inSide Books: Reamde by Neal Stephenson
At the beginning of the decade, cyberpunk icon William Gibson caused a stir by setting a novel in the present day. The novel, Pattern Recognition, eventually expanded into the Bigend Trilogy (the most recent two installments easily rank as Gibson’s best work). As a novel, Pattern Recognition was mediocre, probably doomed on Gibson’s 34th reread of The Crying of Lot 49, but as a statement of purpose, it was astounding. A declaration that even one of the most idiosyncratic imaginations writing in sci-fi could no longer match the pace of reality. Gibson set out to be a science fiction writer only to have reality turn him into a social realist.
If we can read Neal Stephenson’s new novel Reamde as a similar statement of purpose, as a sign that Stephenson no longer believes there is a significant difference between the world we are living in and the one he’s always written about, the implications are even more alarming. If Gibson has taken the role of the outlier, Stephenson has always been more of a mad prophet. If we are living in Stephenson’s world, it is as much a cause for unease as it is for excitement.
Reamde centers around Richard Forthrast, the self-described “black sheep” of his large Iowa clan. After dodging the draft by fleeing to Canada, Richard made his fortune smuggling marijuana across the border before going straight and founding a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) that made him a vast fortune. The cornerstone of said MMORPG is a unique economic system that makes the game globally accessible. The epiphenomenon of said system is that it makes players unusually vulnerable to a type of “ransom ware,” a virus entitled “REAMDE” which encrypts and holds hostage all the victim’s information until payment is made.
This is usually just an annoyance, but turns out to have some very real consequences when files belonging to The Russian Mafia are stolen, files that happen to be tangentially connected to Richard’s niece through her doofus boyfriend. The Russian Mafia press Richard’s niece into service to track down the hacker (who’s in China). Things complicate rapidly from there. This is already the makings of a compelling Techno Thriller, but Stephenson continues to top himself, turning the novel into an astonishing Jenga game that stands up past all reason.
One of the joys (and occasionally sorrows) of Stephenson is that he’s a remarkably dense writer. In Reamde, this becomes a matter of narrative density as well as prose density. The first fifty pages alone manage to provide several succinct character studies, a whopping dose of family history, a portrait of Iowa that’s worthy of Franzen, the protagonist killing a grizzly bear and dragging it across the Canadian border, chaos theory, mind-bending tech, a lecture on linguistics and a devastating parody of the fantasy genre and authors. Though the book’s 980 page count can seem intimidating, it’s never sluggish. Reamde is a nearly thousand page book that manages to cram in two thousand pages of events (and also more gun fire than John Woo’s entire oeuvre).
Like Ready Player One and Cory Doctrow’s FTW, Stephenson’s book mines the strange, quasi-permeable membrane that separates the digital world from the meat space. The title of the novel is obviously a play on the term ReadMe, but it is also only one letter off from Remade. Stephenson is acutely aware of the changes that are happening to us because of our contact with this strange new frontier and it’s his mix of discomfort and excitement that gives the book some very real power.
Propulsive, compelling and written with Stephenson’s trademark devastating yet understated wit, sense of the absurd and his underrated grasp of and affection for characters, Reamde is a blast. More than that, it is the rarest of gifts, a gripping page turner with some real weight on its mind.
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