Reamde — book review

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson. Atlantic Books £18.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

Stephenson’s latest behemoth is set now. Richard Forthrast is a multimillionaire who has made his fortune through a World of Warcraft clone called T’rain. Having learned from the original, he has made it easy for Chinese kids to become gold farmers since that is an arrangement that suits everyone. The kids do all the slogging in this on-line fantasy world and sell all of the magic gizmos to the lazy, rich westerners. Someone comes up with the anagrammatic REAMDE virus which locks down players’ info, forcing them to tramp across the virtual world to deposit a small sum of virtual gold. When Peter, boyfriend of Richard’s adopted niece Zula, sells some credit card numbers to the Russian mafia and infects their data, both Peter and Zula are kidnapped by the mafia and flown to China to track down the hacker. The insane mafia boss has hired a team of ex-Spartnez security consultants to take out the hacker but Zula, trying to avoid bloodshed, sends them to the wrong floor. Unfortunately this floor contains an Islamic terrorist cell which is being watched by MI6. Much carnage ensues. The cast splinters and proceeds to have adventures around the Pacific Rim.

Some say that this isn’t science fiction but there is a point pretty early on where Stephenson makes a Brontian address directly to you, Reader, which demonstrates that this is a novel. The brief parts that take place in the world of T’rain are just as valid as the parts that take place in the ‘real’ world, even when layered with the irony of the players. Given that much of this geeks ’n’ guns adventure reads like a novelisation of a Bond movie, the real world should really be taken with a pinch of salt as well. One of the Spetsnaz, the almost superhuman Sokolov, even notes the importance of carrying a towel. It is also a romantic comedy with plenty of obstacles lying in the way of several potential couples.

REAMDE is enormous fun to read and feels as if the author had a great time writing it. It is, however, an enormous book – 7 cm across its smallest dimension – and it may well be Stephenson’s personal contribution to the eBook revolution. There is little else about it that is revolutionary, though; WoW was spoofed by South Park years ago, and the Russian mafia and home-grown British fundamentalists feel like yesterday’s news. Even the focus on the Pacific Rim feels somewhat quaint these days (take that, India and Brazil!). More worryingly, the Islamic fundamentalists are portrayed as psychotic killers whereas the Christian fundamentalists are portrayed as stoic eccentrics (Anders Breivik showed the error of that line of thinking) and one can’t help wondering if this had any bearing on Stephenson’s decision to make Zula an African orphan.

You will enjoy it despite its flaws but it won’t change your life. Unless you drop it on your foot, that is.

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