There’s no one like Neal Stephenson for uniting philosophical thoughts about technology with a gripping thrillery plot. He pioneered cyberpunk with Snow Crash, delved into World War II-era cyphers and modern data encryption in Cryptonomicon, and examines the intersection of religion and science (with space travel, just for good measure) in Anathem. In his latest brick of a novel Reamde, he goes back to computers and brings us an addictive game environment that’s been beset by a virus (Reamde, a play on the ubiquitous Readme files), Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers and Islamic terrorists. It’s as much about the world building of T’Rain as it is about the real world adventures of its many characters.
There’s not really a good way to sum up the plot, which is densely packed into 1044 pages, but I’ll give it a shot. It opens at the family reunion of the Forthrast family in Iowa. Richard is the black sheep of the family, figuratively. He was a draft dodger who left the US during Vietnam, working as a wilderness guide in Canada. Now he’s the founder of Corporation 9592 which makes T’Rain. So he’s fantastically wealthy. At the re-u, he takes an interest in the career of niece Zula, who’s the literal black sheep of the family–an Eritrean refugee, adopted as a child by Richard’s family members. Zula comes to work for him, and that leads, in a convoluted fashion, to her and her boyfriend Peter being abducted and taken to China by Russian mobsters who are looking for the Chinese hackers who’ve created the Reamde virus. One of the main ways that T’Rain is different from (and in this reality supersedes) World of Warcraft is that it is built around monetizing the game environment. Gold farmers in WoW aren’t liked by the game makers, but Richard’s brilliant moment was realizing that he could take those Asian kids who play these games for a living and embrace them. They earn a living, lazy Westerners can just buy artifacts, characters and spells: everyone wins. The genius of the Reamde virus that spreads inside T’Rain is that it encrypts all the data on a computer and requires a delivery of gold within the game to get it unlocked which the hackers can turn into real currency on their end.
Unfortunately for Zula, Peter, Hungarian sysadmin Csongor, and their Chinese guide, instead of sending the Russian mobsters into the apartment occupied by the Reamde hackers, Zula sends them into the apartment directly above which happens to be occupied by a cell of Islamic terrorists led by Welsh-African Abdullah-Jones. Everything goes to (even more) hell pretty quickly after that. And all this, of course, is just a small portion of what happens in this novel that spans 3 continents, mostly over just a few action-packed weeks. The level of detail is just astonishing, not only what happens in the game and the politics, military campaigns and geology therein, but also Russian security consultant Solokov’s thought processes as he escapes an exploding building or tries to evade the terrorists, the geography and weather conditions of a trans-South China Sea escape voyage, or the history of Richard’s mining camp-turned-ski resort. It’s a long book, but doesn’t read that way. I could see the ultimate confrontation coming about 150 pages before the end, though I wouldn’t consider that a flaw but rather the inevitable and fitting coalescing of all the disparate plot elements.
Highly recommended. Could appeal to spy thriller readers (Le Carre, Tom Clancy) and techno readers (Cory Doctorow, Brian Falkner’s Brain Jack).