Reamde by Neal Stephenson
Published by Atlantic Books, September 2011 (Review copy received)
ISBN: 978 1 84887 448 0
Review by Mark Yon
So: your starter for 10. Is it Reamde? Remade? Reamed? Read Me?
Just working out the title can be a complication in itself. But then that’s what you should expect with Neal Stephenson’s books. It’s a well known adage in the genre that if you read Neal Stephenson’s books, you’re there for a long journey.
And so it goes with this one: over 1000 pages of small text, over 2 inches/6cm thick. (I measured it!)
For what is typical of Neal’s work is that when you buy into it, you’re there for the immersive experience. Often challenging (Anathem invented new language, for example), it’s not usually for the faint hearted.
Reamde is a contemporary novel that harkens back to the much-liked Snow Crash. Like Snow Crash, it’s smart, it’s nifty, it’s hip and it’s complex. Just what the fan ordered, then.
But where this one scores is that, unlike some of his earlier work, it’s more accessible to the layman and I suspect will be another one of those genre books read by non-genre readers. In other words, I suspect that, in the UK at least, this is where Neal does ‘a China Mieville’ and achieves mega-status as Neal has already done in the US.
It’s also not a book to easily summarise, but basically it’s a global techno-thriller about an interactive Internet game called T’Rain, and the consequences of it being used for gold-mining (money in the virtual world being exchangeable in the real.)
Peter is a computer security operative who gets himself into a sticky situation by selling on confidential data to the Russians, who are using Mafia capital to make more money. When the data is hijacked for ransom and taken to the T’Rain domain (anyone following recent events with the Sony Playstation may recognise some of this) by a group of Chinese hackers using a virus named Reamde, Peter and his girlfriend, Zula, (a T’Rain computer programmer), are abducted to Xiamen, China, in order to find the hackers and deal with these issues. They track down the hackers but unwittingly uncover an Al-Qaeda cell living on the apartment floor above the hackers, led by Welsh Muslim, Abdullah Jones. The ensuing destruction of the building leads to the involvement of the British MI6 who were observing the terrorist cell.
Half-way through the book (Day 5) we’re on the way back to the US. Zula is held captive by Jones, and kept as a means of entering the US by bargaining with ‘Uncle’ Richard Forthrast, one of the co-creators of T’Rain.
Her co-captives, cyberhacker Marlon and Hungarian computer programmer Csongor, now with Chinese guide Yuxia, are in pursuit.
In outline, this sounds bizarre. However, what Stephenson does is give you this in so much detail that it seems both logical and understandable. It takes a while to develop and readers may find the beginning a little slow. The details can be incredibly complicated and diverse, varying from details on guns, terrorist cells, MMPORG computer game development, to even street layouts and shops in Taiwan! This may not engage you straight away, but they are there for a purpose, if a convoluted one.
With such detail, it can take a little while (100 pages or so!) for the plot to get going and for a while, as is often the case in Neal’s books, you have to just go along without full understanding.
However after overcoming that initial feeling of being dropped into something complicated, by 300 pages in I was hooked.
700 pages in and we’re back on the USA/Canadian border, looking at a jihadist attack on Las Vegas and something fishy going on in the world of T’Rain. The ending is reminiscent of a big movie shootout, with Richard Forthrast and his extended family fighting big for high stakes.
What works best here is that it becomes one of those ‘live it, breathe it’ books, where you spend every spare moment wanting to know what happens next. It is a book you can wallow in, but most importantly, it’s a book full of great ideas. They’re not all new to Neal’s work but they’re used together with great panache.
As ever, Neal’s work can polarise opinion. It’s not going to suit everyone. I suspect for some it will be too long, too complex, too slow. Personally, though, and as someone who has had issues with some of his earlier work, I think it’s his most accessible and best yet.
Mark Yon, August 2011