Stephenson’s Reamde is enjoyable, just don’t expect any science fiction


Let's get one thing straight, Neal Stephenson's newest book Reamde is not a work of science fiction. If that doesn't turn you off and you still want to know more about it then read on.
If you were going to classify the book then it would probably qualify as a techno-thriller with geek appeal.  Computer hacking figures prominently in the story, but not as prominently as good, old-fashioned gunplay.
The book gets its title from a typo in a readme file in a computer virus which is the maguffin that sets the entire story into motion. A fictional multiplayer online fantasy game called T'Rain which resembles World of Warcraft is targetted by Chinese hackers who infect players with their Reamde virus. The malware locks the victims' computers and in order to rid themselves of the virus, players must pay ransom to the hackers within the game's economic system. The hackers can later convert the fantasy money to real cash.
Richard Forthrast is the founder of the game and he had recently hired a niece named Zula to work for the company. She is a bit of an oddity in his straight-laced Iowan family in that she's adopted and originally an orphan from Eritrea.
She also has a bit of a douche-bag boyfriend who's a small-time hacker that has stolen some credit card numbers and ends up selling them to a man with links to the Russian mafia. It turns out the guy is also a big-time T'Rain player. That is when the troubles begin.
The guy who has just bought the credit card numbers is infected by the virus and can't extract the data for the impatient Russian mobsters. Zula and her boyfriend are forced by the Russians to help them track down the hackers .
Their adventures take them to China, the Philippines, Taiwan, remote parts of British Columbia and the American Northwest as the layers of the plot start to pile up. Not only do they have to contend with hackers, but Islamic terrorists also become involved, including a charismatic leader who is a killer, but is still a character for which the reader is partially sympathetic partially because he is fairly clever and somewhat compassionate towards Zula.
The cast of characters expands as the story progresses to include a Bulgarian and a Chinese hacker, a Russian former special forces operative, a pair of British spies, more Islamic terrorists, American survivalists and a Chinese woman from some remote tribe. What is surprising is the amount of romantic entaglements that this creates.
The characters combine, split and recombine as their actions carry them around the world until they all ultimately converge in a too-convenient series of coincidences which make sense in the internal logic of the story, but are pretty hard to believe would ever happen in real life. Of course, that's not unusual in most works of fiction, but I occasionally found myself rolling my eyes as my read the story.
If you've read Stephenson's Cryptonomicon then this book is somewhat reminiscent of that work except it doesn't jump back and forth in time and spares a lot of the obsessive detail of the geekier aspects of the story, although he does seem to show off a lot of the research he did on weapons throughout the tale.
In the end, the story is well told, the plotting is imaginative and the characters are diverse and brought to life, but it all seems very conventional compared to the kind of books that Stephenson is famous for. That will probably make him more attractive to the average book buyer and I can see how the story might attract the attention of Hollywood as they look for books to adapt to the big screen, but the hard-core Stephenson fan might feel a bit let-down.
While I enjoyed the book, I felt it was a bit too long which is pretty normal for a Stephenson book, but I felt that given the conventional nature of the book it seemed to only prolong the inevitable outcome of the story.
Despite some criticisms I might have about the story, I think that it is a solid tale and a memorable one so I'd certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys thrillers, geekery or is just a Stephenson completist who needs to consume his entire output.