Sep 23 2011 4:00pm

Pure, Action-Packed Techno-Thriller Entertainment: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Reamde by Neal StephensonIt’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.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. Many of his reviews can be found at Fantasy Literature.

1. Natenanimous
That sounds interesting. I own a number of Stephenson's books but haven't found the time to really dig into them yet. So far the only one I've read is Quicksilver, but I adored it. It was so full of interesting writing and historical information. Every page was as jam-packed with stuff as it was possible to be. I could see how that might put some readers off, but you can certainly never accuse Stephenson of not giving you your money's worth in a book.

The idea of a 1000 page book that's almost pure nonstop action is intriguing, and Stephenson might be the only author I know who I'd trust to pull that sort of thing off without it becoming boring through lack of relief. I'll have to check it out at some point. I should probably catch up on some of his other books first though.
Ben H
2. dripgrind
1. Reamde is closest to The Cobweb in Stephenson's bibliography, if we're going to include the books he co-wrote with his uncle using the pseudonym Stephen Bury.

2. Your aside about the mythical "P.C. police" raises some slightly interesting points. It's true that all the characters of Arab descent are jihadist terrorists, but it's also true that many, if not most, of the terrorist characters aren't Arabs: Abdallah Jones is Welsh/West Indian, Sharjeel is South Asian, Ershut is Central Asian, Erasto is East African, Sharif is said to look "a bit North African", "Abdul-Ghaffar" is Anglo-American; a lot of the terrorists we encounter early on are probably Uyghur Chinese etc. etc.

We also learn that "Zula could only think of all the nonterrorist South Asians, happily assimilated into North American society, for whom an asshole like Sharjeel was their worst nightmare".

So it doesn't seem like the novel equates "Arab"
or "Muslim" with "terrorist" at all - you seem to be the only one who has actually raised that issue (unless you have links to show otherwise?). If anything, it seems like you are uneasy with how the terrorist characters are portrayed, and you're attributing your unease to the "P.C Police". It's commendable that you are sensitive to these issues.

The cheap Hollywood move to deflect criticisms of racism or Islamophobia would be to include a sympathetic Muslim, but Stephenson doesn't bother with that, instead trusting to the sophistication of his readers.

The depiction of the terrorists who make it to the US actually fits the demographics of the 9/11 attackers pretty closely: sophisticated Westernised leaders plus naive 'muscle'. Precisely because their depiction was so close to reality, the characterisation of the terrorists seemed more predictable than the characterisation of the goodies. I kind of hoped for a Stephensonian digression on the roots of Islamism, but I don't think the terrorists were described in a way that was actually Islamophobic or even too unrealistic.

I'm not at all clear how having a Russian mafia character, or having characters wield "lots and lots of guns", has anything to do with political correctness. Sokolov's men are private contractors, not mafia, so it's pretty clear that nobody's saying all Russians belong to the mafia or anything like that. Gun control doesn't have much to do with the issues of gender/sexuality/disability/race which are usually considered to constitute "political correctness". And preferring a certain level of gun control doesn't mean you can't be interested in the details of ballistics or enjoy rooting for the good guys in a shootout.
Stefan Raets
3. Stefan
@2. dripgrind. Thanks for your comment! I appreciate that you took the time to read through my entire 1,800+ word review to address the two points you disagree with. :)

1. I was really only including the major novel-length solo works, but I can't argue with you about that one. My main point was that this novel is as close to mainstream, non-genre, non-SF fiction as Stephenson gets. We can make several arguments either way about which one of the three books we've mentioned is closest to Reamde, but I'm fairly confident that the point got across (which is really all I hope for), and that more people are familiar with his solo novels than with his Stephen Bury ones, which is the main reason why I listed those two books. I appreciate the comment though.

