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Reamde: A Novel Paperback – May 15, 2012
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From the extraordinary Neal Stephenson comes an epic adventure that spans entire worlds, both real and virtual.
The black sheep of an Iowa farming clan, former draft dodger and successful marijuana smuggler Richard Forthrast amassed a small fortune over the yearsand then increased it a thousandfold when he created T'Rain. A massive, multibillion-dollar, multiplayer online role-playing game, T'Rain now has millions of obsessed fans from the U.S. to China. But a small group of ingenious Asian hackers has just unleashed Reamdea virus that encrypts all of a player's electronic files and holds them for ransomwhich has unwittingly triggered a war that's creating chaos not only in the virtual universe but in the real one as well. Its repercussions will be felt all around the globesetting in motion a devastating series of events involving Russian mobsters, computer geeks, secret agents, and Islamic terroristswith Forthrast standing at ground zero and his loved ones caught in the crossfire.
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First, let me come right out and say that I'm grading this on the Stephenson scale. Even though I've given it three stars, it's probably better than whatever you're reading now. And maybe more accessible than some of Neal's other books. His writing is crisp, snappy, and sarcastically witty. His characters have depth and personalities beyond just the decisions they make, which you don't see too often in plot driven stories these days. So basically, if you are in the mood for a thriller, this is a pretty good one. But..., if you are in the mood for something on the scale of his previous books, you're going to be disappointed, and I think I know what the problem is.
One of Neal Stephenson's special gifts is telling a story while at the same time providing reams of information about whatever subject matter he may be tackling. The way he slips all this information in is masterful in that a less experienced hand would almost certainly kill the momentum of the story. When you are reading about pretend histories in the Baroque Cycle, or WWII in Cryptonomicon, or alternate realities in Anathem, this tactic grounds what you're reading to something believable, and extends that reality to the risks the characters have to navigate. Reamde succeeds in doing this same thing, except the world Stephenson is fleshing out is Walmart, computer hackers, terrorism, and a World of Warcraft knockoff. Okay, the China stuff was cool. But my point is, I don't need so much information on this type of stuff to get through the story. Terrorism is a daily news feature these days and Walmart is something I try to ignore as I drive by every day. Once more, having been a WOW consumer for many years (along with huge swaths of the population), some of the info on the fictional game in the book, T'Rain, just came across as unbelievable and silly. This stuff might work on my parents, but not me, I've been there.
And the story. If the story was amazing, all would be forgiven. But the story is not amazing. It isn't bad, it gets the job done, it's like an elaborate but forgettable episode of the A-Team - you aren't angry about it, but you aren't excited about it either. A lot of the narrative relies on chance, both to get characters in and out of trouble, which totally happens in real-life, probably more so than otherwise in fact, but does take a little umph out of the characters decisions.
Characters are good though. I enjoyed reading about all of them, bad guys too. Good stuff there. And I did have a good time reading this. But it just isn't a great book. And for better or worse, when I read Neal Stephenson, I'm expecting a great book.
It took me a little while to really get hooked in it. The whole book is a series of first person narratives that take place mostly concurrently in time, but because the cast of characters is so diverse it feels a little disjointed in the beginning. But I persevered and definitely got hooked. I realized how well both the characters and action was written when I found myself stopping at points thinking "who the hell is that guy" or "why does that even matter" or "this is the most ridiculous situation ever" but still feeling compelled to read on and see what happens next.
The pacing starts slow but is deliberate, and gradually builds in tempo like a fully loaded freight train, slowly but surely reaching Ludicrous Speed by the time the narratives all come together in space for the big ending clinic.
The one aspect that comes close to approaching Really Big Idea status is the logical extrapolation of the big MMO games, and how they might come to shape real world events outside their game scope in our reality. But it's almost like a side suggestion or an afterthought, as it's used primarily as a plot device rather than the main thrust of the book. Still a great idea, enjoyable, and good food for thought, but very much takes a sideline to the suspense and action of the story.
From almost any other author I would probably give this a 5 star. Coming from Stephenson I can't help but set a pretty high bar, so a solid 4 stars it is.
I'll let the other reviews here describe the plot and thrust of the story; by the time you've made it to this review you already have these general details. I'll just let you know that if you're considering this book, either because you've heard of Stephenson and are curious to know what the fuss is all about, or if your interest is piqued but you wonder if you have the necessary commitment to start, then I urge you to take the plunge. The first act is interesting as the characters are introduced, including the "character" of the on-line world of T'Rain, but once the second act touches off - quite literally with a bang - you are going to be on a masterful, high-speed adventure. It was almost funny the way my daughter would get wrapped up in one of the sub-plots as I read it to her, and then groan in agony as I'd finish the chapter and we'd suddenly be catching up with the adventures of other characters - only to experience the same agony at the end of that chapter as well. Jump in - the writer is fine!