Reamde by Neal Stephenson
In the early 1990’s Neal Stephenson became a geek fiction icon with the cyberpunk novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Since that time, his novels have veered from science fiction deeply into historical fiction and then back again. Reamde, a novel in which a Chinese hacker’s computer virus ignites a global chain of events involving spies, terrorists, and mobsters from around the world, marks a departure into something completely different for Stephenson – an action-packed thriller.
Reamde opens on the Forthrast family reunion in Northern Idaho where 50-something Richard Forthrast is reconnecting with his niece, Zula, an Eritrean orphan who had been adopted into the Forthrast family at a young age. Despite the presence of her irksomely self-centered boyfriend Peter, Zula appears to have grown into a rather intelligent young woman. Richard, the millionaire founder of a Fortune 500 game company (who, along with others, reemerges in Stephenson’s 2019 novel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell) picks Zula as an ideal candidate to join Corporation 9592 in the geographical modeling of the company’s virtual world, T’Rain.
T’Rain (pronounced like “terrain”) is the setting for the eponymous massively multiplayer online role-playing game that has, in Reamde, overtaken World of Warcraft and become a global obsession. Everyone from Midwestern American farmers to teenagers in urban China are not only familiar with but are actively playing T’Rain. Among the reasons for its popularity are the game’s meticulously encoded backstory – both in the rendering of its physical world and the crafting of its mythology.
A more significantly attractive element of T’Rain, particularly among its young Chinese adherents, is the fact that gold – mined, found, or stolen – in the game world can be converted to currency in the real world. It is this feature that prompts a savvy young Chinese hacker to create REAMDE, a computer virus capable of profiting from T’Rain, that sets into motion the gears of this sprawling multi-cultural techno-thriller.
The computer virus issue quickly morphs into a far more serious problem involving heavily armed Russian mobsters, in whose custody Zula and Peter soon find themselves. But the Russians prove to be preferable to the band of al-Quaeda terrorists who enter the picture shortly thereafter. As usual, Stephenson flexes his world-building muscles, setting a multi-national stage upon which to weave his story. And weave he does. In addition to the terrorists and Russians, Stephenson throws Chinese police, British spies, and American marines into a complexly intertwined set of characters and narrative threads that keep the story moving at a pace that mitigates the novel’s 1,000 page heft.
And though Reamde is plotted to carry the reader along at a thriller’s clip, this is still a Neal Stephenson novel, and the author, as usual, manages to throw in plenty of arcane knowledge including such items as the unique workings of a Makarov semi-automatic pistol, the Midwestern phenomenon of recombinant cuisine, and some light commentary on tuck-pointing (the refurbishment of old brick using historically-accurate mortar). Such diversions never fail to impresses upon me Stephenson’s curious nature, and I am certain that Stephenson himself is at least as interested in tuck-pointing as any of his characters.
Another aspect of Stephenson’s writing that I truly enjoy is how keenly humor figures into it, sometimes overtly but frequently in subtle wordplay. I knew Reamde would be no exception when, early in the novel, I read, “Richard’s future ex-girlfriend of the moment had spent several years with her nose pressed up against the glass of Hinduism…”
Some of the most wryly humorous scenes surround the creation and game-play of T’Rain – for instance, the detailing of the “Apostropocalypse” in which two of T’Rain’s key writers come to verbal blows over in-game naming conventions, or the unveiling of the most powerful T’Rain characters – Egdod, for whom “Gravity was of no more concern than crabgrass to an archangel,” and Exalted Master Yang, “capable of killing a man with his eyebrow.”
In all of this, Stephenson employs ample tongue-in-cheek fun-poking at the geek factor inherent in gaming culture:
“A Weirding Ward costs about one gold piece per linear meter,” C-plus said, referring to a type of invisible force-field barrier that could be erected by sufficiently powerful sorcerors.
“Cheaper if you harvest the Filamentous Cobwebs yourself,” Richard retorted, referring to the primary ingredient needed to cast a Weirding Ward.
“Not as easy as you make it sound, given that the Caves of Ut’tharn just got placed under a Ban of Execration,” countered Corvallis, referring, respectively, to the best place to gather Filamentous Cobwebs and a powerful priestly spell.
Reamde is a fun read – perhaps the most enjoyable since The Diamond Age (caveat: I have yet to read Cryptonomicon), but it’s not perfect. As usual with Stephenson, some of the descriptive passages are overwrought, and, in many cases, the gun battles drag on entirely too long. That said, Stephenson does an incredible job of interlacing his numerous and shifting plot lines, and Reamde teems with richly-imagined and compelling characters. It will doubtlessly be a favorite with and even broaden Neal Stephenson’s already generous fan base.