Spoilers ahead. In his previous work, Stephenson has tried to capture great swathes of world history: World War II and its aftermath in Cryptonomicon , the European Enlightenment in the Baroque Cycle, and of course the future in now-classic novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Now, he is setting his sights close to home, in a tale that captures contemporary America in all its complexity, from its videogame industry and war on terror, to its rural, self-proclaimed "gun nuts" and polyglot immigrant cultures.
- Reamde by Neal Stephenson – review.
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The action mostly centers around Richard Forthrast, whose marijuana smuggling business in the s perfectly prepared him to become a videogame entrepreneur in the s. He's created a game like World of Warcraft, but with one key difference: his game, called T'Rain, is designed to cater to Chinese players, especially gold miners. These are the very players that World of Warcraft tries to stamp out, but Richard's genius is to create a game just for them, with anonymous accounts that can be used to turn game gold into credit in the real world.
Of course, this generous setup doesn't prevent some gamers from trying to game the gamable game, as it were.
A group of Chinese virus writers led by a guy named Marlon have created a virus called Reamde that spreads out from the game world via Microsoft Outlook, encrypting all the files on the victim's computer unless he or she pays Marlon and his gang a little bit of cash for the key. Through a series of weirdly believable shenanigans, this virus manages to encrypt a valuable stash of black-market credit card numbers on a Russian mafia guy's computer.
But this is no ordinary Russian mafia guy. He's gone completely insane after embezzling from the Russian mafia retirement fund, and decides that before his brethren kill him, he's going to kill the bastard who wrote that virus. This is where things get even more insane. It turns out that Richard Forthrast's niece Zula is dating Peter, the rather annoying hacker who sold the Russian mafia guy those now-encrypted credit card numbers. So the Russian mafia guy, along with his trusty Hungarian sysadmin and a Russian security detail, pays a visit to Peter and Zula — a visit that ends with Peter and Zula kidnapped, and on a private jet for Taiwan.
At first we think the novel is going to be a kind of caper, with the Americans and the virus writers narrowly escaping the Russian mafia. But it's a lot darker and more complicated than that. It turns out that the virus writers are holed up in an apartment building where management looks the other way a lot.
In fact, management looks the other way so much that it's the perfect hiding place for internationally-known terrorist Abdallah Jones. In that apartment building, the paths of all our characters cross, and we quickly learn that our preconceptions about good guys and bad guys are completely wrong.
Jones is our most obvious bad guy, but not entirely because he's a homicidal terrorist. Stephenson reserves a special kind of scorn for Jones because he's a middle-class kid from Wales with a decent education who is basically slumming it in the world of Islamic terrorism.
Neal Stephenson’s Novel of Computer Viruses and Welsh Terrorists
Jones had many choices in life — unlike most of his compatriots, who come from lives of impoverished desperation — and we're made to feel that this makes it especially heinous that he's chosen to devote himself to mass murder. The idea that our choices make us good or bad is one of the most satisfying themes of this novel.
We have characters who come from all kinds of backgrounds, from the world of petty cyber crime to the gleaming halls of MI6, and they all have opportunities to be good or bad — depending on how they deal with the life and death situations they find themselves in. Unlikely alliances are formed between geeks and soldiers, and between typical Americans and typical Chinese. At the heart of the novel is a race against time, with Richard Forthrast and representatives from various government agencies working together often unwittingly to stop Jones and rescue Zula.
But I would argue that the race is almost beside the point. The pleasure in reading this book is all about the narrative curlicues and byways, taking long tours through stories about how two famous, eccentric fantasy writers wrote the back story for T'Rain, or hearing a silly exegesis from Richard about a Seattle neighborhood full of what he calls "cerulean collar workers," who started out as hipsters but grew so poor with the economic downturn that they turned into the blue collar folk they once imitated ironically with their trucker hats and flannel shirts.
Stephenson also devotes long sections to the back stories on all the characters he introduces, so that we understand them as the sum of social circumstances and conscious choices. Zula, for example, began life as an Eritrean refugee but was adopted by Richard's family.
She's gone from endangered political outcast to nice midwestern girl in one lifetime — and it's probably the combination of all her experiences that helps her cope with an ordeal that goes beyond extreme. When he published in the book that first made him famous, his post-American futuristic tale Snow Crash , he seemed the wildest, fastest, most complex science-fiction writer around, but hardly a cheerleader for America.
The Cryptonomicon seemed to confirm the point, as he told a complex story about gold, Nazis, and Alan Turing, all while folding in a wide-ranging exploration of the implications of computers for human behavior. With the three volumes and 2, pages of The Baroque Cycle , published from to , he cast back again in history, retelling the entire birth of modern science, economics, and sex.
Neal Stephenson’s Novel of Computer Viruses and Welsh Terrorists
In the extraterrestrial Anathem , he set out to novelize the epistemology of certainty and the metaphysics of time. The apparent lack of similar philosophical complexity has produced a fairly general condescension toward Stephenson's latest. Reviewing the novel in Salon , for example, Andrew Leonard waves away the book as beach reading: "Whereas in past novels the filigree would reflect deeper structures in unusual and provocative ways, in Reamde the filigree is just filigree.
There's nothing beneath the baroque surface. The origin, I think, of this reaction is an unconscious refusal of Stephenson's overwhelming, if somewhat peculiar, tribute to American character.
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Despite the opening chapter's fifty-page tour de force—an account of a holiday get-together on an Iowa farm, probably the best writing the author has ever done—the reviewers seem insistent that the topic is too slight to bear the weight of Stephenson's heavy vision. So they look, instead, to the science-fiction element of T'Rain, the novel's role-playing game that Stephenson roughly based on the real-life—or, rather, real-life second-life—game known as World of Warcraft.
Reamde 's expositions of the financial, literary, and cybernetic construction of such online virtual realities are interesting, but the hidden piles of gold in T'Rain operate, in truth, only as a MacGuffin for the plot. If that's where you look for the depth of Stephenson's insight, you're bound to be disappointed.
And Stephenson needs a MacGuffin because Reamde is, in structure, an adventure story, straight out of the John Buchan playbook.
It's worth, I guess, laying out that plot, in all its baroque twists and turns. Reamde —pronounced "ream-dee," the mistyped title of a "Read Me" file emailed to victims of an elaborate online scan involving the T'Rain game—opens with the fortysomething hero, Richard Forthrast, visiting his family in Iowa for Thanksgiving. They're good American farmers, for the most part, but the cousins and inlaws and nieces and nephews, the adopted children and significant others, have extended the family into a microcosm of the nation.
Richard started out a marijuana smuggler and footloose wanderer through the American landscape, but along the way he helped develop a software enterprise that has become a Fortune company and left him enormously, if somewhat ironically, rich. His wealth turns out to be useful, when, in short order, his adopted niece Zula is kidnapped in British Columbia by a gang of Russian mobsters, who take her to China.
Which is where she's recaptured by Al-Qaeda terrorists, who take her to the Philippines, because they want to use her to help them blow up Las Vegas.