Good Guys and Guns: Neal Stephenson's Reamde

Review by Robert Goodman
Neal Stephenson, one of the Godfathers of cyberpunk and deliverer of massive, engaging tomes full of historical and philosophical fun returns to the present day, real world (of sorts) with Reamde.
The first thing to say about this book is: don’t be put off by its size or its unpronounceable name. At over 1000 pages it is a daunting prospect and will make you think seriously about buying an e-reader (if you don’t already have one). And, given the novel’s focus on all things technological and interconnected, this may indeed be the most appropriate way to read it. But an e-reader doesn’t build up the muscles quite as much, and the novel makes just as good an argument for throwing technology away and experiencing reality. So you can still lug the real thing around and feel righteous.
Reamde, stripped right back, could best be characterised as a post-9/11 thriller. It has Russian mafia, internet millionaires, famous jihadists and their hangers-on, hackers, MI6, FBI and enough lovingly described exotic locations to fill a couple of James Bond movies.
The Reamde of the title is a computer virus which is used to extort money from the players of a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game called T’Rain, a game that has been designed specifically to help part players from their money in the first place. But while this aspect of the plot allows some skewering of the on-line fantasy gaming fraternity, it is just the conceit from which the rest of the story spirals completely out of control. But the plot, is not Stephenson’s central concern.
Under the hood, Reamde continues Stephenson’s look at the how technology changes the way we live and interact. On the surface, coincidence brings a group of disparate characters together. But it never feels like coincidence, as the connections are all the result of the information age – an age in which everyone finds out about you through Facebook or your Wikipedia entry; an age in which a Chinese teenager, an America special services soldier and a Swiss banker can interact in a virtual gaming world; an age in which GPS always lets you (and other people) know exactly where you are.
At the same time, the novel also examines how its internet-savvy characters fare when their technological safety net is taken away. At one point, one of the main characters finds a kind of bizarre freedom in being kidnapped and forced to operate without a phone or internet connection for the first time in years. Another trio find deep wells of ingenuity while trying a “sail” a powerless fishing trawler.
Stephenson can be heavy on exposition, and there is plenty of it in Reamde’s 1000 pages – about things as diverse as how gold farming Chinese teenagers make money out of virtual games, about how the Russian mafia actually works, or how aircraft flight plans are developed and approved. But its delivery is mostly well integrated with the plot, pitch perfect and peppered with a beautifully sly, tongue-in-cheek observational style that often makes you smile while you absorb the information.
Just a couple of examples:
On the Russian Mafia: “Almost all of what they do is very boring… How they get most of their revenue in Russia was not crazy shit like drug deals or arms trafficking. It was overcharging on cotton from Uzbekistan…”
Or this: “Insurgents did not care for spectacular snow-covered mountains. Snow impeded movement and implied harsh cold, “Spectacular” meant “easy to see from a distance”, and insurgents did not like being seen… Many of the features that tourists liked, insurgents found positively undesirable – most of all, the presence of tourists.”
Stephenson highlights how the interconnectedness of the modern world helps us communicate but in a way in which meaning is often left behind. A Chinese hacker and a Hungarian systems administrator communicate well enough using terminology and concepts that they both learnt playing American video games:
“’Maybe we should go back and get their guns,’ Marlon suggested.
“‘That’s how it would work in a video game,’ Csongor said, which was his way of agreeing.”
But they still don’t really understand each other:
“Csongor remarked on the fact, which to him seemed odd, that in China places were unbelievably crowded and others were totally uninhabited but there was no in between. Marlon thought it curious that anyone should find this remarkable. If a place was going to be inhabited, then it should be used an intensively as possible, and if it was a wild place, all sane persons would avoid it.”
Reamde is engaging fun, an often thought-provoking read which, at its heart, is an old-fashioned pageturner grounded by interesting and endearing characters. It has good guys, it has bad guys, it has cliffhangers, chivalry and heroism. And lots and lots of guns.
Neal Stephenson
Harper Collins, 2011
1056 pages, $35