Neal Stephenson has taken the notion of a multi-player, on-line video game as the basis for an action novel and has raised it to the next level. The characters in his story each have dangers and goals and must make use of available resources and allies, while avoiding or killing obstructions or enemies. Unlike their in-game counterparts, the novel’s characters only get one life and must struggle to hang onto it against an assortment of unpleasantries, including Russian gangsters, storms at sea, massive urban explosions, petty criminals, predators of the furry, four-footed variety, booby traps, and a charismatic Welsh terrorist of the Al-Qaeda persuasion. They acquire food, clothing and transportation as they find them and make alliances necessary to survive. Stephenson has a lot of fun paralleling developments in the real world with action in the game world. Don’t worry, the former takes up the bulk, and I do mean bulk of this novel. My ARE weighs in at 980 pps. I do not know how vast the final hardcover might be if they change the font size.
CEO and creator Richard Forthrast’s massively popular on-line game, T’Rain, has been hacked. A group of Chinese gold-miners
are holding people’s personal files hostage until they receive payment, through the game. When they foist this ploy on a petty criminal, who was in the process of selling stolen credit card data to a Russian gangster, things take a bad turn. The gangster, Ivanov, rather than disappoint the even worse people to whom he reports, opts to seek out the evil-doers to redress his grievance. That they happen to be located in the People’s Republic of China adds a level of difficulty. Jetting over with his security team, which includes a mercenary, formerly of Russian Special Forces, a few subsidiary thugs, and a Hungarian systems programmer, he insists that those who had disappointed him come along. One of them is the boyfriend of Zula Forthrast, Richard’s niece, thus she is taken along as well and the game is afoot.
In short this is certainly the fastest thousand-pager I have read. The action is fast-paced and unrelenting, as Stephenson has chopped up his very large book into hundreds of one, two and three-page sections, alternating among his various teams of characters, and so keeping things crisp and fast.
His characters are nicely drawn, with enough but not too much history, and enough warts to matter without becoming gross about it. You will not lose any sleep thinking about them, but they are fun while you are following their journeys. Yes, there are people you can root for here. And even the big bad guy has some appeal, which tempers his awfulness. Richard and Zula Forthrast in particular are wonderful characters, as is the commando, Sokolov. There are of course a fair number of disposables, there for canon fodder or target practice.
But Reamde is not a pure
entertainment. You can pick up some new information while enjoying this read. Such as how a multi-player, on-line game, something like The World of Warcraft
, comes to be, looking at the building blocks, things like an underlying plot, geology, color, sound, architecture, racial mix, biota. I would have liked even more of that. Another is a fascinating treatment of what an in-game economy actual entails. Inside the game, off-script users begin to morph elements of the game to their own purposes, altering the canon color palette and engaging in a whole new sort of color war. There is a rather kind look at the culture of some real-world survivalists who have removed themselves from the world in a different way, in anticipation of the collapse of civilization.
No one will mistake this for nobel-level literature. There is not much here for the literary treasure hunter, although there are a few fun references here and there. One character sees his affection for the girl of his dreams in terms of Don Quixote. There are plenty of nods and winks to some other action products. One character, an MI6 agent, complains about the lack of romance in her job, mentioning specifically that her life is nothing like that of James Bond, as she is on her way to a place called Bourne’s Ford. Relating to another sort of literature, one character thinks of himself and those around him as comic-book superheroes, secretly giving every one names from the Marvel universe.
Stephenson has great fun paralleling the experiences of sundry characters, both with each other, and with events in the game, from coping with being chained or handcuffed to the benefits of waving to the locals one passes. I am sure there are many of these but I did not keep track. My limitation here (one of soooo many) is that I am not a gamer. There are undoubtedly scads of insider references for folks who are and I expect many of them will be posting reviews on GR.
Despite its thickness Reamde
is not a deep book (unless I missed a whole lot more than I think I did), but it is very enjoyable. So if you are heading to a beach or a cabin or an undisclosed location where you can read for a really long time, this is definitely a book worth lugging along. If you are a gamer, this will certainly be a fun time for you, if, of course, you can drag your sorry ass away from the screen, or maybe the next time your character is terminated with great prejudice by an unexpected exploding or piercing object or a very dark spell. This is a fun read. Play on.