After a decade of novels set in 18th century Europe and in alternate universes, Neal Stephenson triumphantly returns as a bestselling author to contemporary America.
But he doesn’t stay in Seattle for long. Reamde wastes no time crossing borders, taking us — usually illegally — to Xiamen, the Philippines, and British Columbia. Chronologically, our first border crossing is Richard Forthrast’s decision to move to Canada to dodge the draft. Working as a wilderness guide, Richard discovers a smugglers’ route from the prohibition days, and he makes a fortune backpacking marijuana across the 49th parallel. He later goes straight, spends ten years playing World of Warcraft, and invests in a ski lodge.
However, Richard’s greatest achievement is “T’Rain,” a MMORPG. T’Rain is like World of Warcraft, except that it caters to, rather than restricts, Chinese gold miners. T’Rain is an amusing invention, and it allows Stephenson to showcase what may be his greatest strength: the “info dump.” Some authors lose our interest when they engage in an extended info dump. Not Stephenson. He gleefully explains the economy of T’Rain, the creative forces behind its world building, and even arguments over the use of the apostrophe in T’Rain. Should the Dwarvish race be “D’uinn” or “Duinn?” And Richard’s attempt to build compromise around the notion that apostrophes just look cool won’t cut it.
Stephenson’s fans will find it difficult to resist being swept up by these details. In fact, these readers will find that they have torn through a couple hundred pages of exposition in no time at all.
So I was quite surprised when the exposition finished and I realized that Reamde is a techno-thriller, one that recalls William Gibson’s 2010 release, Zero History. Both novels introduce us to a world of spies, creative problem solving in defiance of the rule of law, and a few nefarious uses of the Internet.
“Reamde” is one of these nefarious uses. It is a computer virus that encrypts information on T’Rain users’ hard drives. Because of it, Richard’s niece, Zula, is abducted by Russian mobsters and flown by jet to Xiamen to track down a hacker that uses T’Rain to ransom the encrypted data.
As if that weren’t weird enough, Zula and her captors soon cross paths with international terrorists. Of course they kidnap Zula and plot destruction.
Reamde is further proof that Neal Stephenson is writing in a class of his own. He fuses his typically convoluted plot with the pace and structure of a thriller, and he quite happily tosses bullet points into his fiction. Almost every reader will come upon a section of (the 1000 page long) Reamde that feels unnecessary or indulgent. However, it’s difficult to fault these sequences because they illustrate that Neal Stephenson’s plots are fun enough in spite of, perhaps because of, these digressions. Few other authors digress with such confidence that their audience will still be reading when they finish.
Some readers may be disappointed by Stephenson’s characterization. Although Richard and Zula are easy to relate to, other characters, especially the villains, are traced from stock photos. Relationships are forged, and characters find themselves willing to die for each other, after just a few sentences of interaction. In this, Reamde is very much a thriller, and its page count is strongly tilted in favor of the plot rather than introspection. It’s not surprising there are three hundred pages of detailed action packed into the climax of Reamde, and two pages of resolution in which the loose ends are tied up.
Still, Reamde is a fun, engaging thriller. Though long, it feels as though it could quite easily be made into a Hollywood blockbuster. (Or perhaps it feels like it was inspired by a Hollywood blockbuster.) Consequently, Reamde is a novel that will certainly satisfy Neal Stephenson’s fans, but it may also serve as a gateway into his canon for newcomers.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that throwing all expectations overboard whenever Neal Stephenson releases a new novel is a good idea. Throughout his somewhat dizzying career, the man has rarely stayed within the same sub-genre for more than one book in a row. I was going to start this review with a brief overview of everything he’s written so far, but quickly abandoned that idea because, even just looking at the major novel-length works, it’s hard to pin these books down with just a few words. “Genre-defying” is one of those terms that gets thrown around way too often, but in the case of Stephenson’s output, it’s more than appropriate.
True to form, after smacking his fans upside the head with the high-concept, far-future, parallel universe SF novel Anathem, Stephenson drastically changes direction again with Reamde, a huge but relatively straightforward contemporary techno-thriller. It’s hard to sum up a 1,000 page tome in a short review, so if you don’t feel like reading this rather long one, I’ll boil it down to three words: I loved it.
Reamde has a handful of main characters, but the glue that holds them all together is Richard Forthrast, a former draft dodger, pot smuggler and World of Warcraft addict who founded Corporation 9592 and created T’Rain, an incredibly popular MMORPG that, among several other innovations, is actually built around the concept of gold-farming, combining complex geological realism (mining!) with the possibility of making real money by converting its in-game currency into cash.
Reamde has a deceptively elegant structure that contains an unconventionally paced but very entertaining story. The novel is divided into two sections: Book One opens with the annual Thanksgiving Forthrast family reunion, during which Richard’s niece Zula approaches him for a job at Corporation 9592, and Book Two ends one year later with the next reunion. These two short sections bracket the meat of the novel: a solid 1,000 pages that cover about three weeks and are, for the most part, some of the most action-packed and sheer, plain fun prose Stephenson has ever written.
