’s more like a backdrop for a gimmick, What if Gold Farming Were Real Business? All the reasons we play MMORPGs are absent here – the difference between raids and pvp, why some people solo and others do 5-mans, the eternal treadmill for gear, the social tribalism of a guild. Neal does sort of reference the Alliance vs Horde faction division, but only as a sort of commentary on how arbitrary it is, in T’Rain one side was explicitly Evil and the other explicitly Good, and the users found a way to circumvent that artificial and arbitrary classification (but did so in a frankly stupid way, based on clothing palette. Really? sigh…). In Azeroth, Horde and Alliance are both tremendously varied and there was never any Good/Evil dichotomy, so if that was intended as criticism on Neal’s part, it fell short of the mark.
In fact there is a very brilliant aspect of T’Rain – something truly unique an innovative. It’s called APPIS and I am not going to summarize it here because I think it’s the single thing that makes the book worth reading in the same thought-provoking way that Anathem and Snowcrash and all the rest of his great works are. But to my immense and incredible frustration, Neal introduces APPIS and then never actually uses it in the plot. The actual term APPIS itself only appears on six separate pages in the book! We are given this amazing concept and then it vanishes, never surfacing again in any relevant way, booted aside for guns and jihadists and a discussion about Great Circle routes. This is astonishing. It’s as if the finale to Snowcrash happened in a shopping mall instead of the Metaverse. How can such an incredible concept be left unused? My consolation prize is the essentially useless knowledge that a 1911 is a really awesome handgun. Noted.
At any rate, there’s not much point in complaining further. Maybe we can revisit the Reamde universe at some point where APPIS can play some actual relevant role to the plot. Or maybe not, and maybe some aspiring writer will be inspired by Reamde to invent something similar and actually use it.
Or maybe not and maybe Neal’s next project is the one that will blow my mind the way I expect it to be blown, Stephenson-style. My complaints aside, I don’t regret getting the book and I know I’ll be pre-ordering the next one.