2. My aside about the PC Police was part of a paragraph in which I'm literally grasping at straws to find things that people might possibly dislike about Reamde, which (and I hope this was clear) is a book I absolutely loved. I would also hope that it's clear that I personally don't agree with any of the three possible reasons for dislike I listed, but as a reviewer, I try to put myself in the shoes of as many readers as possible and then try to address the book from those perspectives. No, I don't feel that the lack of speculative elements is a problem. No, I don't feel like the book is too long. And no, I definitely don't feel like the book strays over any PC line. However, I expect that there will be people who do feel one or more of those things, even if don't personally agree with them.
Specifically with regards to the PC Police comment: my own feelings towards the entire concept of political correctness are pretty strong. I'm not a big fan, to put it mildly. Again, I hoped that the general tone of that paragraph and even just the whimsical term "PC Police" implied that. I'm also confident that Neal Stephenson himself doesn't share the opinions of such people at all and was really just trying to tell a ripping good story without any political agenda at all (and, as you said, trusts the intelligence of his readers to figure it out.)
However, I know there are people out there who will take offense at things that don't even consciously register on my radar. Personally, I'm not "uneasy" about how the terrorist characters are portrayed, or the Russians, or the amount of guns. Your point about the jihadists' different ethnicities is very well made (as is your Zula quote-thank you), but I expect that the lack of actual moderate, non-terrorist Muslims in this novel might rub some people the wrong way, just like some people can see a list of authors and complain that a specific gender or minority is missing, or read the recent Time Magazine issue commemorating 9/11 (which was very balanced and utterly moving) and feel motivated to write a letter to the editors complaining that there weren't any African-American people in that issue at all, when it's abundantly clear that those omissions weren't in any way conscious on the part of the people who put that list or that magazine issue together.
So. No, I don't feel NS strays over any imaginary or non-imaginary PC line, and if some people think he does, it definitely wasn't intentional in any way. I also don't have links to reviews or opinions that claim he does, which may be partially because the book has only been out for all of three days, or which may be because my hypothetical uber-PC reader is simply non-existent. If so, all the better. Either way, I thought it was a minor point that merited being mentioned towards the end of an otherwise extremely positive review--even if I now hope that it won't draw attention away from the rest of the review too much...
On a somewhat related note, and since you brought them up yourself: I was surprised that Stephenson didn't mention the Uyghur people explicitly and draw that into the narrative. I was literally waiting for it and expecting the brief side-bar about their history, but it never happened.

(Sorry, this turned out longer than I thought!)
Ben H
4. dripgrind
I know you don't like what you think of as "political correctness" - what I'm saying is that you're setting up a straw-man version of it, creating an imaginary "PC police" who might descend on a book because it has "lots of guns". But the imaginary "PC" complaints you've thought up don't really make sense. Admittedly, that may not stop somebody actually making them - but so far you are just criticising a caricature you have in your head.

You say that people will take offense over missing diversity that doesn't "register consciously on your radar" - yet the lack of non-extremist Muslims in the book *did* actually register with you. So you do have an awareness of that sort of thing (albeit a not very sophisticated one, since you seemed to lump all the non-white characters together as "Arabs") - and that's to your credit. Now you just have to get over resenting being made to think about it.

Also, just because an omission or an association isn't "conscious", doesn't mean it's necessarily OK. I was once giving directions to an American tourist in London when a black man walked past us - she broke off mid-sentence and asked me "is it safe to walk here?" I'm sure if you asked that lady if she was racist, she would say no, but she pretty clearly saw black men as dangerous on some level.
Stefan Raets
5. Stefan
I definitely did not lump together all the "non-white characters" as Arabs, as you state in this second comment. I erroneously referred to all the jihadist characters as "Arabs", and I obviously should have said "Muslim". I gladly admit to that mistake. You're 100% right that Stephenson's group of terrrorists is considerably more racially--if not religiously--diverse. I think I've explained my reasoning sufficiently with regards to the whole PC idea in my first response, so I'll leave it at that, but I definitely don't "have to get over resenting being made to think about it" - as I never did. Resent it, that is.
6. Jeff R.
You know, I have no problem whatsoever categorizing Reamde as SF. First of all, it clearly qualifies under the not particularly clear but often useful "things the sort of person who likes SF lifes" defninition. Second, technothrillers in general belong to the SF family tree, though they may be black sheep thereof. (Had SF fans liked Cardinal of the Kremlin enough to, say, nominate it for a Hugo, purists would had a tough time phrasing any complaints about it.). Third, I think that SF is the only genre in which one is allowed to have a billionaire as a good guy protagonist. Fourth, I think that the present and the future have temporarily merged to the point that any book that is aggressively set in the technical present (this, or Gibson's latest trilogy) qualifies as SF for the time being. And finally, there are a couple of features of T'rain that are at the very least unrealized technology...
Stefan Raets
7. Stefan
@6. Jeff R. - I'm going to guess that most bookstores will shelve it under SF, regardless of actual content, so yep, why not. Whatever the label, it's a wonderful novel.
A.J. Bobo
8. Daedylus
Thanks for the review. I've read a few Stephenson books (Cryptonomicon, Baroque Cycle) and, from what I've heard, I'm always nervous about whether or not I'll like his others. But I love the idea of 900 pages of Stephenson action. The man can write geeky and he can write action (the Cairo gun-fight in The Confusion comes immediately to mind). I'll definitely have to pick this one up.

