Review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

In 1972, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa farming clan, fled to the mountains of British Columbia to avoid the draft. A skilled hunting guide, he eventually amassed a fortune by smuggling marijuana across the border between Canada and Idaho. As the years passed, Richard went straight and returned to the States after the U.S. government granted amnesty to draft dodgers. He parlayed his wealth into an empire and developed a remote resort in which he lives. He also created T’Rain, a multibillion-dollar, massively multiplayer online role-playing game with millions of fans around the world. But T’Rain’s success has also made it a target. Hackers have struck gold by unleashing REAMDE, a virus that encrypts all of a player’s electronic files and holds them for ransom. They have also unwittingly triggered a deadly war beyond the boundaries of the game’s virtual universe ? and Richard is at ground zero. Racing around the globe from the Pacific Northwest to China to the wilds of northern Idaho and points in between, Reamde is a swift-paced thriller that traverses worlds virtual and real. Filled with unexpected twists and turns in which unforgettable villains and unlikely heroes face off in a battle for survival, it is a brilliant refraction of the twenty-first century, from the global war on terror to social media, computer hackers to mobsters, entrepreneurs to religious fundamentalists. Above all, Reamde is an enthralling human story, an entertaining and epic page-turner from the extraordinary Neal Stephenson.


The first thing that you should know about Reamde is that you can’t judge this book by its cover, or by its synopsis. Billed as a kind of cyberpunk, techno-thriller a la Ready Player One, Reamde begins promisingly enough, describing a fascinating virtual world, and setting up a great plot involving a the creation of a computer virus that preys on the users of T’Rain. The setup takes up perhaps fifteen precent of the extravagantly long book.

From there, it devolves in to a Byzantine labyrinth of Russian gangsters, extremist Islamic terrorists and MI6 agents. “Great!” You may say to yourself. That sounds like an action packed, high octane kind of spy thriller. It is indeed. It has absolutely nothing to do with T’Rain or the titular virus, which is odd. The digital world, the elaborate detailing of it, and the very title of the book are discarded by the wayside, and barely even mentioned again. What follows is a rambling, albeit enjoyable series of events that leads to a rather foreseeable and inevitable conclusion, some several hundred pages later.

Reamde is quite a good book. It’s just not the book that is advertised by the cover, title and synopsis. For readers looking for a current day, more adult focused Ready Player One or even a later day William Gibson-esque romp will find themselves confounded and confused by the path the plot takes, of not thoroughly disappointed by it. Beyond the first few chapters, there is no discussion of technological issues, or even much reliance on computers, let alone a tying of the virtual world or even the virus to the overall plot. This is quite sad, as the ideas presented early on are well thought out, and deserve to be fleshed out more fully.

As for what does exist, it is epic, in the sense that it is long, and Byzantine, in the sense that there are several overlapping and intermingling paths and “main” characters are introduced as late as half way through the story. A little more attention could have been paid to editing, as there are some patently incorrect phrases and words present.

Over all, the story is enjoyable; a sort of Frederick Forsyth-esque quasi-spy thriller that bounces from one bloody gun battle to the next with a fairly unrelenting pace. The final moments when all the characters are set on their collision course and hurtling towards one another are particularly electrifying. While the choice of bad guys (Russians and Muslims) is fairly banal, the manner in which they are portrayed is quite excellent. The main antagonist is thoughtful and calculating, urbane, witty, easy to relate to and thoroughly loathsome, all in one package.

The main characters range from shady to heroic, and all are distinct and interesting in their own way. Not all of them are gun-toting military muscle heads; in fact, there are gratifyingly few of these. In the end, despite all the intrigues and plots and organisations, Reamde is about people. Being so long, it’s a good thing that all the characters are well rounded, interesting and enjoyable.

Reamde is a very interesting and enjoyable book. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t use the beginning fifteen percent of the material to greater and more unilateral effect.

  • Genre: Fiction
  • Demographic: Adult
  • Rating Out of Five: 3
  • Format: Paperback
  • Find At: The Book Depository
  • Published: September 2011


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