Stephenson's REAMDE: perfectly executed, mammoth, ambitious technothriller

REAMDE Back in 2010, I found myself in Seattle (I was touring with my novel For the Win -- a young adult science fiction novel about gold-farming), I stopped by Neal Stephenson's place for breakfast and asked him what he was working on. He said, "You ever heard of 'gold-farming?'" I couldn't help but smile.

Stephenson's one of my favorite novelists, a writer who is both very good at what he does, and who is nevertheless willing to go all the way out to the edge of his prodigious talents and take brave risks. Even when these don't fully pay off, they're always exhilarating experiments -- Stephenson's imperfect results being better than most writers' best days. So while Snow Crash and Diamond Age drew critical fire for having a lot of seemingly ornamental plot-discursions that never quite paid off at the end, the insanely ambitious and enormous System of the World ruthlessly hunted down every conceivable loose end and executed it before the final page was turned. As much as I enjoyed the latter, I found that I preferred Stephenson's loose ends to the sometimes mechanical exercise of tying them all off. His next book, Anathem, solved this problem somewhat by having a lot fewer moving parts (a bit of a joke there for those of you who've read the book!) and thus a simpler, cleaner finish. As good and audacious as Anathem was, it lacked the intense, fractal plot-complexity of System, and I missed that a little.

REAMDE, Stephenson's latest novel -- the "have you ever heard of 'gold-farming'" -- novel is a book that represents a new kind of equilibrium in Stephenson's literary canon: a book that is simultaneously as baroque as System of the World and as cleanly and crisply finished as Anathem. It is, in other words, a triumph, all 980 pages of it.

REAMDE starts off as a clever, if somewhat straightforward technothriller. Richard Forthrast is the black sheep of a rugged, formidable midwestern family. After a checkered career of minor crime and notoriety, Richard has founded an enormous and enormously profitable multiplayer online game, called T'Rain. This has left him uncomfortably wealthy and powerful, and somewhat constrained by his corporate success. But at least he can help out his relations, like his favored adopted niece Zula, an Eritrean refugee who was raised on the family homestead in Iowa and is now putting her advanced geoscience degree to work as a technician in the T'Rain world, designing the geosystems that deposit precious metals where gold-farmers (an integral part of the T'Rain economy) can dig it up.

The story begins in earnest when Zula's foolish hacker boyfriend sells some stolen credit-card numbers to a front for the Russian mob, and then finds himself at their mercy as the bagman's entire user directory is encrypted by a piece of malicious ransomware called REAMDE (a Chinglish mangling of "Readme") that is targeted at T'Rain players (the malware also encrypts the backup). Now the mob needs to pay off the ransom -- a trifling $75 worth of virtual gold -- so that they can decrypt the data. Except that the in-game region where the gold-drop is to be made is now clogged with powerful griefers who waylay extortion victims and steal the gold they're bringing to the crooks.

After a bunch of wrangling and danger, Zula, her hacker boyfriend, and the Russian gangsters end up in Xianmen, China (the first two aren't there voluntarily), trying to track down the virus's author, and that's where the ambition of the REAMDE starts to kick in. You see, at this point, Stephenson is only a couple hundred pages into his thousand-page epic, and he's only marshalled a few of the many bands of characters who spend the next 700 pages embroiled in one of the most startling, exciting, white-knuckle technothrillers I've had the pleasure of losing a week of my life to.

REAMDE goes from being a story about virtual worlds to a much bigger geopolitical tale about the war on terror, filled with grace-note, high-detail technical excursions into international shipping, American survivalism, MI6 spycraft, Philippines sex-tourism, and lots and lots and lots of guns. This last part is one of the great testimonials I can make about REAMDE, because books about guncraft generally bore me down to the marrow. But Stephenson's several exquisitely choreographed shoot-outs (including an epic, 100+ page climactic mini-war) are filled with technical gubbins about guns that convey the real and genuine enthusiasm of a hardcore gun-nut, with so much verve, so much moment, that I found myself itching to find a firing range and try some of this stuff out for myself.

