09 January 2012

You should read: Reamde

Reamde. Photo by jby.
Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Reamde, opens in a self-consciously stereotypical image of rural America: three generations of the Forthrast family engaged in recreational firearms practice in the midst of an annual reunion on an Iowa farm. The next thousand pages follow two members of that family out of the Midwest and across the globe.

Reamde zips from Iowa to Seattle, the mountains of British Columbia, urban China, the Isle of Man, the Philippines, a trailer park in Missouri, and a survivalist compound in north Idaho. The engine driving this jet-setting plot is a computer virus, the eponymous Reamde, propagated through a fictional massively multiplayer online game. Reamde reaches out across the Internet to entangle the creator of that online game and his niece with Russian gangsters, a Hungarian hacker, Chinese professional gamers, a Wales-born Al Qaeda terrorist mastermind, British and American intelligence agents, rural U.S. militia members, and two fantasy authors—one outrageously highbrow, the other hilariously low.

I've never read a Stephenson novel I didn't enjoy cover to cover, and Reamde draws on what I like best about his work. There's incredible attention to detail, whether in the workings of a fictional online game, the layout and choreography of spectacular action set pieces, or the cultural details of Chinese internet cafes. There's a delightful slew of nerdy in-jokes, particularly in the simmering feud between the two fantasy authors working as creative consultants for the online game. And there's an international cast of smart, dryly witty characters risking life and limb in a succession of perfectly rendered international locales. It's a great read, but it's also interesting for its perspective on the world we inhabit today.

The first-blush gloss on Reamde is that it's a William Gibson novel set in the present day. But it even more strongly recalls the sub-genre of international/intercultural dramas that were popular as Oscar-baiting films a couple years ago, like "Babel" and "Crash." Those movies would pick a selection of seemingly unconnected people across greater Los Angeles or the entire world, and attempt to demonstrate how their lives were really interconnected on some profounder level via apparently insignificant links propagated across the karmic ether. Reamde achieves the same effect organically, accumulating each new player by following the next thread in the widening web of Reamde, and (mostly) doing so without breaking the plot's techno-thriller pace.

What's remarkable about Reamde (though not surprising coming from Stephenson) is its unabashed optimism in the midst of circumstances that shade from trying into horrific. Our unprecedented global interconnectedness creates the chaos that propels the plot; but apart from the obvious bad apples (did I mention Al Qaeda is involved?) the wildly disparate people snagged in the web of the Reamde virus react to each other with the open-handedness of friendly strangers meeting in an online comments section, rapidly identifying their common interests to work together across cultural, economic, and even linguistic divides. Even as the body count racks up, the people who need to avoid potentially tragic misunderstandings manage to do exactly that, and see to it that the folks who need comeuppance get it. When the Forthrast reunion reconvenes at the end of the book, the attendees include members of a newly assembled global family. ◼

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