Neal Stephenson is a force of nature. His massive, sui generis books—which originate, according to the press kit at his extravagant online project The Mongoliad, as “tens of thousands of pages in longhand”—thrust themselves up regularly out of his oceanic consciousness like the volcanic island of Surtsey boiling titanically out of the sea—only not mere naked rock but overgrown with a whole ecology of ideas, thus startling and bemusing viewers with the wonders of his fecund universe.
These books are generally complex and ramified depictions of geopolitical/technological/cultural landscapes, postmodern novels of the type that the critic Tom LeClair has branded “systems novels.” (And, in fact, one of Stephenson’s novels is actually titled The System of the World.) Famously produced by writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Robert Coover, and William Vollman, the information-dense systems novel concerns itself with analysis of both the underlying structures of the world and their transgressive interstices. Plot and character are often non-naturalistic, defying traditional readerly expectations.
Stephenson’s last novel, Anathem, was precisely such a book, building a weird alternate universe of science monks and alien spaceships from the ground up, in order to highlight the hidden metaphysical structures and biases of our own continuum. However, Stephenson never precisely repeats himself from one book to the next (save when in the midst of his Baroque Trilogy). With his newest novel, Reamde, he’s certainly maintained his interest in charting and phlebotomizing the hidden arteries of society. But he’s also chosen to step back from a full-blown systems novel and to couch this examination in the form of a pure thriller, a mode he’s essayed before with his two collaborative novels, Interface and The Cobweb.
The result is akin to Charles Stross’s Halting State or Cory Doctorow’s Makers or Walter Jon Williams’s This Is Not a Game, with a bit of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice to spice the stew. It’s suspenseful, ruefully humorous, gloriously mimetic, and utterly au courant. At the same time it subtly winkles out, with terahertz-scanner acuity, the concealed struts and fractures in our dominant paradigms. Consequently, this might be the most accessible and sheerly entertaining book Stephenson has done since his midcareer masterpieces Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.
Let us begin, as Stephenson does, with Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, multimillionaire. A humble, brilliantly geeky, yet ultra-capable middle-aged chap, Richard began to accumulate his fortune while running dope across the U.S.-Canada border in the seventies. He parlayed that stake, through sheer ingenuity and some good luck, into T’Rain, a wildly popular online gaming empire akin to World of Warcraft (their biggest competitor). Now he’s a semi-retired yet still harried, micromanaging Founder, longing for his freedom-filled youth.
While attending the annual Forthrast family reunion at Thanksgiving, Richard encounters his young niece Zula, once a child refugee from Eretria, but for a couple of decades now a corn-fed Iowa girl in all but looks. Impressed with Zula’s computer skills for running esoteric simulations, he hires her. Unfortunately, Zula has a jerky boyfriend, Peter, whom Richard is forced to consort with from time to time if he wishes to share Zula’s company. But what neither Richard nor Zula realizes is that Peter, another hacker, is busy selling stolen credit card numbers to the Russian mafia. And through accidental infection with the new REAMDE virus, his new digital shipment of numbers has caused a royal screw-up for the gangsters. Trouble for Peter—and Zula—follows with breathtaking speed.
This setup occupies merely the first hundred out of nearly a thousand pages of jam-packed, explosively unpredictable, retrospectively ineluctable, wildly hairy, gut-knotting events. I am going to cite a few plot points, of course, to illustrate my observations, but shall cloak the instances in a certain degree of generality, so as not to spoil the gasp-out-loud surprises in store for the lucky readers of a book it’s hard not to describe through amusement-park metaphors.
But first, please meet, more or less in the order of their appearance, a few additional characters essential to the discussion:
- Richard’s two brothers: Jake, a wilderness-ensconced survivalist, and John, “acting patriarch” of the Forthrast clan.
- Sokolov, an unforgiving but ethical, ultra-efficient Russian mercenary and killer.
- Csongor, an overweight Hungarian hacker employed by the Russians.
- Marlon, young Chinese hacker and creator of REAMDE.
- Yuxia, a Chinese guide and self-identified “Bigfoot Woman” from a minority tribe.
- Abdallah Jones, terrorist, West Indian by ethnicity, British slum kid otherwise.
- Olivia Halifax-Lin, Asian-descended U.K. citizen and MI6 secret agent.
- Seamus Costello, U.S. black-ops specialist on the trail of Jones.
These stars of an extensive troupe are all portrayed with a degree of larger-than-life vitality that makes them practically bolt off the page. They sparkle, they hurt, they plot, they ponder, they love. They act and react. Their varied back-stories have been crafted with care by Stephenson and inserted into the action at just the right points. Abdallah Jones, for instance, emerges as a frightening yet completely human figure, both opaque and comprehensible, pitiable and detestable. The quirky interactions among the cast—and all the major players do eventually cross paths, amid much confusion and debriefing—constitute half the pleasures of this book. Their dialogue, consisting mainly of a wiseass demotic, rich with clever Runyonesque japes, is pure pleasure to parse. If you do not cherish every one of these complex folks by novel’s end, even the villains, then there’s something wrong with your mirror neurons.