Combine that with a cast of characters that, while recognizably Stephensonian archetypes, are nevertheless novel, likable, and complex, and you've got a powerful, magnificent book that is worth the sizable forests that will have to be demolished to commit it to paper, and the sizable lump that it will represent in your bag or briefcase while you finish it. Here's a book that, all on its own, makes a hell of a case for buying an ebook reader, assuming you can find a DRM-free ebook edition.



  1. I’m a huge Stephenson fan, but the initial pitch for this book left me feeling cold. Now that I’ve read Cory’s review, I’ve made a 180. I’m going to pick this up ASAP.

  2. Sorry to say, but Diamond Age was a big letdown for me. Sure, the phyles and all was interesting. But whenever a chapter wandered into the primer i ended up going crosseyed…

    1. Sure, the phyles and all was interesting. But whenever a chapter wandered into the primer i ended up going crosseyed

      And if we all liked the same things there’d be a worldwide chocolate shortage. Personally, I loved the Primer, the Mouse Army, the whole deal.

  3. To this day, Cryptonomicon remains one of my favorite all-time books.  I have always loved Stephenson’s work, but that book for me was the true separator between his early (still good) and later (much better) stuff.

  4. I’ve enjoyed all of Stephenson’s previous books.  Even the few that weren’t excellent were at least “good”.  I spend an unpleasant 2-3 hours commuting every day, and the audio version of this should make it a lot more tolerable for a few weeks.

    1. Same exact day as the printed book….   AND the list price of the audiobook on CD is only $3.99 higher than the print. Heck on Amazon you can by the DRM free MP3 CD for $0.50 less, after discounts, than the eBook right now.

  5. Funny, I had the opposite experience to some commenters: I loved Cryptonomicon and Diamond Age, but hated Quicksilver so much that I didn’t bother with the rest of the series.

    1. Same here, Robert. Cryptonomicon blew me away, and I jumped into Quicksilver anticipating more of the same, but, for me, it just got to be too much work, and I bailed halfway through. I guess I like his typing more than his writing.

  6. As much as I love him I’d still rather not support Harper Collins with their library e-book policy.  I will probably borrow a physical copy from my local library if they have one in stock.

  7. I’m not convinced. While Stephenson’s prior labyrinthine plotting and rich, rich, overrich attention to detail has made for very engaging reading on a variety of geeky topics (I’ve always thought of them as novels of ideas with an overlaid plot, rather than character- or story-driven fiction), the attention he turns to firearms in this book does not appeal. Does he describe in intimate detail the recoil of a Desert Eagle? Does he rhapsodize about the smell of cordite? These are tech-geeky details that do not compel.

    Also, I’ve been re-reading Cryptonomicon, and his dinner scene early in the book, and later how he describes the growth of internet technology and e-commerce, have not aged well. I cringed when reading through his ‘Information Superhighway’ metaphor discussion. This current book seems to be in danger of the same impending obsolescence, especially if Stephenson thought that gold farming was a recent enough phenomenon to form the core of his plot.

    1. I just re read this as well, and I think because the book is so technology heavy it is important not to think of the technology components as being set in present day.  They were set 10 years ago, and at the rate technology changes that might as well be a novel from the 1970s.  I actually found much of it made me nostalgic for the pre smart phone days.

  8. Stephenson is appearing at the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival, so my copy will be signed, too! Woohoo! Plus, he’s a great speaker.

  9. Preordered on the Kindle, and I’ll be at Neal’s signing in Denver on the 30th with my hard cover copy. Who said ebooks are killing print?

  10. I’m enjoying the excerpt they released on Factbook. The book’s title messes with my head, though. It translates it to “ReadMe” instead of ReamDe no matter how hard I try to stop it.

  11. I’m probably going to take a great deal of flak for this, but this review actually made me much LESS interested in this book than I was before. See, there are those of us who consider Stephenson’s “intense, fractal plot-complexity” and “baroque” attention to detail a bug, not a feature.

