A former drug smuggler turned Internet gaming magnate. His adoptive niece. A Russian gangster and his bodyguard. A Chinese computer virus writer. A Hungarian hacker. A British spy. An Islamist terrorist. A tea-selling girl from the Chinese hinterlands. These are some of the characters that inhabit Stephenson’s wide-spanning action thriller Reamde. It is almost impossible to briefly summarize the action, but suffice it to say it involves an attempt to extort money from players of a massively multiplayer role-playing game, a band of international terrorists, and a sprawling extended family from Iowa.
This is a big novel, weighing in at over a thousand pages. Due to Stephenson’s detailed and entertainingly understated descriptions, there are two action scenes which easily take up two hundred plus pages each. The action sprawls from the Pacific Northwest to the Chinese port city of Xiamen as several parties initially chase a conspiracy to extort money, then stumble upon something much more serious. The last quarter of the book is one long and convoluted chase scene, a killer payoff if there ever was one.
The many characters are complex, with rich back stories and believable quirks. The personal journey of the girl Zula, unwilling victim of not one, but two sets of abductors, is a fine base for the many branches of the story. She is a complex and strong character with two very different heritages, the first as a refugee from Eritrea, and the second as the adoptive daughter of a rural Iowan family. Her uncle Richard, the (former) black sheep of said family, is equally interesting, and an archetypal corporate maverick.
While the main story is well paced and fascinating, Stephenson’s genius lies in his description of detail. Like a good comedian, he seeks out the hilarity in what on the face of it are ordinary situations. For example the disorientation felt by Americans in the sprawling Chinese city of Xiamen is brilliantly described, as are the similar sections where foreigners from other countries end up in the backwaters of Washington State and Idaho. Tangents and datadumps are often long, but Stephenson’s ironic and understated style make them both interesting and entertaining. Some parts of the book take place party in the virtual world of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer online game. These sections could easily have been cheesy and impenetrable to those not familiar with such games, but are written in an easy to understand fashion without reveling in geekiness. As such, they are easily accessible even to the game illiterate.