At first, we live solely inside Richard’s dense, fanciful consciousness, thinking the narrative will follow him exclusively, and it’s a shock when we first jump to another point-of-view. But Stephenson’s merry-go-round of sequential narrative privileging is handled with brilliant finesse, and in fact serves as a mechanism of suspense in its own right. For instance, we lose track of Sokolov at one point for over 200 pages, just after he’s been left stranded. And while the jaw-dropping incidents during that gap are utterly riveting, we’re also subconsciously anxious about his fate.
These alternating perspectives drive a narrative carousel that flings us through innumerable cliffhanger moments, decorated with insanely great details, both arcane and cosmopolitan, rendered in a crystalline prose the author seems to reel out by the yard. Eventually, the story settles into shape as a global odyssey that will climax in Richard Forthrast’s old druggy stomping grounds and involve every major character at once. You can practically hear Raymond Scott’s famous cartoon theme “Powerhouse” running continuously throughout the book.
It’s a cliché to call a book cinematic, but no other word fits this very visual, very plot-driven affair. If the Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski) were to join forces with David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster) and Martin Scorsese (After Hours), they might come close to filming this madcap affair. But the hidden template here is an even older movie: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The invaluable site TV Tropes identifies two key elements of Mad World: Epic Race and A Simple Plan (Gone Wrong). Both are here. But I like to employ my own critical term: Serendipitous Cascade. One event after another, some gratuitous, some intentional, are yoked with seeming inevitability to produce the most unlikely, unforeseeable, yet inevitable consequences. Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is another prime example of this technique.
All the while, Stephenson’s penchant for world-system analysis is going on in the background. The key areas of interest are entrepreneurship, spying, terrorism, family ties, and computer gaming. Stephenson has insightful things to reveal about all these topics, and some lesser ones too. For instance, here’s Olivia’s spy boss running matters down for her education:
The American national security apparatus is very large and unfathomably complex…. It has many departments and subunits that, one supposes, would not survive a top-to-bottom overhaul. This feeds on itself as individual actors, despairing of ever being able to make sense of it all, create their own little ad hoc bits that become institutionalized as money flows toward them. Those who are good at playing the political game are drawn inward to Washington. Those who are not end up sitting in hotel lobbies in places like Manila, waiting for people like you.
If only we could have half as cogent an explanation of the Global War on Terror (GWOT, in Stephenson’s acronym) from our actual leaders.
Surprisingly, the least intriguing (but still fascinating) area of the book is the computer gaming thread, the world of T’Rain, its creation and upheavals. True, without the MacGuffin of REAMDE, the rest of the events would not have been triggered. And while Stephenson does have a lot of funny, perceptive stuff to say about massive, multiplayer gaming and the fantasy novel mentality that drives much of it (see a hilarious parody of some Tolkienesque writing on page 202), this realm takes a back seat to the physical shenanigans. (Although Stephenson does pull the very clever trick of letting the virtual and real worlds bleed together at times.)
But there’s one very important thematic thread that manifests subtextually in a characterological manner, and that’s the necessity for attaining an understanding of, and competence in manipulating, the universe as she exists. (This theme was a major part of The Diamond Age as well.) Sokolov is a good example of this, although his universe is mainly one of kill or be killed. But every other major character itemized above exhibits this same Heinleinian competence (which of course also has a moral dimension: knowing what needs to be done, you are ethically obligated to do it). Adrift off the coast of China without fuel, Csongor, Yuxia, and Marlon rig sails from some random junk and teach themselves how use them. Zula deals with her captivity by the bad guys in a dozen ingenious ways.
But it’s Richard (whose family name of Forthrast echoes both “forthright” and “wrath” in my ears) who most thoroughly embodies this way of being, and who is therefore rewarded with the ultimate confrontation with Jones—no less competent in his own inhuman fashion. Stephenson makes everything explicit on page 839:
[Richard's behavior] was probably rooted in a belief that had been inculcated in him from the get-go: that there was an objective reality, which all people worth talking to could observe and understand, and that there was no point in arguing about anything that could be so observed and so understood…. When a thunderstorm was headed your way across the prairie, you took the washing down from the line and closed the windows. It wasn’t necessary to have a meeting about it. The sales force didn’t have to get involved.
However desirable, this attitude necessarily involves sacrifices and a certain narrowing of vision, which might partially explain why Richard has burned through five major relationships and is currently womanless. Anyhow, he’s really in love only with Zula, but he is moral enough to know he can’t have her.
But, as befits a classical Shakespearian comedy, by novel’s end Richard is embosomed with family once more, and several weddings loom among the scarred survivors of what will surely become a landmark among madcap, truthful thrillers exhibiting both heart and brain.