    This review makes it sound to me like Stephenson starts off with a great plot hook, an interesting fast-paced setup, and then… proceeds to get mired in weeds. I’m sure his “grace-note, high-detail technical excursions into international shipping, American survivalism, MI6 spycraft, Philippines sex-tourism, and lots and lots and lots of guns” are interesting, informative, and well-written, but ultimately not what I want from a novel.

    I yearn for the day when Stephenson will embrace the incredible essayist that he so clearly is, and separate it from his novel-writing aspirations. Stephenson seems much more interested in telling us his ideas than his stories. And that’s fine! I just wish he’d stop trying to overlay his essays with a veneer of plot; it just makes the ideas distract from the plot and the plot from the ideas.

    I’ve tried several times to make it through the System of the World, and each time I get bored by the fact that there is, essentially, no plot. I’ve taken to telling people that it’s quite an excellent piece of writing, but that you have to go in expecting that it’s not a novel. It’s a history/discussusion of the Enlightenment, with characters.

    Then again, this may all be a matter of personal opinion, and I fully admit that. I certainly don’t mean to troll.

  12. How’s the structure? I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Stephenson, but one tendency I noticed is that he gets to about eight pages before the end and then goes “Ohmigod, the editor says I have to wrap it up now but I still have all these amazing ideas I haven’t even used yet! Let’s see how many I can cram in there before I have to call it a day.” This makes for a rather breathless final chapter.

    The day he gets the balance right and spreads his ideas evenly through the book, he’ll really have something.

  13. I live in perpetual anticipation of Neal Stephenson’s next book. Even his failures are a thousand times more interesting than 99% of the speculative fiction out there. 

  14. Mixed on Neal Stephenson. Some good, some don’t finish. But $17 for an ebook? Nope, not supporting that.

  15. i’m not buying this until macmillan stops charging their ridiculous prices for ebooks. 

    that said, WANT. SO MUCH.

    Anathem and Cryptonomicon are some of my favorite books.  System of the World was an absolute blast to read, though I have to admit that my favorite book is the second one, since it’s the one most traditionally structured. 

  16. If Stephenson gets any more successful there’s not going to be enough room left on his book covers to fit the titles anymore.

    1. Eh, I feel like I have the opposite reaction. Gravity’s Rainbow feels like wading through mud, most of the time; it’s beautifully crafted mud, but still thick and gritty. Cryptonomicon isn’t nearly as literary, but it’s imminently readable.

      That said, I’m also a big nerd for Diamond Age, which I thought was very clever and not at all a failure.

  17. The Baroque Trilogy was a brutal slog, but I read it and enjoyed it.

    Anathem was one of the most challenging and rewarding books I’ve read this century. Dang.

    Hmmm. Gold mining. Virtual worlds. You know, I’ve never gotten into that stuff, but I’m going to read the book. Not sure if I’m going to buy it this time, though. (Odd thought: Buy a Kindle or whatever, and bring an etching pen so NS can autograph the case.)

    FYIage for Portland, Oregon area folks: Powell’s is renting out the Baghdad Theater on the east side for a reading on September 22nd. Stephenson is a very low-key, maybe even ornery guy, but I really love his readings. Very dry and entertaining.

  18. I gave Quicksilver more than 200 pages to find itself, and it just couldn’t. I really, really wanted to like it. I’m re-reading Crypto right now, and loving it. 

  19. @boingboing-cebb78b9d67f139523b5af3580b5ba86:disqus , you won’t get any flak from me–personally, I like his rambling fiction and lengthy asides just fine–but I did want to point out that he has at least once shown us his Inner Essayist in brilliant fashion, with “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” the unofficial companion piece to Cryptonomicon. But you’re right, it would be lovely if he would crank out essays after the fashion of his departed friend (and fellow Expert Digressor), David Foster Wallace.

  20. I’m looking forward to the ejaculation scene(s) and elucidations of trickster gods.

    In my book, Stephenson seriously peaked at Cryptonomicon, one of my fav books evar, and went downhill into unreadability after that. But I’m always willing to give him another chance.

  21. anyone that is critical of Diamond Age can say hello to my skullgun.

