Neal Stephenson's Reamde is a high-tech incarnation of the Great American Novel

Neal Stephenson's new novel Reamde seems like it could never work: it's an epic-length thriller packed with infodumps about obscure ideas and 200-page gun fights. But the book is fantastic. Stephenson stages a crazy narrative collision between Chinese virus-writing gamers, a millionaire videogame entrepreneur, Russian mafia, rural American anti-government "wack jobs," and a murderous Welsh terrorist. With those kinds of characters in play, and a lot of dry humor, Stephenson absolutely hits it out of the park.

Not only is Reamde a terrific high tech thriller, but it's also a profoundly interesting take on what it means to be American in the twenty-first century. Spoilers ahead.

In his previous work, Stephenson has tried to capture great swathes of world history: World War II and its aftermath in Cryptonomicon, the European Enlightenment in the Baroque Cycle, and of course the future in now-classic novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Now, he is setting his sights close to home, in a tale that captures contemporary America in all its complexity, from its videogame industry and war on terror, to its rural, self-proclaimed "gun nuts" and polyglot immigrant cultures. The international sprawl of Reamde, which stretches from the border between Idaho and British Columbia, to Taiwan, the Philippines, Hungary, Russia, and the U.K., reinforces the idea that the essence of being American is, in some sense, not really being from this country at all.

The action mostly centers around Richard Forthrast, whose marijuana smuggling business in the 1970s perfectly prepared him to become a videogame entrepreneur in the 2010s. He's created a game like World of Warcraft, but with one key difference: his game, called T'Rain, is designed to cater to Chinese players, especially gold miners. These are the very players that World of Warcraft tries to stamp out, but Richard's genius is to create a game just for them, with anonymous accounts that can be used to turn game gold into credit in the real world.

Of course, this generous setup doesn't prevent some gamers from trying to game the gamable game, as it were. A group of Chinese virus writers led by a guy named Marlon have created a virus called Reamde that spreads out from the game world via Microsoft Outlook, encrypting all the files on the victim's computer unless he or she pays Marlon and his gang a little bit of cash for the key. Through a series of weirdly believable shenanigans, this virus manages to encrypt a valuable stash of black-market credit card numbers on a Russian mafia guy's computer. But this is no ordinary Russian mafia guy. He's gone completely insane after embezzling from the Russian mafia retirement fund, and decides that before his brethren kill him, he's going to kill the bastard who wrote that virus.

This is where things get even more insane. It turns out that Richard Forthrast's niece Zula is dating Peter, the rather annoying hacker who sold the Russian mafia guy those now-encrypted credit card numbers. So the Russian mafia guy, along with his trusty Hungarian sysadmin and a Russian security detail, pays a visit to Peter and Zula — a visit that ends with Peter and Zula kidnapped, and on a private jet for Taiwan. At first we think the novel is going to be a kind of caper, with the Americans and the virus writers narrowly escaping the Russian mafia. But it's a lot darker and more complicated than that.

It turns out that the virus writers are holed up in an apartment building where management looks the other way a lot. In fact, management looks the other way so much that it's the perfect hiding place for internationally-known terrorist Abdallah Jones. In that apartment building, the paths of all our characters cross, and we quickly learn that our preconceptions about good guys and bad guys are completely wrong.

Jones is our most obvious bad guy, but not entirely because he's a homicidal terrorist. Stephenson reserves a special kind of scorn for Jones because he's a middle-class kid from Wales with a decent education who is basically slumming it in the world of Islamic terrorism. Jones had many choices in life — unlike most of his compatriots, who come from lives of impoverished desperation — and we're made to feel that this makes it especially heinous that he's chosen to devote himself to mass murder. The idea that our choices make us good or bad is one of the most satisfying themes of this novel. We have characters who come from all kinds of backgrounds, from the world of petty cyber crime to the gleaming halls of MI6, and they all have opportunities to be good or bad — depending on how they deal with the life and death situations they find themselves in.

Unlikely alliances are formed between geeks and soldiers, and between typical Americans and typical Chinese. At the heart of the novel is a race against time, with Richard Forthrast and representatives from various government agencies working together (often unwittingly) to stop Jones and rescue Zula. But I would argue that the race is almost beside the point. The pleasure in reading this book is all about the narrative curlicues and byways, taking long tours through stories about how two famous, eccentric fantasy writers wrote the back story for T'Rain, or hearing a silly exegesis from Richard about a Seattle neighborhood full of what he calls "cerulean collar workers," who started out as hipsters but grew so poor with the economic downturn that they turned into the blue collar folk they once imitated ironically with their trucker hats and flannel shirts.

Neal Stephenson's Reamde is a high-tech incarnation of the Great American Novel

Stephenson also devotes long sections to the back stories on all the characters he introduces, so that we understand them as the sum of social circumstances and conscious choices. Zula, for example, began life as an Eritrean refugee but was adopted by Richard's family. She's gone from endangered political outcast to nice midwestern girl in one lifetime — and it's probably the combination of all her experiences that helps her cope with an ordeal that goes beyond extreme. And she's not the only person in the novel with an intriguingly complicated background. As we get deeper into the story, we also come to realize that some of the characters we think of as cold-blooded killers are actually decent men and women trying to make the best of a terrible situation.

The joy in this book comes from the deft way that Stephenson draws connections between people and events, telling a story that is both intensely granular and simple at the same time. We've got Zula and Jones on opposite ends of an ethical spectrum, and also characters at every point in between.

There are definitely some missteps in Reamde, many of which come down to the fact that Stephenson just writes way too long. This book works as an epic, but there are still some scenes that stretch to the point of absurdity and become repetitive. At its very worst, Reamde can devolve into sounding like a particularly well-written Wikipedia entry. But if you, like me, often get lost in Wikipedia entries, this isn't really all that bad. Stephenson also has a problem that crops up occasionally when he wants to reassure us that he doesn't buy into all that PC flimflam even though his book is full of heroic women and people of color. So we have to flinch our way through some passages where he waxes rhapsodic about the manliness of computer hackers, the vulnerability of women (even when those women are totally badass), and the way Third World people are just more disorganized than their First World counterparts. Like I said earlier, this is a novel about America — so don't be surprised to see a little all-American "I'm a white male but feel no guilt" action.

These problems are fairly small, however. Overall, I would call this novel one of Stephenson's best — he manages to capture the flavor of the present, though in a slightly altered form. And that's one of the greatest achievements any fiction writer could aspire to unlock. Reamde will have you laughing out loud, but also rethinking your preconceptions about crime and national borders — as well as the people in and beyond them. You will resent every moment that you have to put it down.

Pick up a copy via Amazon.

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