Has anyone out there been to a reading where they heard how this title is actually pronounced? A guy on Google+ told me that it's Reem-Dee, but I don't know if he knew that authoritatively or if he was just giving me his opinion.
Stefan Raets
9. Stefan
I listened to a video-chat with Neal Stephenson (on GoodReads) while I was working on this review, and he pronounced it "reem-dee", so that's what I'm going with.
10. worromot
I've long been a big fan of NS's writing. I loved Cryptonomicon and Zodiac, think the opening of the Snow Crash is among the best writing anywhere, and consider In The Beginning was the Command Line a good read. (Admittedly, the Baroque Cycle wasn't my cup of tea.)

But this I found just embarrassingly bad. There are no ideas of any kind there that haven't been done before, and much better at that. This feels like an adaptation of Charlie Stross' Halting State for slow readers, populated with shadows of Stephenson's old characters, primarily from Snow Crash. The expository dialog is very expository ("This computer has a lot of RAM. - what is RAM? --That's what people usually call memory". I'm not exaggerating too much here...)
Steve Taylor
11. teapot7
> This feels like an adaptation of Charlie Stross' Halting State for slow readers,

Funny - I was just thinking how much better this was than _Halting State_. I only like Stross a bit under half the time and _Halting State_ is definitely in the bad half for me.

Still - I'm only a hundred pages in or so, so it's early days yet.

I agree with the comment that this feels like _Cobweb_.
Chuk Goodin
12. Chuk
I really liked Reamde, too. Stephenson's voice and his infodumps are like brain candy or something. (Oh, and part of my enjoyment was local colour -- I live in BC and I've used the border crossings mentioned in the novel and been to a lake that's in it.)
I could see people who are more fans of Anathem and other "big idea" books of his not enjoying it as much. I hope it does get him some more mainstream attention but I'm not sure it will -- it's a really big fat book, and I don't know enough about what Tom Clancy fans like to know if they would enjoy this.

(Oh, and very nice review!)
Stefan Raets
13. Stefan
@10. worromot - It definitely shares the MMORPG aspect with Halting State, but calling it an "adaptation of Charlie Stross' Halting State for slow readers" is a bit harsh, I think. Anyway, I love Stross, but Halting State is not my favorite of his works, mainly because of the second person narrator which started to drive me batty after a few pages. Not my favorite p.o.v., to put it mildly. It always reminds me of football players talking about their performance: "When there's only 30 seconds left on the clock, you give it everything you have, so when you see the defense coming your way, you put your head down and you go for it..."

@12. Chuk - thank you :)
14. Evan H.
It's quite readable. Engaging prose. On the strength of this, I got to the end of it. But it's the worst thing Stephenson has ever written, by a wide margin, for several reasons, the largest of which is that it's an idiot plot: the story would have come to a premature end in several places if anyone had done anything sensible, so Stephenson arranges for none of his characters to think any sensible thoughts.

In particular, the entire second half of the book happens entirely because one of the principal characters makes a boneshakingly stupid decision to remain voluntarily in captivity instead of going to the local authorities and telling them what she knows. For me, the entire second book was 400 pages of unfolding horror as literally hundreds of people are murdered as a direct result of the protagonist's appalling decision--and yet her culpability is never ackowledged in any way. I have a really hard time forgiving that kind of plotting.

I love Stephenson, I think Anathem should've won the Hugo, but this one isn't even worthy of his Stephen Bury pseudonym.
Steve Taylor
15. teapot7
Evan @14 writes:

It's quite readable. Engaging prose. On the strength of this, I got to
the end of it. But it's the worst thing Stephenson has ever written,
by a wide margin

Sadly I agree with every word.

When I wrote my earlier comment upthread I was very excited by Reamde. In the end I thought it was a pretty slight book (an odd choice of words for something that weighs more than I do...) and unworthy of the author of Anathem - or even of Cobweb, as I think the two Stephen Bury books are great fun.
16. Raskolnikov
My aside about the PC Police was part of a paragraph in which I'm literally grasping at straws to find things that people might possibly dislike about Reamde, which (and I hope this was clear) is a book I absolutely loved.

And, in the process, you felt you had no other choice but to evoke the idea of concern over racism, Islamphobia, etc, as a baseless withunt. Charming.

There's a more substantive discussion on representation here that needs to happen, but other posters seem to have addressed this ground, and it's really more than the book deserves. In the theme of the more core flaws of the novel:
*the most interesting elements, T'Rain and its background, recieve less and less attention and end up being largely irrelevant to the story
*the whole story depends on massive contrivance, that the Reamde-designer team happens to share the same building as an active bomb-making cell, despite it being pointed out in story how odd it is that the latter is even in the region.
*Stephenson is entirely too nice an author to suit this style of story, it's quite obvious he's not going to kill off the sympathetic charactes and almost all interactions with the villains come across as slightly geeky chatter, rather than a real exercise in drama.
*Despite extensive, drawn out conversations with Jones and company there's never any real indication of ideology or specific motivation that lead to this line of work, creating a blank spot at the core of the book.

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