Neal Stephenson’s Reamde opens with a target practice session at the Forthrast clan’s annual Thanksgiving gathering. Various firearms — shotguns, Glocks, assault rifles — are discharged by uncles, nephews, nieces and boyfriends into an Iowa pasture. Fun for the whole family.
The spasm of gunfire is prophetic. By the time Stephenson’s world-girdling novel has reached its exhaustive conclusion, countless rounds have been fired. As Stephenson notes in his acknowledgments, he required the services of a “ballistics copy editor” to fact-check the inner-workings of every Kalashnikov and bolt-action .22.
Stephenson is already notorious for churning out tomes sprawling in both page count and plot. But fans of his genre-blending touch that often welds historical to science fiction with a bead of cyberpunk might find themselves displeased with the ride of this narrative machine. Whereas Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon commingled code breaking, mimetics, and nanotechnology with Sumerian myth, Greek philosophy, and economic theory, Reamde, set on present day planet Earth, barely traffics in such esoterica. Here, in place of the author’s trademark technology- and philosophy-driven speculation, you’ll mostly find a techno-martial thriller, much in the same vein as Tom Clancy, albeit expertly crafted and often gorgeously written.
Richard is the dispassionate, outcast middle-aged brother of the Forthrast family, a likable fellow haunted by his “Furious Muses,” the voices of his ex-girlfriends. After stints as a hunting guide and drug-runner, he founded T’Rain, a World of Warcraft-like online fantasy game — an MMO, or multiple-player, online game — whose millions of devotees role-play monster-slaying elves and dwarves and build networks of vassals.
Richard hires his niece Zula, an Eritrean refugee-orphan and, conveniently, a geoscientist, to help manage the virtual mineral deposits that players must “gold mine” to generate wealth. In most MMOs, the idea of “gold-farming” is prevalent: players (often in Asian countries) burn the midnight online oil and play MMOs expressly to acquire in-game currency, which they sell (often to Westerners) for real-world money. Sometimes they level up avatars and sell these too. This is all, typically, illegal. But gold-farming works because, like with sweatshops, these low-paid factory workers have ample time and lack money. Rich players have money but lack the patience and free time for the drudgery of leveling-up characters and completing the mindless tasks that are the backbone of MMO economies.
Richard and his fellow gamer designers make sure that T’Rain actually plays into this have and have-not discrepancy. But there’s a MacGuffin they don’t bank on. One, players are oddly aligning themselves, somehow by osmosis, along not good vs. evil battle lines, but based on dress and appearance. Some sort of in-game uprising seems imminent. And then, Zula’s cash-strapped, dimwit boyfriend, in a move unrelated to T’Rain, tries to raise funds by selling stolen credit card data. He’s a few months behind on paying the mortgage for his hipster Seattle loft, but being an IT whiz, figures he can pilfer some credit card numbers and sell them on the black market. But during the file transfer, the credit card data becomes corrupted by a virus called REAMDE, an anagram for “read me” — you know, a play on the name of that file nobody reads when installing software. That REAMDE virus is traced to T’Rain. To restore the infected files, victims must deliver virtual ransoms to a “troll” (hacker), in the game. Meanwhile, bandits rob and kill these gold-ferrying avatars. Chaos rains down upon T’Rain.
When it’s determined the REAMDE hacker lives in China, the client for the data — yep, the Russian Mafioso — is none too pleased. That sets into motion Stephenson’s scenario tangling the fates of manifold characters: Russian mobsters, a Chinese tour guide, a British MI6 agent, a Hungarian techie, Islamic jihadists, and two Tolkienesque storytellers, among others. The action intercuts among these players who hop, skip, and jump vehicles, jets, and boats from the Pacific Northwest to China to the Rocky Mountains. Kidnappings trigger escape attempts. Plotlines collide. Bodies pile up.
And gone is any further discussion of that interesting, socio-economic imbalance that is gold-farming. In its place, we get plot plot plot, action action action.
This frenetic energy and wide scope is tempered by Stephenson’s lingering pace. He tunes into the precise frequency of each character, how they process and remember stimuli, be they terrorist or innocent.
In one typical passage, Zula ruminates on the trauma of her capture, “shocked by how little effect it had on her, at least in the short term. She developed three hypotheses: 1. The lack of oxygen that had caused her to pass out almost immediately after she’d killed Khalid had interfered with the formation of short-term memories or whatever it was that caused people to develop posttraumatic stress disorder.” That’s just hypothesis number one.
Stephenson — a minimalist he’s not — takes us deep in these warrens of thought, cause, and effect. (He resorts to awkward “exposition as dialogue” info dumps, too.) Moments are narrated with painstaking precision. The events of “Day 4” — a pitched battle among spies, mafia, extremists, and trolls, told from a kaleidoscope of perspectives — requires 200 pages. Pyromaniacs and gun-lovers, rejoice!
Stephenson seems aware that his reader might be skeptical that his various accidental heroes– the hackers and IT folks — might be not only handy with on the fly problem-solving, but able to handle lever-action .30-.30s and pick locks. (There are a more-than-plausible share of handcuffings and escapes going on here. Did everyone go to spy school?) “People who watched too many movies about hackers had all sorts of ludicrous ideas about what they were capable of,” Stephenson admits. But then his protagonists pick locks and off bad guys and escape anyway.
Along the way, we learn about the psychology of airport X-ray screeners, the lure of epic, archetypical stories, and (in some of the funnier bits) the reasons why nomenclature in fantasy literature — all those Na’vi and Elvish terms — can either seem silly or serious. The degree to which you tolerate such diversions and tangents is personal taste.
As for all the microscopic attention to each character motivation and action, decision tree huggers will revel in these tactics and processes. But others will find the obsessive detail tedious.
To my mind, the real gold to be mined here is not Stephenson’s grasp of suspense and plot. Reamde seems camera ready, and the novel might make a good action film, if the dozen main characters could be winnowed down to a handful. That’s for Hollywood to decide. Rather, the meat of the novel comes before the real-world gun-blazing begins. The novel’s wit and wisdom are found in sly jabs at the war on terror, consumer culture, our online demeanor and misdemeanors, and insights into the shifts in consciousness that social and technological change have wrought. “[Y]ou kids nowadays substitute communicating for thinking, don’t you?” a Scotsman involved in the identity theft scheme complains. Walmart is likened to “a starship that had landed in the soybean fields,” and “an interdimensional portal to every other Walmart in the known universe.”
The author has a lovely take on how an everyday and supposedly obsequious device like a GPS has, in its conniving way, become as much a character and constant in our lives as the TV and computer:
The GPS unit became almost equally obstreperous, though, over Richard’s unauthorized route change, until they finally passed over some invisible cybernetic watershed between two possible ways of getting to their destination, and it changed its fickle little mind and began calmly telling him which way to proceed as if this had been its idea all along.
That a GPS even has a personality, and in a way, a presence that usurps our own powers of observation, is a brilliant observation. But Reamde banishes too much of this intellectual fare to the sidelines. I wanted that marrow to be the main course.
These adroit touches may be enough to sustain readers caught in the crossfire. Stephenson knows with Reamde he is also trying to bridge the gap from his headier, past works to a more conventional thriller reader. That’s OK. But there’s a tradeoff: while that action-driven plot and gunplay will gain the author new fans, it also loses him loyal legions of the old.
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.