Volume 30, Number 1, Fall 2011


Written by Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, 2011
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde is an exciting fast-paced story, set in the present day. I’d say that it’s a strong contender for this year’s Prometheus Award, even though the science fiction element is thin. Like several other recent books, the story takes place both in our physical real world and in an MMORPG, the virtual reality game T’Rain. And another of this year’s tropes, the major characters include Richard Forthrast, the original developer of the game, and several members of the development team.

A bare outline of the story is that gold farmers in the MMORPG release a virus in an attempt to get money faster, which leads to problems for many people. One of the people who is impacted is holding data for the Russian mafia, and is connected to Forthrast through his adopted neice Zula and her newly ex-boyfriend Peter. The Russian who is most exposed tries to take matters into his own hands, but he doesn’t understand the technology, so his focus is on the real world. He ends up taking Zula and Peter as hostages, hoping to force them to help him find the gold farmers who have encrypted his data. What follows is a multi-continent adventure that throws in British intelligence, middle-eastern terrorists, and CIA operatives. Nearly everyone spends some time in T’Rain, but most of the action is in the real world, with firefights and chase sequences involving all the parties and all the locations.

By the second half of the novel, the Russians lose Zula to the terrorists, and most of the other parties eventually figure out that the terrorists are planning something big and must be stopped. In the end the terrorists are thwarted by the equivalent of Vinge’s armadillo from “The Ungoverned.” But that’s not the only libertarian touch in the story: Forthrast has been evading and avoiding the government for a long time. T’Rain has an in-world currency that’s completely convertible into real-world currencies, and the game’s operators encourage gold farmers to participate in the economy and help people transfer money around real-world borders. There are quite a few scenes in which peaceful citizens learn to and use weapons in self-defense. Some of the characters work for the government, but they mostly get important things done by going around their handlers and supervisors. The government agencies provide logistics and support, but are depicted as pretty ineffectual as far as strategy and understanding of the overall situation are concerned.

The terrorists are played as closed-minded and unimaginative. Their leader is pretty smart, but with only well-armed narrow soldiers on his side and with many inventive individualists opposing him, he doesn’t really stand a chance.

As has become usual for Stephenson, the book is huge at more than 1000 pages, but it’s well worth it. I really liked the characters, but then he doesn’t seem to have left himself much room for a sequel. I recommend reading it.

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