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22 January 2012

A mind-boggling mix: Chinese hackers, Russian gangsters, Al Qaeda operatives and much more..

TO describe Reamde as fun would be akin to describing murder as “a little bit of mischief”. This, Neal Stephenson’s 13th novel, is literary haute couture; it’s smart, it’s edgy, it’s mind-bendingly layered, and it has a complexity that will make you weep. Whether said weeping will be from joy or frustration is debatable, but rest assured — there will be tears.

There is one really fundamental difference between Reamde and Stephenson’s earlier works. Canonical as they are, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age are all very much ‘niche’ publications: their appeal is primarily to sci-fi aficionados. The Baroque Cycle on the other hand, steps far out of sci-fi into the realms of speculative fiction/alternate history, but is still dense and sometimes painful to read. Reamde, however, is immensely accessible, even to those of us who may still be Luddites. That said, devout Stephenson fans — those people who are constantly thrilled by his erudition and scope — will probably also love Reamde, which is in many ways a pre-cursor to his earlier cyberpunk novels.

The plot of Reamde is particularly ridiculous at first glance: Richard Forthrast, a former marijuana smuggler, founds a Fortune 500 mega-corporation based on a virtual gaming world called T’Rain that is the basis for an entire shadow economy; real-life gamers wind up treating it as a full-time job, “farming” gold pieces and developing virtual characters from within the game to sell for actual real-life currency and thereby earning a living. As the novel begins, Richard has hired Zula, an Eritrean orphan who is his adopted niece, whose boyfriend, Peter, is involved in selling stolen credit card information. The buyer of said information is an associate of the Russian mafia, and during the data transfer, finds his computer system — and by extension, those of his criminal cohorts — compromised by a virus, “Reamde”, that is the brainchild of a Chinese T’Rain player. In an
effort to recover the virus — rather than pay the $73 worth of T’Rain’s virtual currency in ransom — the Russians kidnap Zula and Peter, along with a Hungarian hacker, and fly to Xiamen in China to locate and eliminate the hacker.

While involved in tracking down the hacker and preparing to terminate him with, as spy thrillers would put it, “extreme prejudice”, the Russians come into contact with Al Qaeda operative Abdallah Jones, a wanted terrorist, who
despite being black and Welsh, seems to think that China is the perfect place to hide. Oh, and that kidnapping Zula will somehow further his goals. Seven hundred pages later, having completed a quick circuit of the world and a massive discussion of aeronautical navigation, philology, virtual economies, technology and the epistemology of colour palettes, the plot widens just a tiny bit more to incorporate a jihadist attack on Las Vegas, something odd going on in the world of T’Rain, and a Hollywood Western-style shootout with more guns than actual people. This, for the sake of perspective, is a short version of the plot.

The fact that Stephenson is able to maintain even a vestige of narrative control over this runaway juggernaut of a novel is testament to his abilities as a writer. While Reamde occasionally transitions from novel to spatterfest-in-book-form, it is constantly entertaining, and Stephenson demonstrates just how much of a polymath he really is. Between detailed explanations of T’Rain’s mythology (what, asks a remarkably pretentious English fantasy writer, is the reason for naming the Tolkien-ish elf-analogues in T’Rain “K’Shetriae”? Why the apostrophes and the uppercase letters?) and an equally detailed exposition on how T’Rain managed to convert artificial currency into real-world wealth (a sly dig at investment banking, one wonders?), Stephenson ranges far and wide over literary territory. His exposition is dense, technical and highly readable — there is no way to avoid being sucked into the text of Reamde.

The only real issue that one faces with Stephenson is his characterisation. Almost every single person in Reamde is so astoundingly competent and level-headed that it is not hard to imagine them fixing the whole planet in under a week if
given the chance. No matter what sort of psychotic-breakdown-inducing situation they are in, whether it’s plotting international flights to avoid detection by national air forces, finding a single Chinese hacker with only a smart-phone while being menaced by an unstable Russian gangster gone rogue, or hiking across inimical terrain, they radiate a sense of perspective that is practically Zen in its serenity. These aren’t protagonists; frankly, they start to seem like über-mensch. By page 500, I was wondering why they hadn’t yet solved the problems of world hunger while curing cancer and fixing the Eurozone crisis.

To his credit, Stephenson is meticulous about explaining the acquisition of each character’s particular highly-specialised skill-set. All the exposition in the world, however, is insufficient to mitigate the suspension of disbelief required as the characters of Reamde steal private jets, turn DVDs into lethal weapons, slip in and out of China without visas and — my
favourite — manoeuvre wild mountain lions into attacking their enemies. These are the people who I would want on my side if aliens were ever to invade Earth.

There is humour among all of this though. Stephenson spins dual plot-lines, allowing them to run parallel before a final act of convergence; while the real-world antics of hackers and gangsters are painfully rooted in actual events, the world of T’Rain has a hilarious civil war between “the Earthtone Coalition” and “the Forces of Brightness”, all over a question of the colour palettes used in designing virtual characters. As terrorists commit acts of grievous bodily harm on one another, authors argue about the semantics of right and wrong in a world of pixels and bytes. Spies shoot at each other and assume identities at the drop (or addition) of a hat, while a formerly obese programmer tracks his caloric intake on a multitude of computer screen.

It is difficult to not be amused — or at least engaged — on some level by Stephenson and his writing. Although Reamde admittedly falls short of the quantum meta-philosophy of Anathem or the historicism of The Baroque Cycle, it still manages to keep itself relevant and stimulating. Much like Stephenson himself, it is wide-ranging, unpredictable and clever. It may not aspire to be much more than a thriller, but Reamde manages to encompass far more than just guns and mayhem of the physical sort.

Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui :Reamde (NOVEL), By Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, New York, ISBN 0061977969, 1056pp.
http://www.dawn.com/2012/01/22/fiction-a-mind-boggling-mix-chinese-hackers-russian-gangsters-al-qaeda-operatives-and-much-more.html