[This globe-trotting technothriller is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Neal Stephenson

2011, William Morrow

Filed under: Literary, Thriller

A few weeks after Reamde came out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle about the ebook edition being full of typos. This is not surprising. The paper version has more than its share of typos, too. Not an overwhelming amount, perhaps two dozen mistakes over a thousand pages. But more than you see in most professionally published books.

I can entirely understand these errors. Reamde runs a thousand pages, roughly 400,000 words, and it was published just three years after Stephenson’s last novel. In addition, it’s a globe-trotting thriller, steeped in real-world facts and places, technology and tactics. And it has its own built-from-the-ground-up online virtual world.

It took me three weeks just to read this thing, let alone proofread it. I can’t even imagine editing or writing it. So a few mistakes are certainly forgivable. But they tell of Stephenson’s attitude toward writing, which has emphasized, in the past decade, length above all, moreso than ensuring the highest sentence-to-sentence quality possible.

This is not to say that Reamde feels rushed or shoddily produced. On the contrary, it’s very very good—entertaining, immersive, thrilling, fun, educational and full of great characters. But it’s not Stephenson’s best work. His best, in my mind, is still Snow Crash, the revolutionary information-disease cyberpunk epic that made his name. Snow Crash is also a hefty read at well over 100,000 words—I’d guess 150K—but it’s less than half the size of Reamde, and it shows a different Stephenson than the one from 2011.

When Stephenson labors over a passage, his prose is his best talent. Snow Crash teems with that kind of writing. But, since its publication (in 1992), Stephenson’s writing has expanded and sprawled. As Tom Bissell pointed out, he’s published six 1000-page novels in a dozen years. That’s an absurd pace, and it lends itself more toward new-Stephenson’s penchant for extensive logistical layout and much less toward old-Stephenson’s penchant for phrase-turning and bombastic character details.

For example, in Snow Crash, the main character is a samurai-sword-wielding pizza delivery driver, named Hiro Protagonist, who drives a very fancy car. This is how it’s described:

The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big, sticky contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.

In Reamde, the two main characters are a middle-aged game developer and his favorite niece, who was born in Eritrea and raised in Iowa. Here’s how the coolest car in that novel is described, from the perspective of the niece:

From the axles up, it was simply a pickup truck, albeit of the biggest and heaviest class: the kind that, on her visits back home, she saw driving around in farm country, carrying bags of cement and towing fifth wheel trailers. From the axles down, though, it looked like nothing she’d ever seen. The wheels had been removed and replaced with contraptions that looked like miniature tank treads. At each corner of the vehicle, where her eye expected to see a round wheel, it was instead baffled by the impossible-looking spectacle of a large triangular object, consisting of a system of bright yellow levers and wheels circumscribed by a caterpillar tread made up of black rubber plates linked together into an endless conveyor belt about a foot and a half wide. This ran along the ground for several feet beneath each axle and then looped up and around the yellow framework that held it all together, which, she perceived, was bolted onto the truck’s axle using the same lug nut pattern as would be used to mount a conventional wheel. So it seemed that these things were a direct bolt-on replacement for conventional tires, made to spread the vehicle’s weight out over a much larger contact area. Just the thing for an environment that was covered with snow for six months out of each year, and mud for another two. And indeed as the day grew brighter, she saw that the truck’s rearview mirrors and upper body were spattered with dried mud. Conditions might be snowy up in this valley, but this truck had been stolen from some place where spring was well advanced.

A lot of this comes down to taste. If you prefer a risky style, and shorter, more deliberate, and frankly more entertaining prose, you’d like Snow Crash more. If you prefer a very good but slightly long-winded and not quite as polished style, then you might well prefer Reamde.

Whatever your preference, it seems that Stephenson, as the last decade has proven, is the latter kind of writer, and Snow Crash was the exception to the rule.

That’s not to say Reamde doesn’t have its gems. In fact, it has a lot of them, but the sheer length of this book, the exhaustive setup and tangents Stephenson indulges, means that those real beauties are usually dozens of pages apart.

In this kind of format, Stephenson’s best talent is his world-building, a descriptor that usually attends science fiction or fantasy writing. In this case, the world Stephenson builds is an intensively realistic setting full of brilliantly realized characters. Each of his dozens of heroes and villains has a history and a unique worldview, habits, thoughts, good sides and weaknesses.

So, finally, the very worst you can say of Reamde is that it’s an outstanding thriller, one of the best ever and unique in its complexity and humanity. For the sake of thoroughness, and because it seems appropriate to have a review of Reamde run 1500 words, the rest of this review is a summary of the premise.

Richard Forthrast spent a good deal of his 20s ferrying pot across the US/Canada border. He made a whole lot of dirty cash, and so he spent a lot of time wondering and worrying about money laundering. Later on, after losing an entire decade to an addiction to World of Warcraft, he developed an idea for a similar medieval combat online role-playing game, one that wound up being called T’Rain, short for TERRAIN, the landform-generating program at the heart of the world.

T’Rain has a number of features that distinguish it from WoW, like its hyper-realistic land formations, and its ability to map real-life situations and actual jobs like airport security or business meetings into the game. Most of all, T’Rain’s distinguishing feature is that Forthrast built significant substructures into the game to cater to, of all groups, the masses of teenage Chinese “gold farmers” who slog through the game earning gold, weapons, and other things of value, and then selling them to rich Western players who have more money than time.

So, T’Rain features self-sustaining accounts, which don’t require credit cards, since Chinese teenagers don’t have credit cards. And it easily allows for transferring money back and forth from China, and so on and so forth. As Richard notices, gold farming is a multi-billion dollar per year industry, so catering to that market is not exactly insane.

But it also makes T’Rain ideal for money laundering, and for a particular kind of virus called ransomware, which worms into an infected computer, locks up all the documents it can find into one big encrypted zip file, and then charges the infectee for the key. The biggest new ransomware virus in T’Rain is called REAMDE, and it tells its victims to report with their ransom payment (a bargain-basement $73) to a certain location inside the game. That makes it difficult to actually pay, since hordes of predatory third-party gamers descend on the location in question and kill anyone who approaches.

Life’s tough in the real world, too. When a young hacker steals a bunch of credit card numbers and sells them to the Russian mafia, the file gets corrupted by REAMDE, and the Russian mafioso press-gangs the hacker’s girlfriend (who happens to be Richard Forthrast’s favorite niece) into service to track down the person responsible for the virus, so that he, the mafioso, can kill him.

All of that is just the beginning of the plot, the barest outlines of the premise. We’re still not even 100 pages into the novel’s massive girth. If you’re already bored, this probably isn’t the book for you. Things get more interesting, certainly, and there’s plenty of action, but Stephenson is never afraid to explain, in minute detail, the inner workings of a relatively minor detail, like how Richard stumbled across Pluto, his genius geologic-model maker, and why detailed geographic formations are important.

Stephenson’s writing is never quite dry, but it can be exhaustive, and hence exhausting. Still, a great novel, especially if you’re already a Stephenson fan.

Similar books: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway; Zero History, by William Gibson; Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson