I recently finished listening to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde on Audible. Before that, I listened to The Goldfinch, which I guess makes me a glutton for +30-hour audio books. But hey, I have to get my value out of my free Audible credits somehow, right?
Anyway, Reamde is a very long book that’s chock full of colorful characters and locales—and very meticulously constructed action scenes. The story takes a ton of wild, globe-spanning turns, weaving together an immersive World-of-Warcraft RPG video game, Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers, British spies, an Usama bin Laden-level terrorist, and Idahoan militiamen. Remember when the TV series ’24’ earned some eye-rolls for throwing a mountain lion into its unlikely plot? Well Reamde features a mountain lion as well. And a bear for good measure.
In the midst of all that mayhem, it was one of the book’s more understated characters that really captured my attention. Olivia Halifax-Lin is an MI6 agent who is on the trail of the book’s bin Laden character.
When introducing Olivia, the author Stephenson makes an excellent point: The best spies aren’t necessarily charismatic, daredevils who wear wetsuits under their tuxedos. Good spies are better as bit-players—people with faces that you easily trust, and easily forget.
Olivia fits this criteria well. In fact, when she reminisces about her love life, she notes that it was filled with men who ignored her for a while, then became besotted, then wanted some sort of special appreciation for recognizing how unconventionally and discreetly beautiful she is. I wish I could quote Stephenson’s prose exactly. I thought this was a really nice detail, and a nice way to help us understand Olivia and picture her in our head. Olivia is like the girl from ‘She’s All That.’ Except she never takes off her glasses, and then she gets recruited by a international spy agency.
Unfortunately, after this promising beginning, Olivia is shunted to the midground, behind characters who show more flair. Ironic that her greatest strength (according to MI6) is to look and act like a ‘secondary character,’ and then that’s what she becomes in the novel. There was one more interesting, metatextual bit when Olivia’s boss criticizes her for ‘sowing her oats’ in the field—both with her assets and her co-workers. Olivia throws off the line, “If I was a man, no one would criticize me for that. They’d congratulate me for being the next James Bond.” You go, girl! Unfortunately, for all her cool British poise, Olivia is only the third boldest female character in the story—so, like I said, she sort of fades to the background for most of the novel’s 109(!) chapters.