On my scale of Neal Stephenson books, Reamde ranks near the bottom. On my scale of all books, it ranks near the top.
Anathem was one of the most innovative books in that last several years. Reamde resembles Anathem in its weird name, but Reamde is no Anathem. But what is it?
Reamde is a page turner. 900 pages of “I can’t put this down.” It is an action adventure story.
In chapter one we meet Richard and Zula Forthrast. Richard is a Steve Jobs type computer company owner. He has one product, a giant MMOPRG, called T’Rain, that competes with WoW. Zula is one of his nieces – twice orphaned and a former refugee from Eritrea – now she is a recently graduated university student who comes to work for her Uncle.
In chapter two, we find out a bit more about each character. Richard has always been a bit uncomfortable in every role he’s occupied and has an incredibly colourful past. But it is Zula’s choice in her most recent boyfriend that will drive the plot.
In chapter three, the action starts. It never really stops for the rest of the book. Peter and Zula become involved with Russian mobsters and Chinese fraudsters. The MacGuffin is a file encrypted by the virus REAMDE that all three groups want.
The rest of the book? Running and guns. Explosions and hostages. In addition to the Russians and Chinese layer on a bewildering array of Islamic Jihadists, American survivalists, Canadian bike gangs, British spies and one Hungarian hacker. The first half of the book, novel length in its own right, deals primarily with the Russians and the encrypted file. The second half, also book length, shifts to the Jihadists.
Stephenson has always loved geeks. They get a lot of love here. The staff of Richard’s company, Company 9592, is a lineup of interesting nerds. Add in the Chinese virus writers, Zula’s boyfriend Peter and the hacker, Csongor and there is a lot for fans of Stephenson’s work to enjoy. His use of action and technology is also exciting and familiar. (Although I think Cory Doctorow’s For the Win dealt with the Chinese gold farmer is a more in-depth manner.) But there is no science-fiction here. It is set firmly in a present day world.
He explores the dynamics of a game company. He looks at global terrorism. He spends time with the MMORPG game world (but not in an Otherworld way). And whenever something comes up that is important to the plot it gets described in detail: guns, treaded pickups, global flight paths, etc. But most of the book is spent on the madcap action that spans the globe. I think people will likely dislike the book for two reasons – the descriptive asides are either too frequent and distracting or Stephenson focuses too much on the plot and not enough on the exploration of these various topics.
Zula and Richard aren’t the only main characters either. Zula drives the plot, but a vast array of people assume roles as important as Richard’s as the book progresses. Stephenson gives each of them time in the spotlight. The asides I explained above and the time spent with each character explain the book’s incredible length.
Why do I rank it low in the Neal Stephenson ouevre? I miss the sci-fi. I wanted more depth in the asides – I missed the insane detail into basically philosophy, logic and math shown in Anathem for instance. But I was also disappointed in the end. It surely pays out the main premise in a very satisfactory fashion. There is a climatic gun fight that spans more than 100 pages. But some plot elements seem to just get forgotten. The biggest is that a war in the online world is left hanging with a game character literally wandering undirected through the game landscape.
This book most closely resembles Zodiac of Stephenson’s previous books. That might help i the rest of my review doesn’t. Of other writers, I don’t know of anyone quite like Stephenson. If you have never tried him this is an easy introduction to his work. It is hard to put down and that is trouble when there are 900 pages to turn after the first one.
But that is a good problem.
Note: I finished the book yesterday before supper. This morning my e-mail informs me that a corrected version is available to download online. I imagine that the revision corrects some typos, but if there is actually any major changes to the text, they are not covered in this review.