Neal Stephenson’s new novel begins with a family reunion in the Idaho panhandle, near the Canadian border, during which the “reserved, even hardbitten” men of the extended Forthrast clan engage in shooting practice with an impressive assortment of firearms. From there, the book’s formidably energetic narrative fans out across the globe, encompassing Seattle’s hi-tech enclave, a Missouri trailer park, Trinity College, Cambridge, a Chinese boomtown, Taiwan, the Philippines and parts of the South China Sea, before contracting back to the flinty territory where it began — only this time with even more guns.
Along its trajectory, the novel acquires Russian gangsters, a Hungarian hacker, a Chinese video gamer, a British spy and, for its antagonist, a Welsh national of Caribbean descent leading a team of jihadis intent on committing acts of spectacular terrorism in the US. That’s not all; while the preceding description just about covers the real-world action in Reamde, portions of the book take place in an imaginary but immensely complex world called T’Rain, the creation of Richard Forthrast, wilderness guide turned pot smuggler turned online video game billionaire. It’s in T’rain that all the trouble starts, with a virus called Reamde.
Like Stephenson’s most critically acclaimed novel, Cryptonomicon, Reamde combines meticulous observation of the stranger socioeconomic effects wrought by technology with rousing fusillades of adventure. In any given chapter, you might learn how Richard designed the massively multiplayer T’Rain from the ground up as a money-laundering system in which real cash can be converted to virtual gold and back again. Or how rich, impatient Westerners who can’t be bothered to build up their game characters’ experience points from scratch buy pre-empowered avatars from Chinese teenagers camped out in vast wangbas (Internet bars) filled with computers rented by the hour. After that, you might race through a breathless account of how Richard’s niece, Zula (adopted from an Eritrean orphanage), nearly escapes from the Russian mobsters who have kidnapped her and her boyfriend by removing a drainpipe and climbing up through the ceiling tiles of the skyscraper where she’s being held captive.
Zula, like just about every character in Reamde, is remarkably resourceful, levelheaded and competent; most of these people make MacGyver look like the guy who calls IT because he can’t figure out how to power up his external hard drive. Although Stephenson is careful to explain how each character acquired this or that bit of acutely relevant expertise, strictly speaking, the sum of their exploits cannot be called realistic. As the novel careens from pontoon boat to stolen private jet to teeming urban warren to abandoned mine shaft, with the protagonists jerry-rigging sails, deploying DVDs as lethal weapons, slipping in and out of the People’s Republic of China without visas, luring mountain lions into attacking their enemies and identifying the users of specific IP addresses (trust me, it’s difficult), you just have to go with it.
Many readers will do exactly that; despite its nearly 1,000-page length, this symphony of logistics is outrageously entertaining (especially if you’ve always wanted to know how to convert the back half of a motorhome into a roving prison cell). Reamde doesn’t boast the mind-blowing quantum metaphysics of Stephenson’s last novel, Anathem, or the historical breadth and penetration of his gargantuan trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, but it doesn’t aspire to, either.
A liberal sprinkling of social satire gives the novel a bit of edge: T’Rain is riven by a user-generated civil war between the Earthtone Coalition and the Forces of Brightness, which can be read as a gloss on Facebook vs MySpace and the way that class friction in America manifests itself as quarrels over taste. One of the Russians shrewdly pegs a homestead of off-the-grid Idahoan evangelicals as “the American Taliban.” Walmart — particularly its well-stocked guns and ammo department — proves essential to the plans of both the jihadis and their opponents. (It’s impossible to accomplish anything in the US without at least one trip to Walmart.)
Flourishes such as these reassure the reader that she’s not merely zipping through an ultraclever espionage page-turner, but by the time everyone ends up shooting it out in the Idaho wilderness, Reamde has become just that. Scooping out most of the T’Rain passages, amusing as they are, would leave the essential plot undisturbed. If the novel is meant to reflect the increasing entanglement of the virtual and the real, it doesn’t succeed; at heart, only a couple of outrageous coincidences link the Reamde virus and T’Rain to matters of life and death. Adding gangsters and terrorists and spies may once have seemed like a great way to spice up the subject of virtual, video game-based economies, but eventually the seasoning takes over the dish.
On the other hand, Reamde is awfully exciting, and perhaps for the manically productive Stephenson, it amounts to a lark, a palate cleanser, the form R ’n’ R takes when cranking out dense historical sagas and elaborate alternate universe epics at the rate of 500 pages a year has become your daily grind. Whatever the case, it’s a joyride.
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