I had a feeling that Reamde would be a doozy as soon as I read the synopsis months before the book was actually published. This looked as though it would be another crazy, erudite, complex, and totally fucked-up novel like only Neal Stephenson can write them. The rave reviews that followed in the wake of its release made me realize that I was right. And weighing in at a slim 1044 pages, I knew that this would be another Stephenson title I'd be bringing with me on a trip. So when the trade paperback edition came out (the hardback edition weighs like 10 pounds and there's no way I was carrying that with me for weeks), I bought a copy and promised myself that it would go in my suitcase as soon as I booked another vacation. When Southeast Asia beckoned, Reamde was immediately thrown among the stuff I was bringing with me overseas.
I started the book during my 8-hour train ride between Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And this mammoth doorstopper lasted me for about two weeks, all the way to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Reamde is intelligent, high-octane entertainment. I agree with the critics that claim that had it been written by any other author, this novel would have been a train wreck. But with Neal Stephenson, it's just business as usual.
Here's the blurb:
Neal Stephenson, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Anathem, returns to the terrain of his groundbreaking novels Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon to deliver a high-intensity, high-stakes, action-packed adventure thriller in which a tech entrepreneur gets caught in the very real crossfire of his own online war game. In 1972, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa farming clan, fled to the mountains of British Columbia to avoid the draft. A skilled hunting guide, he eventually amassed a fortune by smuggling marijuana across the border between Canada and Idaho. As the years passed, Richard went straight and returned to the States after the U.S. government granted amnesty to draft dodgers. He parlayed his wealth into an empire and developed a remote resort in which he lives. He also created T’Rain, a multibillion-dollar, massively multiplayer online role-playing game with millions of fans around the world. But T’Rain’s success has also made it a target. Hackers have struck gold by unleashing REAMDE, a virus that encrypts all of a player’s electronic files and holds them for ransom. They have also unwittingly triggered a deadly war beyond the boundaries of the game’s virtual universe—and Richard is at ground zero. Racing around the globe from the Pacific Northwest to China to the wilds of northern Idaho and points in between, Reamde is a swift-paced thriller that traverses worlds virtual and real. Filled with unexpected twists and turns in which unforgettable villains and unlikely heroes face off in a battle for survival, it is a brilliant refraction of the twenty-first century, from the global war on terror to social media, computer hackers to mobsters, entrepreneurs to religious fundamentalists. Above all, Reamde is an enthralling human story—an entertaining and epic page-turner from the extraordinary Neal Stephenson.
I found the structure of this book to be akin to that of the immensely enjoyable Cryptonomicon. There are many unrelated storylines, both past and present, that are somehow brought together as the plot progresses. Several times as you go through Reamde, you shake your head, wondering what this is all about. But you need to trust Neal Stephenson and keep on reading, knowing that it will all make sense in the end. And it does! For all of its gargantuan size, I found Reamde to be what could well be the author's most accessible work in years. Russian gangsters, spies, survivalist religious fucktards, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, Chinese hackers, computer geeks, gamers; these are all themes that most people are at least a little familiar with. Still, Stephenson had no choice but to rely on a number of massive info-dumps to familiarize readers with the ins and outs of the online role-playing game industry. Other than that, however, Reamde makes for some smooth reading and is the kind of book that you could even lend to your mom and she would easily make sense of it. And since this one has such crossover appeal, I was surprised not to see Reamde being promoted more heavily beyond the scope of the speculative fiction sphere of influence.
As is usually the author's wont, Reamde is populated by a cast of colorful and disparate protagonists. And I have a feeling that it's this superior characterization that cements everything together and prevents Stephenson's latest from being the aforementioned train wreck it could have been. Whether good or bad, the men and women found in this book are an entertaining and interesting bunch. And with Stephenson's witty sense of humor, they all come alive and leave their mark on this enormous tale. Understandably, it is more or less Richard and Zula who share the spotlight from beginning to end. And yet, Reamde would never have been as awesome without the unforgettable presence of Ivanov, Sokolov, Csongor, Marlon, Olivia, Yuxia, Abdallah Jones, and all the others.
As weird as it sounds, although we are talking about a 1000+ pages work, there is not a dull moment found between the covers of Reamde. Probably due to the fact that it's build upon a myriad of different plotlines and that somehow they all gradually come together, Stephenson's latest is a page-turner. Chapters are never all that long and the various POVs keep the perspective changing all the time, always forcing you to read a little more to find out what happens next.
Neal Stepheson's narrative is quite evocative, creating an imagery that truly captures the imagination. Whether it's the rugged wilderness of Northern British Columbia or the chaotic streets of Xiamen, the author makes you feel as if you were there. Considering that this novel takes place in a panoply of different locations, that's quite an accomplishment!
It's somewhat difficult to sum up Reamde in a few words. It's an intricately crafted multilayered plot which is nevertheless easy to follow. It's a fast-paced techno-thriller. It's something that incorporates countless elements from pop and geek cultures. It's also an intellectual read filled with social commentary. It's witty, it's funny, it's balls-to-the-wall action scenes. Overall, Reamde demonstrates once again just how much of a master storyteller Neal Stephenson truly is. My only complaint would be that I sort of saw the end (partially, mind you) coming. Other than that, Reamde is a great read!