Neal Stephenson follows up his 2008 novel Anathem
, with Reamde, another funny-looking title that makes you think of more than one thing at the same time. Whilst Anathem was set on a parallel world that was reminiscent enough of our own to be interesting, this story is firmly rooted in real life and the present day: Islamic terrorists, Russian mafia, Chinese gold-farmers, American isolationists, and a plot that spans the globe, taking in locations from the American north-west to the Taiwan Strait and the Philippines. The cast of characters is similarly wide-ranging: Zula, an Eritrean adoptee, Richard, her American billionaire uncle, Csongor, a Hungarian security consultant, Marlon, a Chinese hacker, Olivia, a British MI6 agent, Sokolov, a Russian mercenary and Abdallah, a Welsh-born Muslim terrorist.
If you remember Stephenson as the author of the peerless Snow Crash
, and are wondering what's happened to his adept description of technical matters - well that's in here as well; the eponymous Reamde is a computer virus infecting T'Rain, a wildly popular MMORPG developed by Richard's company. The first part of the book is the story of how the Russian gangsters and (reluctantly) Zula end up in China, trying to track down the authors of the virus, and meet up with the other characters. That point in the tale is reached after about two hundred pages, when most authors would be thinking of how to wrap things up, but Stephenson is just getting started.
The story literally explodes into four threads which follow separate groups of characters through a world that's startlingly portrayed and incredibly exciting. Having set the disparate strands moving, the author is able to cut away from each one at some crucial point in the narrative, leaving the reader agog as to what's going to happen next. Stephenson is a past master at this trick, having used it effectively in Cryptonomicon
and his sprawling Baroque Cycle
, but it's used to much greater effect here. The engrossed reader will notice a parallel with the T'Rain game, in which characters whose real-world controllers have logged off start to automatically walk back to their home base (actions that are memorably described by the neologism "bothavior"), which provides a thought-provoking illustration of the relationship between the existence of a character in a story and the reader's thoughts and feelings about what happens to it when the story isn't being read.
But even in the absence of such lofty diversions, you'll find it difficult this book put down, in spite of its hefty physical size (my copy had 1045 pages, and I was obliged to carry it around in my rucksack) as the story spirals to a climax which - incredibly - is sustained over the final hundred or so pages. To be strict, the depiction of the real world takes up so much time and attention that there's a suspicion that the virtual world (and those associated with its creation) gets neglected once it's been used as a plot element to spark the conflagration, but - even in an excellent, all-encompassing book like this one - you can't have everything.