The Most Enjoyable Novel of the Year?

Published this week’s Irish Examiner:

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Bestseller Stephenson’s new, hi-tech gaming thriller is a world apart


Neal Stephenson 

Atlantic; £18.99

Review: Val Nolan

Saturday, November 19, 2011

One needs to take a deep breath before outlining the action of Reamde, the latest thousand page offering from Neal Stephenson, a six time nominee for the Arthur C. Clarke Award who can’t seem to publish a novel without it topping the New York Times bestseller list. Here his protagonist is Richard Forthrast, a former narcotics smuggler who went straight after realising that “video games are a more addictive drug than any chemical”. Funnelling his gains into a Fortune 500 software company the libertarian Richard creates T’Rain, a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) more popular and more profitable than World of Warcraft. Among his oddball employees is his adopted Eritrean niece Zula, a resourceful young lady with a kind of “hyperspace-librarian, girl-geek thing” going on.

Yet all is not well in T’Rain, with Chinese hackers having devised an ingenious money-making scheme, a virus called REAMDE (“an accidental or deliberate/ironic misspelling of README”) that encrypts personal documents before demanding cash to release the files. Leveraging “their virtual, in-game military dominance,” they have created “a payment mechanism difficult to shut down” and one which ensnares Zula’s boyfriend Peter. Selling stolen credit card numbers to the Russian mafia, Peter passes-on the virus and inadvertently incapacitates the computers of insane mob boss Ivanov. Along with his level-headed “security consultant” Sokolov (“somebody get that guy a first name”), Ivanov kidnaps Zula and Peter and flies them illegally to the Chinese city of Xiamen. Why do the Russians believe this pair can help them? “Because we are hackers and they have seen movies”.

Reamde so is a painstakingly researched, deftly plotted roller-coaster of gigabytes and gunplay, a pitch-perfect pastiche of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy style techno-thrillers as well as a comment on contemporary digitality and the ubiquity of online interconnectivity. Richard’s company “didn’t make anything the way a steel-mill did and didn’t really sell anything the way did”. Instead T’Rain extracts cash from players’ desires to own virtual goods that would confer status on their fictional characters and, as a result, has become “increasingly patched into the wiring diagram of the real world”. The game is played by everyone from the hip Seattle tech crowd to crack American commandos to millions of Chinese teenagers involved in “gold-farming”, the process of accumulating virtual items to sell to American or European players with more money than time.

The result is a novel closer to early Stephenson works such as Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon than it is to his philosophical science-fiction juggernaut Anathem or the marvellous, mind-exploding complexity of his Baroque Cycle, a twenty-first century landmark retelling the lives of everyone from William of Orange to Isaac Newton with a numismatic twist. Compared to the intellectual summersaults of these books, it’s inevitable that even the globetrotting erudition of Reamde feels almost like a yarn. But oh what a yarn it is.

As Richard investigates his niece’s disappearance – both in the real world and in the virtual environment of the game – Zula’s own attempts to free herself are foiled by a group of Islamic Jihadists led by one Abdullah Jones, a Cardiff native of West Indian ancestry “who cut his teeth blowing up busses in Wales and the Midlands before migrating to London and graduating to tube stations”. MI6’s “highest priority target”, Jones has murdered his way through the world before arriving in Southeast Asia just in time for an accidental collision with the “disorganised crime” of Zula’s Russians captors. As one character remarks: “Fate has given us a totally awesome foe”.

With Jones’s appearance, the book descends into an incredibly destructive, massively entertaining fire-fight between the mobsters and the Islamists before blasting off again in unexpected directions. In the process, Reamde absorbs a separate but related novel, becoming a net-savvy, gun-toting working model of both the video game industry and the global War on Terror. While the addition of Jones should leave the plot of Reamde too cluttered, the fact is that it succeeds brilliantly. Of particular note is how the action mimics the MMORPG experience, with Reamde’s ceaseless kineticism subservient to the intellectual panache which every new problem demands of inventive characters such as Zula and Sokolov.

On top of this, Stephenson displays total mastery of what T’Rain’s programmers might call “Narrative Dynamics”. A born storyteller, he sets Richard and Sokolov in pursuit of Jones while adding – just for the hell of it – a gung-ho Special Forces type named Seamus Costello, a man with “a Boston accent that could scrape the rust from a manhole cover”. One can’t help but wonder if Costello, a T’Rain addict, has taken advantage of the game’s option to give his avatar an Irish brogue, “this being a menu item commonly selected by American players who wanted to sound more like characters in movies”. It’s the kind of between-the-lines hilarity which Reamde traffics in, this being a novel in which a Jihadist is stabbed to death with a broken Love Actually DVD and one where the hero frets throughout about his inaccurate portrayal on Wikipedia.

All jokes aside though, Reamde’s matter-of-factly integration of the real world with the digital really ought to be a model for other novelists. Stephenson easily betters the usually clumsy, self-conscious depiction of computers in fiction by precisely counterpointing the online intrigue with the inexorably closing steel trap of his real world storyline. Indeed, the divisions between gameplay and reality collapse utterly in the novel’s final hundred and fifty pages, a MMORPG brought to life as a terrifically choreographed running gun battle between the book’s dozen or so main characters. It is, without a doubt, one of the smartest, fastest moving, and most consistently enjoyable novels of the year, a book with the rare distinction of being one this reviewer wishes he had written. Look no further for your holiday reading.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on Writing in the Digital Age at NUI Galway’s Huston School of Film and Digital Media.

The article originally published in the Irish Examiner, 19th November 2011. 

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