    I loved System of the World but there is something about Diamond Age that makes it far more superior. I believe its to do with breadth of the world and his imagination. 

  22. The Baroque Trilogy is the one Stephenson I’ve not done – I’ve gotten partway through the first book more than once, and just have to stop. Anathem took me about 2 months to read the first 200 pages, and about 2 days to read the rest. It just took that for me to get going in with it. Someday I’ll give Quicksilver another shot, but not today.

    that said, Snow Crash was my first, and still favorite I think, but Cryptonomicon and Diamond Age are right there with it. hell, I’m probably one of the few that sought out The Big U and actually liked it. For me Zodiac is the low point of the ones I’ve read, but you can see where he tried to ‘adjust’ after Big U and the glimmerings of Snow Crash in there.

    Definitely grabbing this one next week!

  23. Uh… just curious here, anyone counting The Mongoliad among his works? (and liking it or not?).

    Personally, I’d have a lot more of his writing in there.

  24. Lost interest in Neil’s books at Cryptonomicon. It was too, I don’t know, oblique, opaque, whatever, I struggled with it, and gave up. I caught on to Neil with Snow Crash, then read Zodiac, still one of my all-time favourite books, then Diamond Age, then The Big U. ReaMde looks like just my kind of book, the subject matter ticks all sorts of geeky, nerdy boxes for me, like Cory’s do. I want the ebook, space is becoming ever more an issue, because, unlike the critics of ebooks who bemoan the fact that they can’t give their books away, I don’t give books away, and very, very rarely loan books. I have, and still read, paperbacks that I bought in 1972, in particular books by Roger Zelazney, probably one of the greatest, most lyrical genre writers of all time. The books I own I treasure, whatever format they come in, because I never know when the desire to re-read an old book may strike. The price, though; that can be a real sticking point.

  25. Another essay- “Mother Earth Mother Board,” Wired, 12/96. Many of the ideas and places showed up in Cryptonomicon, a few years later.

    I just finished re-reading Anathem. Meh. My least favorite. Cryptonomicon, my fav. I must have read it 20 times. I’ve gone through the Baroque Cycle three times. We have the audiobooks of Snow Crash and Diamond Age. A random chapter will pop up on my iPod occasionally. I pre-ordered Reamde when it was announced in March. All in all, really looking forward to hearing him at the Bagdad!

  26. System of the World also holds the world record for the most interminable, indigestible chunk of flat out boring epistolary novel. I know, the point is that the letters had to be boring to hide the secret code. That’s fine. And the first rule of writing is “Show, Don’t Tell.” That’s fine. But the second rule is “Know when to break the first rule” and you break it when the first rule leads you into hundreds of pages about wigs, lace and gossip. There’s much to like in System of the World, but the man needs a damn editor. A real one. With Giant Editor Balls.

  27. I have been a fan of Stephenson since I read Snowcrash. The first time I picked up Cryptonomicon, I made it about 20 pages before my eyes crossed so I put it aside for six months. When I picked it back up, I couldn’t put it back down until I finished. I loved it. I did the exact same thing with Anathem, and I loved it even more. For some reason, I didn’t do the same thing with the Baroque Cycle. I loved it from the first moment I opened Quicksilver, and didn’t stop reading until I had finished all three. I will be picking up a copy of Reamde as soon as I can

  28. “Here’s a book that, all on its own, makes a hell of a case for buying an
    ebook reader, assuming you can find a DRM-free ebook edition.”

    I like the heft of Stephenson’s books. As for the drm whargarble, go eat your mother.

  29. Looking at these comments it looks like every one of his books has at least one massive fan, and one massive hater, personally I’ve loved reading all of them :)
    UK kindle version is £8.50 currently, vs £9.50 for the hardback, which is ok in my book (‘scuse the pun). 
    Also, removing the DRM from a kindle book takes so little time I don’t even consider them DRM’d.

  30. Ok, I want it!  But… “assuming you can find a DRM-free ebook edition” … does anyone know where I can get one?  I’d rather not pay for the DRM and validate Amazon’s business model by buying the Kindle edition, even if it is easy to remove.

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