Review – Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The plot of Reamde in a run-on sentence: Zula Forthrast, adopted niece of Richard Forthrast, creator of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game T’Rain, is dating Peter, who gets in over his head with a mentally unstable Russian gangster named Ivanov, who kidnaps them both and brings them to China to track down the creator of a computer virus, where their paths cross with Islamic terrorist Abdallah Jones, who complicates the efforts of the Forthrast family and an international cast of good Samaritans to rescue Zula by taking her hostage with the intention of bartering her in exchange for Richard’s assistance in sneaking Jones’ jihadists across the Canadian border into America.

And breathe.

That may seem like a spoiler-y summary, but at 1,042 pages, the final showdown– a meticulously detailed chase in the mountains of northern Idaho told from the perspective of seven different characters– is telegraphed the moment Zula is kidnapped for the second time in the first 200 pages. As depicted by Stephenson, the unfairness of her situation is palpable, but it’s at odds with the detached, action movie unflappability of the character archetypes she’s surrounded with[1]. There’s little doubt that however bleak things get, all the good guys will survive until the final showdown, and the bulk of the novel is dedicated to explaining at length the unlikely ill-fortune and convenient leaps of intuition that result in them finally being in the same place at the same time with a lot of guns at their disposal.

Much like Stephenson’s last modern-day novel Cryptonomicon, the plot is slight, it’s the details that drive him. The elaborate fiction of the Forthrast family tree grounds the novel in reality, and the thought put into the creation and day to day upkeep of Richard’s MMO brainchild is characteristically impressive. It’s a shame that the online world of T’Rain and the titular Reamde virus that spreads within it both quickly lose relevance to the plot in favor of lessons on the proper handling of a small country’s worth[2] of firearms. It’s the most imaginative element of the book, and the duel between the videogame’s rival fantasy architects is sadly left hanging.

With its contemporary setting, Reamde is certainly Stephenson’s most accessible novel in a decade. But fans of his dry humor and speculative fiction will likely be disappointed. As always, Stephenson’s writing is hyper-intelligent, clean, and professional. But the obsessive description of every thwarted escape attempt, discarded contingency plan, and painstaking reminder of how to activate or disengage the safety on every weapon that falls into a character’s hands leeches all urgency from the chase. It’s a high tech thriller with the temperament of a technical document.

[1] Particularly Abdallah Jones, a Euro-terrorist in the Die Hard vein, who’s uncharacteristically cool for an Islamic jihadist.

[2] Or in this case, one Idaho’s worth.


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