BookBanter Links Roundup for 10/20/11

“Reamde” by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, 2011)

This is book review number 600 for BookBanter!


Neal Stephenson returns with one doorstop of a tome weighing in at over a thousand pages, with Reamde, which some computer geeks may have guessed is in fact a misspelling of “readme.”  Stephenson takes a growing sub-genre that is right up his alley: that of the massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG).  Whether you’re a computer fan, a Stephenson fan, or a fan of edge-of-your-seat thrillers, you’ll find something to sink your teeth into and keep chewing on for some time in Reamde.

Richard Forthrast is our approaching-middle-age hero who is one of the big brains behind the multi-billion dollar MMO, T’Rain, which is known throughout the world, whether you’re a rich white kid who likes to pretend he’s an elf, or a gold farmer somewhere in Asia looking to make some good money.  T’Rain was in fact created with that in mind – Richard’s past is not a completely clean one by any means – to be open and available and possibly profitable to just about anyone on the planet with a good Internet connection.  And then a very specific virus attacks T’Rain, known as Reamde, which immediately begins making a lot of money for its creators and screwing over a lot of the regular players.  Richard and his team of brainiacs are now working round the clock trying to bring a stop to this.

Meanwhile, one of Richard’s family members – Zula – originally from East Africa and adopted into the family as a young girl, was hired by Richard to work for T’Rain, and becomes involved in a really big problem when her boyfriend Peter – who happens to be a renowned hacker – is looking to make good money selling credit card numbers to a shady, unknown character.  Things take a turn for the worse, when the Reamde virus hits and screws everything up for him.  Before they know it, the Russian mafia is breaking down their door, kidnapping them, and taking them to Asia by private jet to find the perpetrators of the Reamde virus and get their revenge.

Reamde begins like an expected Stephenson book with computers and an MMO, but then makes a change to a Tom Clancy-style thriller, as the characters travel around the world, getting involved in elaborate shootouts in distant countries.  Eventually Islamic terrorist even get involve, as well as a member of MI6 who seems to appear from nowhere and gets a twenty page introduction.  The crux of the book takes place towards the end of the first third of the book, in what Cory Doctorow calls “. . .an epic, 100+ page climactic mini-war.”  The ongoing saga eventually leads back to Seattle and the northwest, passing into Canada, where the novel began, pulling Richard Forthrast into the mix.

Reamde certainly has a captivating voice that Stephenson skillfully uses to hook people in, with a complex and interesting story, but then the action and thrill-ride goes on and on, pulling in more and more characters.  As can be said for almost any thousand-page novel – though I’m sure some Stephenson fans love that it’s this long – Reamde could afford to lose a couple hundred pages, perhaps be edited in half.  Towards the end of the novel, it feels like the initial drive may have become lost in the mess of people and bullets and traveling.  Readers will be left wondering why this massive cast is now chasing and following the ever-changing villains, in the hopes of getting to Zula – an originally interesting female character who eventually becomes “kidnapping baggage,” when even some of these characters looking to find her have never even met her.  Reamde could’ve used an editor performing some heavy page cutting and some necessary redirection to help Stephenson stay on the rails; the result is a sprawling epic that loses its way on a number of occasions.

Originally written on October 13, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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