Our Guest Reviewer is Bryan Glosemeyer
What do a draft-dodging pot smuggler cum internet mogul, an adopted Eritrean refugee, a Chinese virus writer, a former Russian special forces agent, a mad Russian Mafia boss, a rural Chinese tea saleswoman, a Hungarian hacker, a Welsh-born Islamic terrorist, and a British spy of Chinese descent all have in common? They all get reamed in Neal Stephenson’s new techno-thriller REAMDE.
A New York Times bestseller and winner of Hugo, Prometheus, and Locus Awards, Stephenson has become known for densely complex speculative fiction of high concepts and baroque narratives. However, many readers have balked at the challenging difficulty of his more recent novels. REAMDE, I think, is his response to such criticism. Weighing in at over a thousand pages in its first edition, his latest novel is far from a quick read, but it is a fun and action-packed page turner. Unlike some of his previous novels, no time needs to be spent wrapping your brain around advanced mathematics, computer programming and encryption, economic and political world history, the philosophy of consciousness, etc. Just crack it open, get comfy, and enjoy the ride.
Oh, and be careful of anyone who wants to give you a full plot synopsis of this one; the whiplash plot twists and left turns are essential to the reading experience. So if you come across a spoiler alert, my advice is to take heed. That being said, I’ll try not to give too much away and just give a brief synopsis of how it all takes off.
Richard “Dodge” Forthrast is an Iowan farm boy who dodged the Vietnam draft, fled to Canada, and went on to make a small fortune smuggling marijuana south across the border. A fortune he multiplied many times over after getting out of the drug smuggling business and founding the next big thing on the Web, T’rain – a World of Warcraft-like MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game – think of it as a giant video game version of Dungeons & Dragons played by thousands around the world) where players can convert in-game gold into real world currency.
During a Thanksgiving family reunion, Richard gets reacquainted with his niece, Zula Forthrast, a quick-witted and charming Eritrean refugee adopted into the family as a small girl by Richard’s sister. The trouble starts when Zula’s boyfriend, Peter, desperate for money in today’s sluggish economy, contrives a scheme to sell hacked credit card numbers. But his files are contaminated by a new virus, REAMDE. The virus spreads throughout the world of T’rain like wildfire, encrypting users’ data and holding them hostage for a ransom of in-game gold.
And so a chain of disastrous, unintended consequences goes into motion. Peter soon finds out that he’s spread the virus on to his buyer, who happens to work for the Russian Mafia. And they are not happy about having their files held hostage by a computer virus from a video game. Zula and Peter get caught up in an unwanted series of out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire adventures across real and virtual globes. Meanwhile, Richard Forthrast has his hands full controlling the effects of the REAMDE virus in the T’rain world and doing whatever he can to figure out what’s happened to his niece.
REAMDE takes place in a globalized world, populated with an international cast of resourceful and intriguing characters, some innocent, some corrupt, and some downright evil. One of the many stand-out characters is Csongor, a Hungarian systems administrator who does side-work for the Russian Mafia. He’s drafted into this whole mess by being hired to retrieve the Mafia’s files from the virus, but he takes on a personal mission to save Zula from the ever-deepening trouble she’s been dragged into.
“’There is an English expression: high-maintenance girlfriend.’ Csongor remarked. ‘Now of course, Zula is not my girlfriend. Probably never would be, even if all this shit were not happening. And I think that if she were my girlfriend? She would not be high maintenance at all! She is just not that type of girl. However. Because of circumstances, today she is the most high-maintenance girlfriend since Cleopatra.’”
Stephenson spends a lot of time developing the history of how T’rain came to be and where it’s going. He weaves in a subplot of rival fantasy authors, creators of the history and cultures of T’rain, each vying to stake their own creative claim on the massively popular game world. Another subplot emerges out of rival player factions forming within the game, not based on the normal fantasy tropes of good and evil, but on color palettes. Though these excursions add more depth to the world of REAMDE, these particular subplots don’t add much to the main story line and present the only loose threads not to be tied up in the end. So even though they were enjoyable at the time, when I finished the book they left me wondering if they were really needed in such an already lengthy and packed tome.
That being said, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to recommend this book, especially to anyone who enjoys a well-crafted, intelligent thriller. Though action packed, Stephenson doesn’t take it to gratuitously graphic levels of violence. A few f-bombs get dropped here and there, but so appropriately used that only the most sensitive to that kind of language would have a real issue.
What I find to be one of the most attractive aspects of this book (and most of Stephenson’s canon) is not just the infusion of brilliant ideas and vibrant writing, but the wonderful characters. He crafts male and female characters who are not only witty and cool, but also strong and intelligent. In a Stephenson tale it will never be the biggest guy with the biggest gun who saves the day. His heroes are smart, brave, and guided through trials by a good heart. Looking around at the world right now, it seems to me those are just the kind of heroes we need.
A bit more about our Guest Reviewer: Bryan Glosemeyer is a writer and DJ who lives and plays in San Francisco, California. He is an avid reader of speculative fiction and Eastern philosophy. In the coming year, you can look forward to several of his creative projects being unveiled, including collaborations on an art and music blog and a contemporary dark-fantasy novel.
Our thanks to Bryan for this review! We hope he’ll be doing more guest reviews for us in the future!
REAMDE was released in September, 2011 so it should be available at your favorite bookseller below. Just click on the button to go there so you can purchase it.
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