REAMDE by Neal Stepenson (2012, William Morrow)
It’s always a good year when a Neal Stephenson novel appears. Three years ago he released Anathem, a book which created a believable alternate universe where philosophy coexisted with religion. Previously, he’d amazed the world with his Baroque cycle of books, tracing the history of the enlightenment. I’ve been a fan of his since The Diamond Age, a book which kicked off the whole steam punk revolution.
Reamde is doorstopper of a book: it weighs in at more than 900 pages and focuses on 16 major and minor characters. That is a lot of parallel action to follow, but Stephenson makes it all happen. A lessor author would’ve lost me to boredom, but here I am constantly engaged by the characters. It made for an engaging read while hiking on the walking trails around my house. A good book is one where I don’t notice the passage of time. With this one I must’ve walked two miles while concentrating on the text.
In Reamde, Stephenson has decided to attack the thriller novel. He’s accomplished science fiction, historical fiction, and horror. I expect he’s working on an epic fantasy novel to give George RR Martin a run for his money. When I first read accounts of Reamde, I wondered how he was going to pull it off, since the thriller works best as a shorter novel. But he managed to do it and kept me glued to the e-Reader for the last 100 pages.
The plot isn’t all that complex at the start. Richard Forthrast is attending the annual family reunion in the American mid-west. He’s a big money on-line game system executive who also has a lodge in British Columbia. Forthrast’s money is created by an Internet game known as “T’Rain”, which allows people from all over the world to enter a cybernetic fantasy world and compete for conquest and glory (somewhat similar to World of Warcraft). But T’Rain has taken “gold farming” to a new level as Chinese teens earn needed cash by digging for virtual buried treasure which they sell through an PayPal-ish system to American gamers. it’s a good business model until some Chinese kids figure out how to make more money by creating a program (“Reamde”) that locks down bank accounts unless you pay them a ransom in the T’Rain game. Unfortunately, we soon learn that Richard’s niece, Zula, has a boyfriend who has made the mistake of getting involved with the Russian mob. And the database he sold them is now infected with the Reamde virus. The gangsters are pissed (to put it mildly) and are coming after everyone concerned.
I’d like to give away more of the plot, but to do so would be to spoil it for anyone who wants to read the book. I will say that things grow increasingly complicated, involving trips to China, The Philippine islands, and British Columbia. There’s radical Islamic terrorists and American gun nuts. Counter terrorism operatives and Chinese hackers. Stephenson manages to bring it all together for two climaxes where all the major characters end up in the same location with explosive results.
I highly recommend this novel, but only if you’re willing to devout the time to read it. This is a long tale, not too confusing, but with plenty of action and suspense to keep any thriller fan involved.