Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: Neil Stephenson's "Reamde"

Neil Stephenson is usually summarized as a "cyberpunk" author, one best known for SciFi books like Snow Crash or speculative literature like Cryptonomicon. The reviews will have you believe that Reamde, his recent 1000+ page novel, is a return to those days, but I suspect that's just a marketing ploy designed to lure readers - like myself - that were turned off by Anthaem, his dense religious philosophical epic. So while Reamde contains quite a few scenes in T’Rain, a World of Warcraft-style virtual reality, make no mistake: it is a thriller along the lines of Zodiac, his 1988 novel set in Boston. I’m not going to even attempt a summary of this wildly plotted, overlong shaggy mess of a book other than to note that it’s basically the attempts of a family to get a kidnapping victim back, but also touches on computer viruses (the title is a deliberate misspelling of “readme”), a theft of money both virtual and real, a kidnapping, Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers, private jets, travel to at least six countries, and an incredible shootout that spans at least 100 pages. It also happens to be a propulsive read that is hard to put down.

One could argue that Reamde has a lot of flaws: for one, all of his characters think of similar tactics in the action sequences, and this analysis, which interesting, can feel repetitive. In addition, the romantic subplots aren't remotely believable, feeling almost insultingly tacked on. Despite this, Stephenson’s strengths – his ideas and his digressions – shine through. Stephenson’s knowledge is encyclopedic, and so he can write authoritatively about a wide range of topics. Here, enjoying the ride thorough his convoluted plot, I learned an incredible amount about XiamenEritrea, constructing virtual realities, money transfers, how to illegally cross borders, the difficulties in decrypting computer files, and guns. Lots and lots of guns.

Reamde is a smart book that carries you along with its enthusiasms, a thriller as much at home with databases and social media as it is with gunplay and secret agents. If reading over 1000 pages of this stuff sounds like your cup of tea, dive in, because Stephenson’s the best in the game.

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience

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