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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Neal Stephenson

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To purchase Reamde

Title: Reamde
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 1042 pages
Availability: Reamde - US
Reamde - UK
Reamde - Canada
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Reamde - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, large-scale -- if occasionally over-detailed -- adventure tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 7/10/2011 Laura Miller
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/9/2011 Tom Bissell
Salon . 18/9/2011 Andrew Leonard
San Francisco Chronicle . 25/9/2011 Michael Berry
Time . 20/9/2011 Lev Grossman
Wall St. Journal . 24/9/2011 Tom Shipey
The Washington Post A 15/9/2011 Elizabeth Hand

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like Stephenson's most critically acclaimed novel, Cryptonomicon, Reamde combines meticulous observation of the stranger socioeconomic effects wrought by technology with rousing fusillades of adventure. (...) A liberal sprinkling of social satire gives the novel a bit of edge (.....) Adding gangsters and terrorists and spies may once have seemed like a great way to spice up the subject of virtual, video game-based economies, but eventually the seasoning takes over the dish. On the other hand, Reamde is awfully exciting, and perhaps for the manically productive Stephenson, it amounts to a lark, a palate cleanser" - Laura Miller, The Guardian

  • "Stephenson’s novels have always been a little nuts, but thoughtfully nuts. That he is even able to keep this big, careening, recreational-vehicular novel on the road during its hairpin narrative turns says a lot about him as a plot juggler and information wrangler. But Reamde, at a certain point, becomes less a novel than a book-shaped IV bag from which plot flows. (...) There are times when you wonder if Reamde is the smartest dumb novel you have ever read or the dumbest smart novel." - Tom Bissell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "There is filigree over all of this that only Stephenson could conjure. (...) But whereas in past novels the filigree would reflect deeper structures in unusual and provocative ways, in Reamde the filigree is just filigree. There's nothing beneath the baroque surface. (...) I thoroughly enjoyed Reamde. I couldn't put it down -- which, for a thriller, has got to be the highest praise." - Andrew Leonard, Salon

  • "Reamde may be Stephenson's most straightforward and accessible work to date. (...) At base, Reamde is an entertainment, an enormous, giddily complex one. There's no telling what Stephenson might be planning for his next novel, but now's the time to dive into a first-rate intellectual thriller without fear of being overwhelmed by its virtuosity." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "While recognizably Stephensonian, Reamde is less about the flow of information through global networks than it is about the flow of bullets out of guns. This is, first and foremost, a Bourne-style international thriller, and as such its intellectual sites are set lower than those of its immediate predecessors. (...) But the story of Reamde is mostly there as a superstructure for Stephenson's observations about how the world around us actually works -- the background is the foreground." - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "Mr. Stephenson runs both plots with equal skill, the real world providing the tension, the geek world, often, the humor. (...) All humanities professors should read this book and so should all those buried deep in geek-world. The professors won't, but the geeks probably will. There's an intellectual pill buried deep in Mr. Stephenson's narrative candy, one powerful enough that he deserves to be classified as a major national and international resource." - Tom Shipey, Wall Street Journal

  • "This is the rare book that will appeal equally to fans of both NPR and the NRA. (...) Stephenson can be both funny and chilling, often in the same passage, and he displays a wonderful knack for some truly oddball romantic pairings. In less masterful hands, this pile-up of implausible coincidences, madcap romance, technological mayhem and nail-biting suspense might have been a train wreck, but Stephenson pulls it off." - Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       While Reamde does feature, as its title -- a misspelling of the computer command 'readme' that sticks -- might suggest, a computer virus, as well an immensely popular massively multi-player online role-playing game called T'Rain, it is ultimately a very conventional adventure yarn. Indeed, the real multi-player game -- and it feels very much like a game -- is played out in 'real' rather than virtual reality. Elaborate and painstakingly detailed, Reamde finds several groups of actors thrown together who work for (and also against) each other in a jet-setting series of overlapping cat and mouse games.
       Richard Forthrast is the laid-back overlord, a one-time Vietnam War draft dodger who first came to Canada in 1972 and managed to move up from hunting guide to marijuana smuggler to the head of a Fortune 500 gaming company, Corporation 9592. He's not quite the family patriarch -- Congressional Medal of Honor-winning dad is still hanging on at age ninety-nine, though he remains relatively silent in in front of the TV in his recliner -- but super-rich Richard is the generous fixer among his motley crew of siblings. The story even starts with a family reunion, and among the others there is his niece Zula, an Eritrean girl adopted by first one of his sisters and then, after her death, kept in the family.
       Zula is a smart, computer-savvy woman, and she brought along her boyfriend, Peter. A snowboarding fan, Peter also has some other business he wants to attend to, a little action on the side he has going while he's in this corner of Canada, just across from the United States, where this reunion is taking place. Peter deals with a middleman; unfortunately, the other party involved in the transaction really means business, and when something goes wrong they're willing to go to extremes to see to it that they get their way. As the middleman realizes pretty quickly:

