by Neal Stephenson
Review by Benjamin Wald
William Morrow Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061977961
Date: 20 September 2011 List Price $35.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Neal Stephenson is one of the most consistently engaging writers I have ever read, and his new novel Reamde is no exception. Reamde is a page-turner in the truest sense of the word; there were hundreds of pages at a time when I could barely stand to put the book down, and Stephenson seems incapable of writing a dull sentence, even about such seemingly-dry topics as the economics of online roleplaying worlds. He has also been a writer who has consistently explored fascinating and mind-expanding ideas, from nanotechnology in The Diamond Age to cryptography in Cryptonomicon, to philosophy and alternate realities in Anathem. In this respect, sadly, his latest novel falls short. There are some interesting tidbits about the future of MMORPG's, but this is peripheral to the plot and drops out after the first section of the novel, and the bulk of the plot is pure thriller. Stephenson can do thriller, and he does it incredibly well here, but it is too bad he had to sacrifice his usual depth of ideas in order to do so.
The plot concerns a young woman named Zula. Zula's boyfriend Peter has, unbeknownst to her, become involved in criminal activities with the Russian Mafia, which go spectacularly wrong through an unfortunate combination of computer viruses and online roleplaying games, which results in Zula and Peter being kidnapped by Russian criminals and dragged off to China to hunt for a Chinese hacker and online gold-farmer. From there, the plot continues at a breakneck pace, with each narrowly averted disaster leading Zula even deeper into the webs of international espionage, crime, and terrorism.
What sets this novel apart from other thrillers is the meticulous attention to detail Stephenson brings to his writing. Each new country visited is described convincingly, with small cultural differences carefully marked and occasionally proving crucial to the plot. Stephenson also writes with convincing authority on topics as diverse as Chinese fishing boats, international flight plans, and the tactics of gunfights (of which there are many). This detail is always worked seamlessly into the plot, so that it never becomes obtrusive or overwhelming, but it adds immensely to the credibility of the action. This balances out the improbability of the plot itself at many points, as in classic action thriller style Stephenson strings together numerous coincidences and larger than life characters without ever threatening the reader's suspension of disbelief.
The writing, as mentioned earlier, is another strength of this novel, with Stephenson effortlessly dragging the reader along through nail-biting gunfights and sections of backstory alike. The characters are likeable and generally well rounded, although a few of the minor characters are somewhat unrealistically willing to risk there lives in gunfights for people they have only briefly met. The only false note, for me, was the number and organization of Islamic terrorists in Canada and the United States. Furthermore, Islamic terrorism is used as a fairly generic boogeyman in this novel; they could just have easily been neo-Nazis or any other group that serves as a default villain. This is fine if all you are looking for is an engaging read, but it shows once again the relative lack of big ideas that played such an important role in Stephenson's other writings.
Overall, this novel is one of the most gripping novels I have ever read. Even at almost a thousand pages in length, it never wears out its welcome. Still, the rather lightweight intellectual content of this latest novel might disappoint fans of Stephenson's earlier works. Whether this is a problem or not depends on taste and expectations; for myself, much as I enjoyed Reamde, I rather hope that Stephenson returns to more intellectually ambitious writing in his next book.