Neal Stephenson (www.nealstephenson.com)
Atlantic Books (www.atlantic-books.co.uk)
I first became acquainted with the work of Neal Stephenson when, in 1999, I discovered his massive novel, Cryptonomicon, in the “New Books” section of my local Waterstone’s. The blurb appealed to the nerd in me, and my internal masochist fancied the challenge of reading such a hefty novel. It was, for me, something of a life-changer, driving me towards post-graduate studies in cryptography and kindling an interest that is still strong 12 years later. Needless to say, from that point, Stephenson has become one of my “must-read” authors, and frequently challenges Stephen King for the top spot in my list of favourites.
He’s an author that’s difficult to categorise: Snow Crash, the work for which he is, perhaps, best known fits, without doubt into the realms of science fiction, as does his 2008 novel, Anathem. The Diamond Age is more in the steampunk vein while Zodiac is described by the author as “a 1930s hard boiled crime novel dressed up as a 1980s eco-thriller.” The Baroque Cycle, of course, is more difficult to nail down: it’s historical fiction, certainly, but it’s much more than that tag suggests, as you would expect from a work almost 3000 pages in length, and featuring, as characters both main and secondary, the likes of Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, James II and Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Reamde, his latest offering, has been described as perhaps his most commercial, if such a thing can be said of a book that weighs in at just over 1000 pages – not exactly the type of thing the casual traveller is going to pick up that airport. It’s very much a thriller, but in Stephenson’s own inimitable style.
Richard Forthrast is a 50-something Iowan who, as a younger man fled to Canada to avoid the draft. These days, he divides his time between Seattle – the base of his multinational games company – and the mountains of British Columbia where he is part owner of Schloss Hundschüttler. Richard is the creator of T’Rain, an online multiplayer game in the style of World of Warcraft that has made him millions, and is popular the world over. One of the driving factors behind the creation of the game was to accommodate “gold-farmers”, usually Chinese teenagers, for whom the transfer of funds from the game world to the real world is usually something of a pain. During the annual family reunion, Richard reconnects with his niece, Zula – an adopted Eritrean refugee – and offers her a job working with the man whose job is to manage the geography – and therefore the locations of gold deposits – of T’Rain.
When Zula visits Richard at the Schloss several months after taking up employment with his company, she discovers that her boyfriend is trafficking in stolen credit card numbers. When the man to whom he has sold them follows him back to Seattle, they discover that his laptop has been infected with REAMDE – a virus which encrypts the hard drive of the computer and leaves a note with instructions on how to pay the ransom and obtain the key – rendering the stolen credit card information unusable. To complicate matters, the credit card information, as well as various other key documents on the man’s computer, belong to the Russian mob who arrive heavy-handed, trying to find the person responsible. In an attempt to stay alive, Zula tracks the creator of REAMDE to Xiamen, a small island off the coast of mainland China, and soon finds herself on a private jet headed in that direction. From there, things go from bad to worse, and Zula discovers that her trip to China is only the first leg in a long and dangerous journey that will, eventually, bring her full circle and change the lives of everyone around her.
There are plenty of common themes here from Stephenson’s earlier work to have constant reader wondering if there is any link. The virtual world, which is completely different to that created in Snow Crash, is still a virtual world and there’s an oblique reference to the earlier novel acting as an inspiration for this world. The twin subjects of gold and cryptography are mainstays of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon / Baroque Cycle duology, so it’s good to see them turn up hand-in-hand here. There are also new themes aplenty: Stephenson is very much interested in the whole social media aspect of our modern lives – even though it is something he himself uses sparingly – and this is an area he explores in some detail, which is understandable given the context of the novel. Stephenson also uses this opportunity to explore the differences between East and West and, amongst other things, the motives that drive terrorists to do what they do.
There are massive parallels here with what Stephenson, Bear, and everyone else at Subutai Corp, are doing at the minute with Foreworld and The Mongoliad. I’m guessing, following the recent announcement by Amazon that they will be publishing this ground-breaking work as a series of novels next year, that everyone is now aware of this project, but for those who have yet to check it out, I would urge you to do so. There is a section at the start of Reamde devoted to a description of T’Rain and how it came about, the rules of the game, and the “plumbing” put in place to support it. Anyone with passing acquaintance with The Mongoliad will immediately recognise PULP in APPIS, the creation of the Canon, and various other commonalities between this virtual world and the virtual world of Foreworld. But the game is so much more than what the players see on the screen when they log in. Stephenson takes a playful dig at the at the general world-building techniques used by the creators of the vast majority of fantasy games through Donald Cameron (D-Squared) and Devin Skraelin (Skeletor), who spend their time producing vast numbers of novels designed to support the game and generate interest outside the gaming community. The competition between these two men also gives us the “Apostropocalypse”, an entertaining interlude that should be heeded by all producers of fantasy fiction. The backdrop of the game also leads to some wonderful – and entirely nonsensical exchanges between characters as they rhyme off the names of spells and counter-spells that might be evoked in certain situations. Stephenson is nothing if not thorough.
