February 27, 2024

Reamde – By Neal Stephenson

It is tempting to call Stephenson a “cult writer,” but cult writers are typically under-or selectively read. All of Stephenson’s novels published since the late 1990s have been best sellers, and some of his original editions go for precious-metal asking prices online. His still-fresh, still-­astounding cyberpunk parody “Snow Crash” (1992) standardized use of the Sanskrit word “avatar” to denote virtual human identities and came impressively close to predicting how the Internet would come to be understood, which is to say as a “metaverse” paradoxically larger than the world that enfolds it. For these and other reasons, Stephenson is the rare writer whose 20-year-old magazine essays have their own Wikipedia pages.

That leaves us with his dense, funny and erudite novels, which are packed with so many different kinds of information, they sometimes scarcely feel like novels at all. What do they feel like? Eldritch downloads, maybe, from some mind-­flaying computer brain.

This critic — a Stephenson fan and admirer of long standing — has read most of Stephenson’s novels. His “Baroque Cycle,” a three-volume megatome about 17th- and 18th-century Europe and New England published over 2003 and 2004, put the author’s many gifts on full display. But halfway through the second volume I set the “Cycle” aside. Mainly it was the prose, which made it feel as if one were being winked at for a thousand pages by a Laurence Sterne impersonator. Stephenson followed up with “Anathem” (2008), a work of philosophically inclined science fiction that seemed determined to scare away anyone who regards “A Canticle for Leibowitz” as anything less than the premier achievement of human imagination.

If you are a Stephenson fan who believes “Snow Crash” and “Cryptonomicon” (1999) are his greatest novels, “Reamde” will come as very good news, for in many ways it can be read as a thematic revisitation of those excellent precursors. Once again Stephenson is asking us to think about virtual worlds and information storage; once again, by God, he makes reading so much fun it feels like a deadly sin.

Just about any novel’s plot can be made to sound ridiculous in summary, but the plot of “Reamde” is ridiculous no matter how sympathetically one summarizes. Here goes: Richard Forthrast, an erstwhile drug smuggler who funneled his earnings into founding a Fortune 500 video game company, takes under his wing a young woman named Zula, who was born to hardship in East Africa and later adopted by Richard’s Iowan sister. Richard’s company is the publisher of a massively multiplayer online game called T’Rain, which has eclipsed World of Warcraft as the world’s most popular such entertainment. Zula’s boyfriend, Peter, borrows a thumbstick from Richard, which he uses to save stolen credit card information and gives to an associate of the Russian mafia. Richard’s thumbstick, unfortunately, is tainted with a T’Rain virus called REAMDE (“an accidental or deliberate/ironical misspelling of README”), created by a Chinese T’Rain player. The virus incapacitates the Russians’ computers, after which they come violently calling for assistance. With Peter and Zula in tow, the Russians fly illegally into Xiamen, China, to find and kill the Chinese hacker responsible for the virus. This brings them into accidental contact with a jihadist cell led by one Abdallah Jones, a wanted terrorist, who despite being black and British somehow regards China as an appropriate place to hide. Jones kidnaps Zula and flies her into the wilds of British Columbia. The novel ends with a 150-page-long running firefight along the Canadian-­American border. So it turns out you can make this stuff up.

Stephenson’s novels have always been a little nuts, but thoughtfully nuts. That he is even able to keep this big, careening, recreational-­vehicular novel on the road during its hairpin narrative turns says a lot about him as a plot juggler and information wrangler. But “Reamde,” at a certain point, becomes less a novel than a book-shaped IV bag from which plot flows. Just about all the plucky good guys wind up killing someone, an act of moral extremity that leaves them remarkably unclouded. (An epilogue mentions that two characters are “seeing the same doctor for treatment of post-traumatic stress,” but that is too small a concession for a book with such a high body count.)

Make this clear: “Reamde” is always hugely entertaining, and Stephenson is always an amazing writer in the sense that he can go anywhere and describe anything. Yet he can be an oddly vulgar writer. (“The look on his face said: Can this really be happening!?”) Gunfights described in slow motion also occur too frequently and often end with sentences like this: “Then he pulled the trigger and blew Jabari’s head off.”

The “Welsh terrorist” Abdallah Jones is simply not a very convincing villain. (“Welsh terrorist.” A funny phrase, like “Mongolian pastry chef” or “Spanish engineer.”) When Jones is not saying things like “If you work with me and come along nicely, I shall permit you to keep your teeth,” he is bludgeoning one of our heroes to death with an artificial limb. There are times when you wonder if “Reamde” is the smartest dumb novel you have ever read or the dumbest smart novel.

The best parts of “Reamde” concern Richard, his company and T’Rain. Two things have assured T’Rain’s commercial success: actual geological laws have been programmed to govern its terrain (it is this feature from which the game’s name derives); and the game uses a currency system based on real money — treasure mined from the strata of T’Rain’s crust can be transformed into earthly coin. Which is where the Reamde virus comes in. It locks down users’ computer files and tells them the only way to unlock their files is to proceed into a certain part of T’Rain. When the unfortunate players enter territory held by Chinese hackers, they are virtually killed and less virtually robbed.

The passages in which Stephenson gives us a double game of cat and mouse, where those stalking prey across T’Rain are simultaneously being stalked in real life, are some of the book’s strongest. At one point Richard referees an argument between the two writers who created T’Rain’s mythology, one an English fantasy writer of Tolkienish linguistic pretension and the other a “freakishly prolific” American from whom ill-conceived lore tumbles by the second. The two hilariously spar over the proper use of apostrophes in invented languages and names. Later, the American writer asks Richard, “How can I write a story about Good and Evil in a world where those concepts have no real meaning — no consequences?” By the end of “Reamde,” you wonder if Stephenson ever thought to put this question to himself.

Tom Bissell is the author, most recently, of “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=bec6710c6644b9d2c4fd6cade76f90ba

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