Book Review: REAMDE
It’s tough to put a label on Neal Stephenson. Just look at this list of his past titles: Zodiac (an enviro-thriller), Snow Crash (a seminal cyberpunk work), Cryptonomicon (a treasure hunt spanning from WWII to the present day), Anathem (an exciting book that is, fundamentally, about math monks), and many more. His latest, REAMDE, continues this genre-bending tradition. REAMDE is very much like a Tom Clancy style international thriller, except it is better written and without a raging boner for the US military. As expected from a book by Neal Stephenson, a lot of the action centers around a Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called T’rain.
Though named after the computer virus that kicks off the action, REAMDE is at its heart the story of the Forthrast family: Zula, the young, intelligent Eritrean adoptee and her uncle, Richard, the draft-dodging, pot-smuggling founder of a Fortune 500 video game company. From the beginning, Stephenson sets about filling out the Forthrast family, which includes war heroes, survivalists, farmers, suburban moms, and a gaggle of cousins. The Forthrasts, though, are just the beginning of REAMDE’s compelling cast of characters.
Perhaps in response to some complaints that Anathem got off to a slow start, REAMDE kicks off its action almost immediately. Zula’s boyfriend, a grey-hat hacker named Peter, gets the two of them wrapped up with some angry Russian mobsters, and before you can blink, they’re off on adventure that spans both sides of the Pacific. The mobsters are like rocks that create ripples when tossed into a pond, and the ripples introduce the reader to one wonderful character after another: Chinese hackers, ex-Spetsnaz, British academics, MI-6, Hungarian hackers, Chinese hill clans, pulp fantasy novelists, Welsh jihadists, and the CIA. Those who have criticized (wrongly, in my opinion) Stephenson for not creating well-realized female characters will have to put that complaint away forever after REAMDE, which features three tough, intelligent women with compelling motives and backstories. They are, in short, the heart of the book.
In addition, the book’s MMORPG, T’rain, is a fully realized world. Stephenson makes no attempt to pretend that T’rain exists in a vacuum. Instead, he uses the existing king of MMORPGs, World of Warcraft, as a springboard to show how T’rain is a different animal entirely, all the while showing its construction by eccentrics, academics, and nerds, with his usual attention to detail. As the book progresses, the world of T’rain begins to be shaken by seismic shifts initiated by its players.
The reader can’t help but wonder how all of this will tie back together as the book’s world grows larger and larger, taking on more and more characters spread across the globe from South China, to Taiwan, to a Philippine sex tourist resort, to the Pacific Northwest. Stephenson describes each location with his usual exceptional attention to fine-grained and interesting details. And just when it seems like the story lines couldn’t be more spread out, they slowly begin to come back together. The action is so fast paced and compelling throughout that the book never once feels slow. Perhaps the only complaint that can leveled against REAMDE is that the climax goes on for so long, and is so spread out over so much ground, that it becomes difficult to keep track of what exactly is going on.
REAMDE is a full-blown action thriller that never feels repetitive despite its 1,000-plus pages. Stephenson moves the story seamlessly across genres while maintaining interesting, fully realized characters. REAMDE is full of the interesting details and ideas for which Stephenson has become so well known.