As Zula and her Russian mob escort arrive in China, the pace ratchets up a couple of notches, and the thriller element is brought into full effect. In an action sequence that lasts somewhere in the region of 230 pages, Stephenson introduces further players including Chinese hackers, MI6 and a cell of Islamic jihadists led by a black Welshman by the name of Abdallah Jones, and leaves us at the end of this section with the players scattered, groups broken and reformed, and allegiances unsure. This is very much a character-driven adventure, and it is in his characters that Stephenson excels: each one is believable, relatable, likeable – if not as a person, then certainly as a character – and with rich back stories usually related in the form of long and entertaining tangents that take the main story nowhere except in the development of the character from whose point of view we find ourselves watching the action. These sometimes come with beautiful little nuggets that leave the reader wondering if the reference just made is real or imagined. The most obvious one here is the fact that the Russian mob leader’s right hand man, Sokolov, always carries a towel with him, leading the reader pause long enough to wonder if Stephenson is channelling the late great Douglas Adams, or if it’s all just a happy coincidence.
Behind everything lies T’Rain (which should be pronounced “terrain”, for those wondering). The vast majority of this massive novel takes place in the real world – or Stephenson’s version of the real world – but T’Rain is an important element and there is always the sense that a large and important part of our story will be resolved in this imaginary world. It leads to some interesting thoughts on social media that most people will most likely identify with: towards the end of the novel Richard finds himself in the mountains of British Columbia and marvels at the fact that he is completely uncontactable – a position in which very few people ever find themselves in this day and age; no-one can phone him, email him, get him on Facebook or Twitter or a hundred other sites that people may sign up to. Later, as he approaches civilisation again, he begins to worry about the backlog that is likely to greet him when he comes back within range of a cell-phone tower or a Wi-Fi hotspot – a worry that should seem trivial given his circumstances, but one that I suspect most people have had at one point or another in this fast-moving, Web 2.0-enabled world.
As usual, Stephenson’s finger is very much on the pulse of technology and he’s aware not only of the limitations of what we have today, but also of what’s just around the corner. His little jabs find their target every time:
To which the moneychanger responded immediately with “K”, that being the chat abbreviation for the unwieldy two-letter message “OK”.
Or (this one contains language not suitable for the faint of heart):
He could already picture the YouTube page, Dodge kneeling on a rug with a sack on his head, Jones behind him with the knife, and, underneath the little video pane, the first of many thousands of all-capital-letter comments sent in by all the world’s useless fuckwits.
He also scores a direct hit with this dig about the pace of modern life in general:
Beyond that the road tunnelled to two lanes and angled upward, then a few miles later began to wind like a snake and buck like a mule.
So it was inevitable that he would close in on the tail of a gigantic RV no more than 30 seconds after he’d reached that part of the road beyond which passing was completely out of the question.
As the end of the book approaches (by which I mean about 200 pages from the end), the pace ratchets up another couple of notches as all of the players move into position, all converging towards a single point for a massive, Stephenson-style standoff that certainly won’t disappoint.
If you’re a fan of Stephenson’s work, then I’m preaching to the choir and you’ve probably already read it long before me. If you haven’t read his work before, then this is a good place to start – it’s definitely a much more commercial product than many of his earlier books while still retaining the uniqueness and character that makes a Neal Stephenson book a Neal Stephenson book. Like all of his books, you’ll come out smarter than you went in: it’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s advisable to have a dictionary/encyclopaedia/Google near to hand as you read. At times, you feel like you’re overhearing part of a conversation between people who, seemingly, speak a completely different language from you. No explanation is forthcoming because a) you’re really only a spectator and b) the main players already know what all this stuff means. That’s not to say you’ll be totally lost – you won’t – but it is useful to have reference material close to hand just on the off-chance.
Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.