Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Reviewed by Indrapramit Das

Reamde US cover

Reamde UK cover

When I first saw an online synopsis for Reamde I immediately drew lines to Neal Stephenson's 1992 post-cyberpunk (pre-post-cyberpunk?) masterpiece Snow Crash, because of the mention of a computer virus that spreads itself through a persistent virtual world, which is how the latter's plot is set into motion as well. Which got me excited, because Snow Crash is one of my favorite novels, using the conceptual language of computers, the imagistic and generic tropes of sci-fi and action movies, and the backing of centuries of history, philosophy, and various theoretical frameworks to weave a complex and compelling thesis about the evolution of the human race, while giving us characters we care about kicking ass.

So I was crestfallen to see my review copy of Reamde boasting that the novel promises to be Stephenson’s "most commercial" work to date. Dreams of the fabulous ambition and gonzo brilliance of Snow Crash were replaced with expectations of standard-issue airport bookstore techno-thriller hackery and dour mental proclamations of legendary artists selling out.

Turns out my fears weren't quite warranted, though this is no Snow Crash. Reamde is not as overtly ambitious or complex. It is the literary equivalent of a blockbuster. But it ventures pretty far from mediocrity for a novel this contrived and ridiculous. It does this by having something on its head besides just stimulating the lizard-brain (which is does aplenty).

The novel's plot involves the eponymous REAMDE virus, transmitted through the massively multiplayer game and World of Warcraft-killer, T'Rain. A stray REAMDE infection on the wrong hard drive catalyses a series of events leading to a hostage situation involving Zula Forthrast, adopted Eritrean refugee and niece of Richard Forthrast, co-creator of T'Rain and co-founder of Corporation 9592, its developer. All this happens about a hundred pages in, and that’s when the story really begins, only to jump rails completely several hundred pages later. It transforms from a techno-crime thriller to a global counter terrorism (but still techno-laced) thriller when Zula's Russian captors run into an al-Qaeda cell led by Welsh Islamic convert and jihadist leader Abdallah Jones. By the end, the REAMDE virus itself is almost forgotten.

There is an early scene in which one of the writers hired to flesh out the world of T'Rain mentions how fantasy McGuffins always have a "chthonic link," being of "mineral origin." He goes on to speculate that this is an ancient archetype born of hominids recognizing that "certain types of stone make better tools than others." To use this kind of archetype in fiction, he says, is easy, and defines the entertainment we know as "pulp . . . the vast popularity of [which] attests to the power of these motifs to seize the reader's attention, down at the level of the reptilian brain, even as the cerebrum is getting sick" (p.207). The scene, in itself a digression, basically articulates Stephenson's core approach in this novel: writing pure, self-aware pulp while giving the cerebrum a bit of a tickle as well so it doesn't get sick. The novel is packed with archetype and cliché; it has a computer virus, hackers, Russian gangsters, American survivalists, a British spy, a hostage situation, a race against time to stop a terrorist plot, a menacing and charming British villain, an ex-Spetsnaz lone wolf, a spunky heroine, etc. The "cerebral" element comes almost entirely through digressions like the one above, making for a fascinating bit of subtextual puzzle-solving which, while not necessary for the enjoyment of the novel's baser thrills, elevates the experience of reading it.

What soon becomes evident is that Reamde is ultimately a science fiction novel about the present, illustrating in alternately subtle and brazen ways the singularity we all walked through at the turn of the millennium. We live in a future where a novel like this actually seems plausible, no matter how far-fetched the confluence of its various archetypal elements. Taken individually, much of what happens in Reamde is entirely believable; the persistent digital world of T'Rain, the widespread virus engineered to rip money from ranks of clueless computer users, the complicated, globally coordinated terrorist plot to destroy high-profile targets on US soil and its matching counter terrorism response, spies pottering about in countries not their own, civilians forced to act heroically in terrifying circumstances. Mundanity itself is now SFnal—or it always has been and we're only now coming to realize it. The novel is like a period piece, with YouTube, Facebook, iPhones, Google, GPS, and the wireless ubiquity of the Internet all playing key parts.

Many of Stephenson's most acute observations are the small ones. For example, early in the book, Richard Forthrast, middle-aged but familiar with the digital world, is nonetheless struck by the sight of teenagers and their electronics at a family reunion:

Torrents of glowing, crystalline photos rushed across their screens, making a sad and funny contrast with the dozen or so family photographs, developed and printed through the medieval complexities of chemical photography, laboriously framed, and hung on the walls of the room. (p. 25)

It's a beautiful, telling moment that immediately allows us to empathize with Richard while driving home how different a world we live in now than we did a mere decade ago. No man can keep up with the onslaught of his own race's evolution. But the irony of it all is how vulnerable we remain to our own primal tendencies towards conflict despite the intangible, "crystalline" halo of rapidly advancing tech that surrounds the human race. After all, the plot's massive terrorist-busting adventure is set into motion by a single man playing an online game, allowing his computer to get infected by a computer virus written by a Chinese hacker barely out of his teens.