The story’s pace is unconventional because its dramatic structure is incredibly lopsided. Rather than the more traditional build-up of introducing the characters and the world, gradually getting the plot started, and then slowly building to a final resolution, Reamde offers maybe 100 pages of introduction, followed by one long, spectacular, incredibly intense dénouement that covers the entire rest of the novel. I’m not kidding: this book goes into full-on overdrive before you even realize it, slamming the reader through 900 pages of explosive action scenes with very few chances to catch your breath.
By the start of Reamde, Richard is more or less retired, but he’s forced into action when a mysterious new virus — called, yes, “Reamde” (Readme? Remade? Reamed?) — creates an incredible amount of havoc in both the virtual world of T’Rain and our own world. What’s worse, his niece Zula gets sucked into the resulting chaos when Russian mobsters lose a large amount of data and cash thanks to a combination of the Reamde virus and her boyfriend’s ineptness. This sets off a multi-threaded action plot that covers two continents, a handful of countries, and the virtual world of T’Rain, centered on locating the missing Zula. It involves said Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers, Islamic terrorists, British spies, various geeky employees of Corporation 9592, and the Forthrast clan, which occasionally feels like it could be a remote branch of the Shaftoe family tree, except for Richard himself, who somehow must have had some Waterhouse genes thrown in the mix.
If all of this sounds exhausting, well… it is. Once things get going, the pace rarely slackens. The book is divided into chapters entitled “Day one”, “Day two” and so on, but these divisions are almost meaningless because the action is spread out across several time zones and anyway, the only sleep most of the characters tend to get is when they pass out from sheer exhaustion, frequently while tied up somewhere. Some of them endure things that are incredibly traumatizing, but the pace of this novel is such that they have no choice but to keep going. It’s very hard to find good points to put this novel down for a break, because Stephenson maintains the tension and breakneck speed throughout the entirety of this doorstopper.
The only real pauses for breath come when Stephenson indulges in his — to me at least — loveable habit of throwing info-dumps of various length and importance into the narrative. If you’re a fan of the author, you’ll expect this, and you will not be disappointed. You’ll know that, when you meet a character from e.g. Hungary, you’re in for a little history lesson about that country. Newcomers may be a bit bemused by Stephenson’s habit of doing tons of research and then somehow finding a way to cram every single bit of it into his books, but if you fall in that category you may be surprised to find out that he’s actually fairly restrained here. It may be that I’ve built up some sort of immunity by now, but to me the way Stephenson throws sidebars of information into Reamde’s story feels almost organic, compared to some of his earlier works. No twenty page breaks to lecture on Sumerian mythology here. A few pages of detour to describe the specific design and business concept of the Chinese equivalent of internet cafés don’t really register on my radar as a distraction or an annoyance because it’s pretty much par for the course when it comes to this author. It’s all interesting, quite often funny, and usually, at least in a sideways manner, sort of relevant to the story at hand. Within the first 50 or so pages, he gets going on color theory and palette drift as it pertains to the T’Rain MMORPG, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t do it in such a way that it makes you grin, even laugh out loud, a few times. It’s a crazy writer who can squash this much sheer nerdiness into a dictionary-size novel and still have it be the most entertaining thing you’ve read in a while.
Another reason why it’s hard to take a break from Reamde is its cast of characters. Stephenson simply shines here, with some of the most solid, rounded and entertaining people to ever walk around in his novels. Zula is an Eritrean orphan, adopted by one of Richard’s family members, and she’s the very definition of a strong female protagonist. You can’t help but root for her. Her story anchors the entire novel, and most of the other characters move in and out of her periphery at various degrees of remove. Some of these are introduced early on, and some of them only appear well into the story. It’s a bit surprising to introduce not one but several new major players at page 300 or so, in the middle of what feels like the climactic end scene of the novel, but Stephenson makes it work and anyway, you still have about 700 pages of climactic end scene to go at that point, so it all works out.
What’s most surprising is the diversity and realism of all of these characters. There are spies, gun aficionados, gangsters, terrorists, two fantasy authors and several varieties of geek, all spread across multiple nationalities and running the gamut of the criminality spectrum, from relatively innocent hackers to pure terrorists. A very neat trick Stephenson employs here, and one I haven’t really seen done at this level before, is introducing new characters that are progressively less likable as the book continues, creating the odd experience of realizing that you’re rooting for a character you thought was evil earlier. Evil or not, all of them are painted with incredible detail and feel so real that they could jump off the page at any point. For example, early on, there’s a brilliant scene in which three of the major creative forces responsible for the game world of T’Rain are in a confrontation that later comes to be known as the Apostropocalypse. One of them, a stodgy but brilliant fantasy author, is taking another writer to task for using too many linguistically incorrect apostrophes in his fantasy names. He deftly manipulates the third person, who is the geology geek in the company, into making his point for him in a way that practically makes the geo-geek explode with indignation, then casually discards him to get back to driving his point home. I can’t think of any other author who could have orchestrated that particular piece of dialogue with such virtuosity. I imagine that, if Stephenson chooses this particular scene to read at one of his signings, there may be standing ovations.
