Review of “Reamde” by Neal Stephenson

One has to be careful reviewing Neal Stephenson, as they’re liable to mis-interpret him. For example, Aretae says, that Stephenson’s writing shows that "The future does not resemble the past." Yet I thought that the whole point of the Baroque Cycle was that the 17th Century experienced a wave of innovation much like the one experienced in the late 20th Century. Reamde has a couple characters who are completely preoccupied by medieval times, for example, "they had managed to convince him [i.e. one such character] that the medieval world wasn’t worse or more primitive than the modern, just different."

Matthew Yglesias likes Stephenson even though all of Stephenson’s books seem to be preoccupied with creating better currencies, while Yglesias himself seems preoccupied with debasing the currency we’ve got.

The better currency in Reamde is a fictional one. Actually it’s the currency of an MMORPG. The creator of Stephenson’s MMORPG, who plays a large part in the story, seems to have created the MMORPG – at least in part – to launder money. The soundness of the currency is emphasized a couple times: "He [i.e. the creator of the game] sensed at a primal, almost olfactory level that the game could only be as successful as the stability of its virtual currency."

The other problem with reviewing Stephenson is that it’s almost impossible to summarize the book. Here’s my shot (minor spoilers follow):

The main character of the book is the world’s only black female engineer (ha, just kidding, sort of). Her boyfriend gets involved with selling stolen credit card numbers to the Russian mob. The particular Russian mobster who’s buying the stolen credit cards has his computer infected by the Reamde virus, which encrypts his files (encryption being another favorite Stephenson theme). The mobster can only get his files back by depositing some gold in a certain location in the MMORPG.

It just so happens that the main character’s uncle created the MMORPG in question. The Russian mobster does not like settling disputes using computer games, so he kidnaps the main character and various other hackers and makes them track down the Chinese kids that wrote Reamde.

Chaos ensues when an Islamist terrorist cell is living about the Chinese kids apartments. Now, we’re following the Chinese kids, the Russians, the hackers, the terrorists, the creator of the MMORPG and the rest of the main character’s family, and various government officials and spies.

Along the way, you get lots of asides of the sort that only Stephenson can write. For example, would you like a brief and enlightening summary of the history of Hungary? You either love this stuff or you don’t. I do.

Some other themes pop up in the book. For example, Stephenson touches on class conflicts or the culture war in several different contexts. There are several references to the differences between the people on the coasts and those in the middle of the country. For example, here’s a brief aside on recombinant food (i.e. the food of the Midwest):

The unifying principle behind all recombinant cuisine seemed to be indifference, if not outright hostility, to the use of anything that a coastal foodie would define as an ingredient. Was it too much of a stretch to think that the rejection, by the Dales of the world [a member of the Forces of Brightness (see below)], of traditional fantasy-world races such as elves and dwarves was motivated by the same deep, mysterious cultural mojo as their spurning of onions and salt in favor of onion salt?

Or here is an interaction between John (the Iowan) and his brother, Richard, the Seattleite:

“It’s fine,” John insisted, speaking to Richard from across a cultural divide that never got any easier to navigate. The idea being that even if John’s seat [in Richard's car] were positioned too far forward—limiting his legroom and reducing his level of physical comfort—the mere act of scooting it back a few inches was, by midwestern standards, a gratuitous waste of energy as well as an implicit admission that the scooter was the sort of person who could not handle a little bit of trouble.

I really miss the Midwest.

Anyway, in the MMORPG, the culture war flares up as well. The world of the MMORPG is initially set up in a good vs evil alignment. Over time however, it switches into a "Earthtone coalition" vs "Forces of Brightness" alignment, with the former being composed of the coastal types (generally) and the latter composed of those with less taste, as one might put it.

Finally, I can’t resist noting that the rationalization hamster makes an appearance:

Olivia [just coming off a one night stand], a highly cultivated and rational woman, was unwilling to admit that she was the kind of person who could engage in such a liaison, and so she was even now putting her powerful brain to work coming up with a story according to which it was really much, much more than that.

It’s Stephenson, so it’s self-recommending, as they say. Enjoy.

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5 Responses to Review of “Reamde” by Neal Stephenson

  1. B says:

    I thought Reamde was much weaker than the last one, which lagged the System of the World Trilogy and even Cryptonomicon. He seems to have peaked (hopefully temporarily) around Quicksilver. While he is still a genius at writing dialogue and those awesome little vignettes, there are all these tropes (the multiracial strong independent woman, the hacker belatedly discovering his manly and responsible side, the special operations-background badass, the survivalists, the utterly villainous villain with an obscure ax to grind, etc.) which come up in every book, it seems like. There really was no futuristic hook in Reamde to hang everything on, unlike pretty much every one of his other books (maybe except for Zodiac.) And it’s just not as fun a read, overall-I remember reading the Big U (while going to a Big U) and having a blast with it, and every other one of his books, but maybe that’s just a function of me getting old and losing the ability to enjoy stuff…

  2. Gabe Ruth says:

    “I miss the Midwest.” Never heard of this guy before, but I think I’ll check out a book of his on the strength of this little detail alone. As a southwestern Pennsylvanian living on Long Island, the sentiment is one I feel every day.

  3. rightsaidfred says:

    me getting old and losing the ability to enjoy stuff…

    Yeah, I find it harder to get into story lines.

  4. sconzey says:

    I actually liked Anathem better than the Baroque cycle. Although it did take me three attempts to read each book in the latter, whereas the former I consumed in one contiguous 36-hour purge.

    Ah, to be a student 😉

  5. jewel bako says:

    jewel bako…

    […]Review of “Reamde” by Neal Stephenson « Foseti[…]…

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