REAMDE itself is an electric ghost, a McGuffin—it doesn't even matter. It simply illustrates our present—a bunch of non-corporeal code set loose in a virtual metaverse (not just the game, but the Internet) parallel to our concrete, "real" world can have life or death consequences. The divide, then, doesn't exist anymore. The digital, virtual world that overlays Earth now is not only as real as the corporeal one, but inextricably wedded to it. They're one and the same.

The Internet holds and processes information that keeps our civilization ticking, but can just as effectively send an aneurysm rocketing through the data-vessels of the virtual world and into the real one. There is a pointed moment when Richard is driving and notices an icon on his GPS showing one of the races from T'Rain, indicating a theme park derived from the game, which leaves him "deeply preoccupied with the fact that the ersatz quasi-Elven race known as the K'Shetriae were now embedded . . . in the memory chips of real-world GPS systems" (p.32). It's a preoccupation with the marriage of virtuality and reality that Richard shares with Stephenson.

And what becomes of this preoccupation? A lot of people run around the globe, type frantically at computer keyboards, shoot at each other, and blow shit up. There are no concrete conclusions drawn after the ashes have settled, except perhaps a well-meaning message of "we should all just get along," evident in the racially variegated cast of protagonists and multiple romantic pairings that seem a plea for more biracial relationships. There's no substantive subtextual thesis, as there is in Snow Crash. As I said: this is pulp. Smart pulp, but pulp all the same. Its primary objective is to entertain, to push those endocrine buttons. And it does that well. The novel is expertly paced, never flagging in narrative momentum despite its considerable length. But it's the characters who keep its bombast from becoming tedious; they're fun to spend time with. Their outlandish histories—from the contrasting influences of Zula's refugee past and Iowan upbringing to Richard's transformation from draft-dodging drug smuggler to millionaire CEO—make them appear larger than life, but it’s Stephenson's intimate observations of their behavior and reactions that keep them recognizably human.

There's a reason Stephenson takes the time to detail how Zula, while writing some vital information down on the hand of one of her Russian captors, notices that it "had taken a lot of abuse and was missing the end of one finger, yet was as warm as any other man's" (p.128). This is a woman hardened by her past, not into some kind of female Rambo manqué, but into a person undaunted by outward appearances. Zula is able to look past the immediate danger to herself and recognize her murderous captors as human beings (even as the novel doesn’t bother to explore their motivations and psychology in any detail), and use that recognition of their unique personalities to her own advantage. It's believable and endearing, and just one example of how Stephenson manages to endow his characters with intelligence that might help them survive the novel's action movie shenanigans. You want to see them safely through to the end, instead of riddled with bullets or blown up because of their stupidity.

The villains get short shrift in comparison, but they're effective enough. Ivanov the Russian gangster is a gregarious adversary, which makes him genuinely frightening when he shows his more unhinged, vicious side. Jihadist leader Mr. Jones stalks like a wildcat through the pages of the novel—a magnetic, charming personality churning with undercurrents of depth and motivation, and as far from an analog of Osama bin Laden as you might expect. His relationship with the good guys is a fascinating one, and made me wonder what the novel would look like from his perspective. The interaction of heroes and villains is also the source of much of the novel’s humor, keeping the narrative from being bogged down by the weight of its own dire topicality. When Mr. Jones confesses that Love Actually is "a film for which [he has] always secretly harbored a soft spot [and] will never again be able to enjoy in quite the same way" (p.521) after one of our heroes dispatches a jihadist by fashioning a shiv out of a broken DVD of said film, I couldn't help but chuckle to myself.

Stephenson finds both a sense of wonder and wry humor in observing how the plot of the twenty-first century so far has been a pastiche of humanity's most scoffed-at genres. It's a terrifying notion, if you think about it, but also a thrilling one—and Stephenson logically extrapolates that feeling into one giant thriller of a novel. Reamde is clever without being obnoxious, fun without being campy, funny without being stupid, scary without being alarmist, poignant without being sentimental, and exciting without being mind-numbing. What more could one want from a blockbuster? This is no classic like Snow Crash, but it is in its own way as ambitious and well-researched a novel, and as effective at what it's doing. It may well be Stephenson’s most "commercial" work to date, but it’s still distinctively his. I've no doubt we've still got many surprises ahead from his career.


Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Redstone Science Fiction, New Scientist CultureLab, Apex Magazine, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or his Flickr page.