Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

Hackers, gold farmers, pot smugglers, Russian mafia, terrorists, gun nuts, fundamentalists, and man-eating cougars in a sprawling, swollen 21st century doorstopper.


William Morrow, 2011, 1056 pages

In 1972, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa farming clan, fled to the mountains of British Columbia to avoid the draft. A skilled hunting guide, he eventually amassed a fortune by smuggling marijuana across the border between Canada and Idaho. As the years passed, Richard went straight and returned to the States after the U.S. government granted amnesty to draft dodgers. He parlayed his wealth into an empire and developed a remote resort in which he lives. He also created T’Rain, a multibillion-dollar, massively multiplayer online role-playing game with millions of fans around the world.

But T’Rain’s success has also made it a target. Hackers have struck gold by unleashing REAMDE, a virus that encrypts all of a player’s electronic files and holds them for ransom. They have also unwittingly triggered a deadly war beyond the boundaries of the game’s virtual universe - and Richard is at ground zero.

Racing around the globe from the Pacific Northwest to China to the wilds of northern Idaho and points in between, Reamde is a swift-paced thriller that traverses worlds virtual and real. Filled with unexpected twists and turns in which unforgettable villains and unlikely heroes face off in a battle for survival, it is a brilliant refraction of the 21st century, from the global war on terror to social media, computer hackers to mobsters, entrepreneurs to religious fundamentalists. Above all, Reamde is an enthralling human story - an entertaining and epic pause-resister from the extraordinary Neal Stephenson.

In the 90s, Neal Stephenson was The Man. Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are considered cyberpunk classics with enormous geek cachet, and Cryptonomicon is one of the few modern spec-fic novels to make the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

In the Beginning Was the Command Line is also in the canon of holy geek scripture.

I used to be a huge Stephenson fan, and then I hit the Baroque Cycle, and it was like the boring lovechild of two RAHs (Heinlein and Wilson). Just Could. Not. Get. Through. It.

So Reamde is my first crack at Stephenson in a long time, and it was an enjoyable experience - Stephenson is very much an author in the storyteller mold. His prose is there to get the job done without being noticed, and his characters are fun and interesting and have enough depth and introspection to them to make them human, but they are still basically just agents of Story.

It starts with Richard Forthrast and his extended clan shooting shotguns on his Idaho compound. Forthrast, a former draft dodger, wilderness guide, and pot smuggler, became addicted to MMORPGs, got the bright idea of using the game's virtual currency to launder his drug money, and now owns a Fortune 500 company that runs a MMORPG called T'rain.

Next we are introduced to his niece, Zula Forthrast, an adopted Eritrean war orphan, a typical Stephenson-with-shades-of-Heinlein female character (smart, attractive, too good for any of the dudes she hooks up with, not overtly badass but she later kills someone with a DVD) who has just started working for him.

Zula has a boyfriend who turns out to be something of a schmuck. Boyfriend just sold a USB drive full of credit card numbers to a shady character who turns out to be a middleman for some very scary people in the Russian mafia. Unfortunately, Zula's boyfriend's USB drive was infected with a virus called REAMDE, which was devised by Chinese hackers to encrypt the files of T'rain players, rendering their characters and all their bought from Chinese gold farmers hard-earned in-game loot unusable until they pay the hackers a fee to get their files unencrypted.

The Russian mafia middleman guy plugged the USB drive into his laptop, which turns out to have been holding some very, very important files which his Russian mafia boss would really, really like to regain access to.

Fun and hijinks and bullet-riddled misunderstandings ensue, spanning the globe from Toronto to Xiamen to the Selkirk mountains of northern Idaho, bringing together Chinese, Hungarian, and American hackers, Russian mobsters, MI6 and CIA agents, Islamic jihadists, Christian isolationists, and dangerous wildlife.

It begins in British Columbia and ends in Idaho, but much of the action takes place in China, though there are explosions and gunfights everywhere the characters go. This is a book with a very high body count.

Reamde is a return to the wild, balls-out crazy thrill rides of Stephenson's earlier novels. Besides the Forthrasts and their wealthy gun-nut kin, there is a Hungarian computer hacker providing IT support for the Russian mafia. There is an ex-Spetsnaz soldier who switches sides in the middle of a firefight, a Chinese tour guide who was only dragged along for the ride and has a major girl-crush on Zula, who after being abducted by Russian mobsters is abducted by a black Welsh Muslim terrorist who's hiding out in China in an apartment above a bunch of Chinese gold farmers and computer hackers when the Russians arrive and start shooting, all of which is being espied by a Chinese-British MI6 agent, who later hooks up with a CIA agent to go after the Welsh jihadist, who has fled to Canada to launch a terrorist attack in the United States. Meanwhile the Hungarian and Chinese hackers, the tour guide, and the ex-Spetznaz guy take a boat to the Philippines and from there try to find their way to North America to rescue Zula. The climax is a 150-page running gun battle along the U.S.-Canadian border during which Zula kills a terrorist and brings down a plane with a DVD, the terrorist leader beats someone to death with an artificial leg, and everyone is being stalked by a man-eating cougar.

Put like that, it sounds over-the-top ridiculous, and one suspects at times that Stephenson is just testing to see how much he can get away with, but he's a good enough author that he actually does get away with it, if you are willing to forgive a few coincidences and the most improbable assembly of characters to be found in any non-fantasy novel.

This is a long, complicated, multi-threaded story weaving a whole ton of sub-plots together. It shares a lot in common with another (much shorter) book I read recently, Rock Paper Tiger.

However, what it also reminded me of, perhaps a little too strongly, was another book by Neal Stephenson. That book being Cryptonomicon. Stephenson's characters are always mavericks, hacking the system one way or the other, and in this book, instead of a young Linux geek trying to set up a data-haven, we've got a billionaire software CEO setting up a MMORPG designed to cater both to wealthy First World players and the Third World "gold farmers" who make a living off of them. Cryptonomicon had Heinleinesque characters from the brilliant hacker who could read Morse code in the flashing of his laptop's caps lock key to his Marine grandfather who died taking out a Japanese bunker, with a couple of hyper-capable femmes who almost but not quite rose above the level of "sidekick/love interest." Reamde has Heinleinesque characters from the brilliant Hungarian computer hacker who ran crypto for the Russian mob to the ex-Spetznaz anti-hero who goes hunting for Islamic terrorists to Richard Forthrast, former bear hunter and pot smuggler, now wealthy gaming tycoon and heavily-armed aging badass in one of the most in-your-face Second Amendment celebratory zones in the United States. Also, a couple of hyper-capable femmes who do manage to rise above the level of "sidekick," but there is shipping galore in the epilogue.

So, in many ways, Reamde is a novel Stephenson already wrote a decade ago. That's not to say it's not a great book, but it's not a brilliant book, it's just pure guns blazing action and adventure for nerds written by a very smart author.

Verdict: Stephenson fans will be glad that he's returning to his roots with this book, which is whatever the now-meaningless term "cyberpunk" has evolved into in the 21st century where "Virtual Reality" has become Facebook and WOW and organized crime and terrorism are the major sources of international bloodshed. Reamde is a long, fun read that's almost stupid, but just smart enough that you suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy the huge cast of improbable characters colliding, separating, and colliding again throughout the novel, shooting things and blowing shit up from Canada to China.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, neal stephenson, reviews

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