Still, it’s probably inevitable that some people will be unhappy with Reamde, so here are a few possible complaints. First of all, Reamde is probably closest to Zodiac in Stephenson’s bibliography, or maybe Cryptonomicon if you take out Enoch Root, so if you’re looking for science fiction elements, you’ll come away empty-handed. I actually expect that some unsuspecting readers coming straight into Reamde from Anathem may suffer some form of literary whiplash. (On the other hand, I think Reamde will gain Stephenson many more new fans, because it’s as accessible as it gets for him.) Secondly — well, it’s a Really Big Book. Personally, I wasn’t bored for even a second, but depending on your level of emotional investment in these characters, you may fare differently, especially if you haven’t had the chance to build up your tolerance for Stephensonian info-dumps, sidebars and other digressions. And finally, I’m fairly sure that the P.C. Police will be out in force, because e.g. all of the characters of Arabic descent are terrorists, most of the Russians are gangsters, and so on. Also, lots and lots of guns. Anyone who reads more into this than just a coincidence to service the plot probably isn’t extremely familiar with Neal Stephenson as an author, but I still expect to see a few reviews complaining about this.
If nothing in the above paragraph sounds like it would rub you the wrong way, I can’t urge you strongly enough to find yourself a copy of Reamde. I tore through this monster of a book in a couple of days, carrying its considerable weight around with me wherever I went. I even found myself dreaming about it during a rare reading break, because the level of intensity Neal Stephenson maintains here is so impressive that even my subconsciousness apparently couldn’t let go of the characters. Reamde is a very rare and precious thing: a 1,000+ page novel in which every single page is purely entertaining and nothing is boring. It’s a techno-thriller that’s so quirky and fun that it really only could have come from the brain of Neal Stephenson. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
“Fate had given us a totally awesome foe.”
When Richard Forthrast was young, he was the black sheep of the family. It seemed like he was wasting his brain by playing videogames and smuggling dope across the Canadian border instead of pursuing more dignified and intellectual occupations. But then he turned his money, knowledge and skills to the development of his own MMORPG called T’Rain. He hired a kid with Asperger’s syndrome to construct a realistic and meticulously detailed planet and brought on two famous fantasy authors to develop the world’s language, history, and mythos. Because of his own experience in underground markets, Richard created his world’s economy to allow players to extract money they make in the game. So, Chinese teenagers can actually make a living by mining gold or developing and selling their characters to players who have more money than time, such as wealthy middle-aged American men who play T’Rain to fulfill their desires for world-building and dominance. T’Rain is now the most popular MMORPG ever.
Things are going well for Richard and T’Rain until his niece Zula, who works for the company, discovers that her new boyfriend is a criminal. Along with the illegal information he’s just sold to the Russian mafia, he has also inadvertently passed along a new computer virus called Reamde. Now the bad guys’ important files are being held hostage until they can drop off a ransom in T’Rain. The Russians want Zula to help them track down the hacker.
At this point, Reamde turns into a fast-paced action-packed globe-spanning twisty geo-political thriller. It’s not really a speculative fiction novel at all, but because some of it takes place in an MMORPG and it enjoys poking fun at fantasy literature clichés, it’s especially appealing to SFF readers. And it doesn’t just make fun of geeks, RPG addicts, fantasy tropes, and those of us who feel ridiculously nostalgic for ancient times we’ve never actually experienced, but it also takes amusing but good-natured swipes at Walmart, Midwestern “recombinant cuisine,” linguistic purism, right-wing extremism, and nagging ex-girlfriends whose voices won’t go away. Best of all, though there’s plenty of information in Reamde, Stephenson manages to sneak it all in without making you feel like you’re in a college classroom — a habit that was an issue for me in his BAROQUE CYCLE.
Neal Stephenson’s villains are a little over the top, but I loved the characters that I was supposed to love. They were a diverse group from all over the world and yet they each felt real to me. (Except that I’m still not believing that a clever Chinese hacker wouldn’t have used a proxy or some other method to hide his IP address — this bugged me all the way through.) We followed this large cast of characters, sometimes alone, sometimes in a group, and I never once got bored with any of them. I’m even having trouble picking my favorite. I adored Zula, an Eritrean refugee adopted into Richard’s family when she was young. She is smart, motivated, and determined to do the right thing. Then there’s the Russian “security expert” with a conscience and amazing skills with guns, and, of course, Richard Forthrast himself, who’s intelligent, worldly-wise, and has a fascinating history that’s revealed bit by bit. I feel a bit guilty that I was also fascinated by the Islamic terrorist…
Reamde is informative, amusing, and tense all the way through — quite an accomplishment for a book that took me 32 hours to listen to on audio. The audiobook was produced by Brilliance Audio and read by the impressive Malcolm Hillgartner who handled this huge cast, with its diverse array of accents, beautifully — I highly recommend this version.
I loved Reamde. It’s may not be exactly what Neal Stephenson’s devoted fans have come to expect from this author, and I expect that some readers will think it’s too light, but if I’m going to judge a book by how much fun it was to read, there’s just no denying that Reamde is 32 hours (1052 pages) of pure fun!