Review of Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Title: Reamde
Author: Neal Stephenson
Published: 20 September 2011 by Atlantic Books
Source: Review copy from publisher via Penguin Books South Africa
My Rating: 8/10

Russian mafia, Chinese hackers, Islamic jihadists, secret agents, explosions, car crashes, shootouts, sword and sorcery battles, kidnapping, bombings, murders, acts of (a) god – all these things and a ton of others are packed into Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Reamde, although at a hefty 1044 pages, it’s not like there’s any shortage of space.

It starts out with Richard Forthrast attending the annual family re-u (reunion) out on a farm in Idaho. Once an army deserter, later a marijuana smuggler, Richard is the family’s black sheep but he went straight and is now the creator and billionaire CEO of a hugely successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called T’Rain (‘terrain’). On par with World of Warcraft, the key feature of T’Rain is that it caters to ‘gold farmers’ – players with a lot of time on their hands who play primarily to acquire large amounts of virtual gold in the game world, which they then sell to other players for real money. Gold farming is a billion-dollar industry, but not one that is actually facilitated by MMORPGs, so the transactions are typically underhanded. The beauty of T’Rain is that it includes a simple and efficient system for players to trade their gold for cash.

But this is also why the game is targeted by Reamde – a virus that infects players’ hard drives and encrypts all their files. The encrypted files are then ransomed for 1 000 virtual gold pieces, to be paid to a troll within the game’s vast world. Once the hackers who created the virus have accumulated epic sums of gold from other players, they can then trade it for millions of dollars, essentially using the game as a money laundering system.

This fairly geeky plot quickly spirals out into an intense techno-thriller. A complex series of often bizarre connections ensnares a large, widely varied cast of characters from around the globe, takes us to China, the Philippines and across remotes areas of the USA and Canada, and leads to a long list of fights, chases and crimes. The real world is intertwined with the virtual one as some of the conflicts play out in the T’Rain using avatars and magic. The plot explodes into multiple strands that are continually converging and separating as the story develops.

It can sound pretty crazy, especially if you give someone a detailed explanation of the plot (I won’t; it’s something you should experience for yourself), but while reading it I never doubted its plausibility for a moment. This is thanks to Stephenson’s meticulous attention to detail and his incredible skill in the art of exposition, something you’ll experience many times when reading Reamde. Whether in the middle of an action scene or a conversation, the narrative will frequently go into long, detailed infodumps on a wide variety of topics – T’Rain, guns, flight plans – any topic relevant to the story.

The Corvus edition of Reamde

This amount of exposition can be a bad thing, but Stephenson is very good at it. Not only does it make the novel more realistic, it also tends to be really interesting on a general level. I particularly enjoyed the sections about the design of T’Rain, including details about its programming, social structure, species and language. For example, the land of the game world is programmed to render the billions of years of geothermal development that you would find on an actual planet. It’s not noticeable on the surface, but beneath the virtual soil are realistic strata containing precious stones and metals (which players can mine). Whether or not readers will enjoy this kind of thing is very much a matter of personal taste, but either way you have to admit that the amount of research and general knowledge that has been poured into this novel is just staggering.

The amount of information also suits the context in which the novel is set – an age defined by electronic information and communication systems. Reamde is, of course, full of tech, some of which I assume is fictional, but not to the extent that I’m willing to call this sci fi. Many of the characters are constantly jacked into the system with phones, computers and cameras, making frequent use of social media, email, Google, Wikipedia, and T’Rain. A few, however, have rejected these technological advancements altogether, and there are occasions where the plot forces characters off the grid. In these cases, their detachment from the flow of information is keenly felt.

As you might have guessed by now, this all makes Reamde a dense read requiring your full-attention. I had little time for reading last month, and as a result Reamde turned into a month-long commitment. But don’t be dissuaded because it isn’t an easy-read – it’s still an engaging and rewarding one, so much so that I seldom had trouble keeping track of the many characters and plot strands. Admittedly, I think you’d have to be Sheldon Cooper to remember all the stuff from the infodumps, but each of the main characters’ stories was entertainingly tense and compelling.

Besides the excellent action-packed plot, humour (often of the geek variety), and enough information to make you seem smarter, the novel also has some fantastic characters. At the centre is Zula, Richard’s niece. An Eritrean refugee orphan, Zula was adopted by the Forthrasts, and is now in her 20s. Richard hires her to work on T’Rain, and as a result she gets drawn into the events sparked by the virus Reamde. From then on it’s mostly Zula who drives the plot, either through her actions or the things happen to her. Zula, quite simply, is a frickin’ awesome character. She’s smart, bold, has carbon-steel determination, and remains quick-thinking and capable in harrowing situations. She went almost immediately onto my list of favourite, kick-ass female characters who I can only dream of being like. Also on that list, incidentally, is YT from Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic Snow Crash. Clearly, Stephenson has a talent for writing amazing women, and in Reamde Zula is joined by an MI6 spy and a spunky young Chinese entrepreneur who doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything.

The male characters are equally memorable and skilfully crafted. Csongar, a Hungarian hacker, is an endearing gentle giant. Sokolov, a Russian ‘security consultant’, is an intelligent, efficient and extremely dangerous fighter who you come to know and admire. Don Donald, aka D-Squared, is a pompous professor who chooses to live in an artificially medieval environment, complete with castle, servants and having all his mail handwritten and delivered by a squire. His first attempt at playing T’Rain is hilarious. There are plenty of other great characters but, again, I think it’s best if you meet them on your own.

And you should definitely try and meet them, because this is undoubtedly a book worth reading, a book to get immersed in. Once you’ve finished, it leaves you with the weighty, satisfying sense of having experienced something epic and exciting, of having found (I think caps are needed here) A GOOD READ.

Buy Reamde at Book Depository


2 thoughts on “Review of Reamde by Neal Stephenson

  1. My favorite parts of Reamde were the nerdy bits – the language and races (and color scheme fashions) of T’rain, how Don Donald wipes the floor with the younger writer (I forget his name, but his nickname is Skeletor) during the Apostropocalypse, not to mention D squared’s first time playing the game. I even enjoyed all the infodumps.

    • I really loved those nerdy bits too; the only thing that trumps it for me are the characters. I really have to admire Stephenson’s ability to entertain me with a smackdown over an apostrophe, haha.

      I can’t remember Skeletor’s real name either, although I’m seriously considering teaching myself to play Xbox while walking on a treadmill. So far I’ve managed to read on a treadmill, so it can’t be too hard…

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