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 in 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 around 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 in 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 door-stopper.
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 side-bars 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, side-bars 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.