Reamde, Neal Stephenson’s newest novel, is, as many reviewers have noted, a doorstop of a thriller. That much is true. All through my reading, though, which took me way longer than many of his other novels, I kept thinking that the book ought to have been shortened by about 300-500 pages. That’s not a statement I would make about Stephenson’s other door stop-sized books.
I started reading Stephenson a long time ago, but I don’t recall exactly how I first came across Snow Crash. What I do remember how I got so totally hooked on the novel that I spent one late night during a family vacation more or less hiding in a bathroom at a beach rental because I had to finish it and everyone else had long gone to bed. It was the combination of Stephenson’s ability to combine a ripping yarn with provocative ideas–in this case, a virtual, online world before such a thing existed. And there was the occasional humor — Hiro Protagonist. Although vastly different, Cryptonomicon did something similar, combining white-knuckled action with a fascinating investigation into the idea of a stateless currency. I never quite connected with The Diamond Age, but loved, and I do mean loved, the wild, fascinating, swashbuckling The Baroque Cycle books, Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle No. 1),The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 2) and The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3).
When Anathem came out, which was significantly more in the speculative fiction vein of the books prior to The BC books, the ideas were again fascinating (a sort of collision or even adhesion in the multiverse), if slightly less memorable than those of the massive BC. The action was a bit less intense until the very end.
Which brings me to Stephenson’s latest, Reamde. It has, like many of Stephenson’s novels, been described as speculative fiction, but this really has none of the usual Stephensonian speculative qualities. It’s pretty much a straight up thriller–no parallel universes, no apparently immortal wise men. About as speculative as it gets is the online computer game, T’Rain, in which some of the action takes place.
The title, which I’m not sure whether to pronounce “reamed” or “ream dee” refers to a virus that infects T’Rain.
In Reamde, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast is a middle-aged, ridiculously wealthy, pot-smuggler-turned-legitimate computer game titan. (More fascination with money — in this case, money laundering through virtual worlds.) The novel opens at the Forthrast family reunion in Iowa, where one of the great delights for the family is the pretty much entirely orgiastic use of all manner of firearms. We meet brother John, the legless Vietnam vet, brother Jake, the off-the-grid Christian libertarian, Zula, the adoptive Eritrean niece, her boyfriend, Peter, and a host of other less important family members.
Zula, despite her African heritage, has pretty much entirely adopted the laconic, Forthrast Iowan attitude. And she has taken a job in her uncle Richard’s game company in the Pacific Northwest.
After the reunion, we travel to British Columbia, where Richard owns a schloss that mimics the medieval decor of the computer game. At The Schloss, Zula’s boyfriend, Peter, undertakes a sketchy transaction with a man named Wallace. Peter is either slightly autistic or has Aspergers Syndrome (I can’t remember which), and for reasons that, for this reader, are never really satisfactorily explained, sells Wallace a file with lots of credit card numbers and identities. However, the file gets infected with the reamde virus, which encrypts all of its contents, which can only be decrypted by paying what amounts to a trivial ransom inside the T’Rain game. Except actually getting into T’Rain and paying the ransom is anything but trivial.
As Peter and Zula return to their homes in Seattle — during which time Zula is clueless about what’s happened, and Peter is acting strangely, even for him — Zula figures out that Peter has done something truly idiotic, and decides to break it off with him.
In a sense, she’s only at his apartment by the coincidence of breaking it off when a very compact and organized form of hell breaks loose at Peter’s, because Russian mobsters were the intended recipients of the credit card numbers and they are not happy that their purchase has been compromised. Armed to the teeth and then some, they escort Wallace into an unfinished room at Peter’s along with a staple gun and lots of plastic sheeting. When they emerge, it’s with a rather fat roll of plastic, which now apparently contains the body of Wallace.
The leader of this group is a not-terribly-convincing psycho named Ivanov, and his top lieutenant is Sokolov, a former special forces officer turned security consultant. After some time spent playing T’Rain (which everyone seems to play) in Peter’s apartment, trying to get the ransom paid and the file decrypted, Ivanov makes the decision to take them all to China and find the Reamde hacker.
In China, the “hackers,” professional game players and virtual gold miners, happen to share a mostly abandoned building with an erudite and murderous Islamist terrorist named Jones. Also arriving in China is Csonger, a Hungarian computer specialist who also works for the organization but more in a sysadmin sort of capacity. (The hulking Csonger reminded me a bit of Hiro Protagonist.) While the Zula, Peter, and Csonger are chained up in the basement of the deserted tenement, Ivanov, Sokolov and their commandos go upstairs to raid the hackers. Through a bit of misdirection by Zula, they end up on the wrong floor, and instead of confronting a scrawny bunch of hackers, they confront a much larger and armed-to-the-teeth and totally-ready-for-martyrdom bunch of Islamist terrorists who are at work building bombs in advance of an international conference that’s set to take place in the city.
And now and entirely larger form of hell breaks loose. The hackers escape, but not long after, the building blows up. Jones and some of his minions escape. Ivanov ends up dead, as does Peter, and treasure-hunt-like chase ensues. Across the way from the apartment building, Olivia, a British spy of partial Chinese extraction has been watching Jones, but as the entirely unexpected conflagration goes down, she has to terminate her operation, and ends up in the unexpected but pretty-much-agreeable company of Sokolov.
The chase wends through the Philippines, and into the Northwestern territory of Canada, and a pile of bodies grows until we come to what amounts to a small war in Idaho that caps the novel.
It’s been said that Reamde is a through-and-through white-knuckled thriller. For me, at any rate, that was not the case. There were indeed moments of really terrific Stephensonian action. But this doorstop of a book should have been shortened by about 300 pages. Maybe even 500. For me, there were just too many lulls in the action, lulls which the author in the past has used to explore those ideas that fascinate him — the mechanics of money, the uses of cryptography, and so forth.
As I read, I kept wondering why I find it hard to think of Stephenson’s novels as literary, despite the depth of ideas, and it occurred to me at some point that however many, many things he does well, Stephenson does not do subtlety. His female characters have gotten better over the years, but it still seems unlikely that he has much of a female readership.
Still, I look forward to the next one, and the next, because he is always entertaining.