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


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.