• Neal Stephenson
  • William Morrow
  • 1,056 pp.

In this sprawling novel that unfolds like a virtual multiplayer game, a virus introduced by Chinese hackers sets in motion a science-thriller plot that shifts from screen to real world.

Reviewed by Fatima F. Azam

Many readers might find it difficult to sink their teeth into Neal Stephenson’s newest novel, Reamde, yet those who bear with the first 200 pages of this thousand-page novel might find a delectable byte or two. Neal Stephenson is not known for works that fit easily into one genre, and Reamde is no exception. Science fiction might be the closest, but this designation hardly scratches the surface, for Reamde leaps from thriller to mystery and from suspense to gamer guidebook. Yet, while the pages contain something for everyone, in the end, they cater to few.

But first, a word about the cover. The title, stamped on a pitch-black background, displays the letters R, E, A and D in a light gray and M and E in a bright, almost painful white. This color differentiation is more than a publicity stunt to attract attention by the not so subtle wording, READ ME. No, REAMDE is the name of a virus, plugged into a virtual game called T’Rain, a sort of World of Warcraft multiplayer online game. The spelling of the virus is a deliberate perversion of the command to Read Me, for the human mind easily rearranges the letters into a proper sequence as long as all the necessary letters are present. Stephenson plays on this idea not only on the cover but in his text as well.

A group of Chinese hackers has written the virus as a way to increase the amount of gold the Chinese players have in the game. This gold is attached to live money, but the sums are small, mostly under a hundred dollars. The stakes are dramatically increased, however, when Russian mobsters get involved, for the virus in essence holds as hostage several important Russian documents filled with illegal and sensitive data. Suddenly the game — and the narrative — moves from on-screen into the real world, shifting mesmerizingly between both as bullets and cash fly.

Slowly and delicately, Stephenson adds layer upon layer of characters as the plot moves enticingly forward in a sort of delectable technological parfait. Readers are meant to have a live experience of a virtual multiplayer game, as characters jump in and out of the story, all of them involved, all of them important, but only in certain events and at certain times. To provide here a list of characters and their roles in the plot would be almost as fruitless and difficult as logging on to the real World of Warcraft and explaining to someone what each player is doing and how his or her gaming persona is imperative to winning such and such battle. It is a nearly impossible feat, which partially explains the novel’s 1,056 pages.

Length, however, is not the major problem. Inapproachability is. Reamde is chock full of dense biographical data on each of the many characters and abstruse explanations about the technological aspects of the story and its game, T’Rain. The first 50 pages or so focus on the inventor of game, Richard Forthrast, brimming over with endless details of his past as well as an account of an odd family reunion. Some readers might put down the book before getting to its heart, put off by seemingly endless and useless information the author throws at them; more frustratingly, most of this information bears no connection to the overall plot but is simply thrown in an almost textbook-like manner. This style, unfortunately, accompanies the introduction of each new character or event, making it difficult for readers to connect with the characters until far too late in the novel. Perhaps this is in deliberate imitation of the manner in which players in multiplayer online games are both connected on the one hand and essential strangers on the other, who couldn’t care less what happens to others.

This odd pacing also replicates the environment of multiplayer games. Sometimes events rush forward, fast paced and heart thumping, before slowing down to the torturously mundane, which in Reamde usually correlates to pages of technological facts and biographical background. Indeed, Stephenson, or his text, appears more concerned with giving readers the true feeling of a multiplayer online game than making sure they keep turning pages.

Reamde is well written because the seemingly random bits and pieces begin to pull together, so toward the end of the novel clarity emerges from what had seemed like a jumble of characters and plot points. The range of characters as well as their personalities and backgrounds does justice to the multi-faceted talents of a writer like Neal Stephenson, but even hardcore online gamers may find it difficult to get past the technological jargon and immerse themselves in the story.

Fatima Azam is a second-year M.A. student at Georgetown University. She resides in Maryland, where she is working on her fifth novel and loses herself in the worlds of online gaming whenever she gets a chance.

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