I'm a dead man, Peter. You and Zula might live through this. If you close that safe.
       The 'Reamde' virus unleashed in T'Rain -- a clever virtual extortion game that quickly adds up to some big bucks -- has really gummed up the works. Corporation 9592 can, for the most part, deal with this, with a patch for users to download -- and a bit of deus-ex-machina fiddling with (virtual) reality to guide things back in the proper direction. Peter's aggrieved customers -- collateral damage of the virus -- prefer a more direct course of action and want to get directly to the source -- i.e. the person behind the virus. And if the source is in China, then that's where they go -- with Zula and Peter in tow.
       It takes a while to pinpoint the man behind the T'Rain get-rich-quick scheme -- and ultimately he is pinpointed nearly but not quite exactly enough. Layering the complications, it turns out the hacker has some badass neighbors who are working on a spectacular coup and scheme of their own, though one of an entirely different and much more hands on variety. So when the Russian mafiosi go to get the hacker, they stir up quite a hornets' nest.
       Events necessitate that the various (surviving) parties, good and bad, hightail it out of China -- with the fact that, with the exception of one local who suddenly finds herself along for the ride, they're there illegally just one more complication to deal with.
       As in a virtual reality game, not all the actors know what the others are doing, or might want to do. Communication is haphazard, information often available but difficult to piece together. Zula is held hostage by one group, but has several others who are trying to help her -- but these often do not know the exact intentions of the others. Among those eventually thrown in the mix: what amounts to the Russian mafia, some well-funded and quite capable jihadists who are very much on a mission, MI6 (the British intelligence service), and, of course, Richard and everything he can bring to the table ("My uncle has six hundred million dollars", Zula reminds her captors at one (desperate) point; he also has some relatives who live more or less off the grid and don't much like any outsiders (or government) messing with their own).
       So, for example, in summing up just one small group, we find that:
Apparently these three had left half of the surviving population of China seriously pissed off at them, as well as making mortal enemies with a rogue, defrocked Russian organized crime figure. In their spare time they had stolen money from millions of T'Rain players, created huge problems for a large multinational corporation that owned the game, and, finally -- warming to the task -- mounted a frontal assault on al-Qaeda.
       The trans-continental crisscrossing patterns go far and wide in an adventure tale that includes no trains but adventures (and crashes) in planes, automobiles, an RV, bicycles, a variety of boats and ships, and, of course, on foot. The difficulty of border-crossings is a recurring theme and problem, with a variety of escapes from China the most exciting and varied, but it's the US-Canadian border that is the great frontier the combatants return to.
       What it all amounts to, across several continents, is that:
We're like meridians, all beginning and ending in the same place. We spread out from the beginning and go our separate ways, over seas and mountains and islands and deserts, each telling our own story, as different as they could possibly be. But in the end we all converge and our ends are as much the same as our beginnings.
       (Except, of course for those (many) lost by the wayside in the carnage.)
       What it also amounts to is a story focusing on several connected parties fighting it out for high stakes (money, political messages, their own and others' lives) in that massively multi-player offline role-playing game called life. As in an actual online MMORPG, they're thrown together from all over the world -- China, Russia, Hungary, the US, the UK, Eritrea -- and even the jihadists include an American and a leader whose unusual background included a stint studying at the Colorado School of Mines (though he admits: "They should probably change the name. It's not just about that. I only went there to learn how to blow things up"). Stephenson throws various factions together and blows them apart; hostages are taken and dragged along at great length, serving a purpose (and, of course, often not disposed of in a timely manner, their presence among them ultimately coming back to bite the hostage-takers).
       T'Rain doesn't figure quite as prominently as all the real-world action, but proves a useful way of communicating and getting some of the parties to understand who and what is behind other parties. (Stephenson also has good fun with the history of T'Rain, and the creative side to it, with the writers who create the mythological universe -- and the rules that govern it -- a fun contrast to the computer side of things; unfortunately the T'Rain-part of the story doesn't get nearly equal billing with real-world events.)
       Early on one character enthusiastically suggests: "some kind of fascinating destiny is waiting for us out there". But it does all have a bit much of a fantasy feel to it -- of that suspension of disbelief and "consensual hallucination" Stephenson suggests is required when being in any virtual world. The game which is the story plays out a bit too black and white and easily too, and the online/video-game ease of causing death and mayhem (the head count is staggering, with most of the deaths at close range -- though many of these are decorously completed off-page). In online/video-game fashion too, the most significant death -- the last and major trophy -- is also made possible by a kind of unexpected third-party intervention, a not-quite-deus-ex-machina. The human cost, to the central figures, is limited, too: a few of the good guys die -- while the bad guys all get theirs -- , and while there are stray lost limbs and the like, there's nothing that can't be fixed with a high-quality artificial replacement or, eventually, an operation. The postscript aside that two of the characters are "seeing the same doctor for the treatment of posttraumatic stress" is practically the only suggestion that there's much of a psychological/mental toll. And Stephenson also couples quite a few too many of the members of this ragtag bunch, love apparently conquering all (or someone telling him that he needs more romance -- though he still keeps that pretty gruff).
       Reamde offers good action and confrontation (both frequent and explosive), though Stephenson has a tendency to draw things out: this is a book that is written not so much in painstaking detail but in slow motion -- and that often from more than one perspective, as he repeats encounters from the point of view of the others involved. He's pretty good at making this pretty exciting, though the final and very extended showdown, in rough terrain along the US-Canadian border where cell phones hardly work and practically everything is done in close proximity, almost hand-to-hand, bogs down a bit as everyone converges there and hardly anyone knows exactly who is following whom. Indeed, most of Reamde also reads like the book-version of an online/video-game episode, a series of escalating confrontations in different corners of whatever this MMORPG is.
       This is good but for too many long stretches also far too conventional action writing. It reads well and quite quickly for a book that's over a thousand pages long, but with its large cast of characters and some somewhat unlikely convergences and occurrences only occasionally really flies along. In addition, the T'Rain angle feels underexploited, too obviously constructed for a specific narrative purpose but Stephenson not doing nearly as much with as he might have.
       Clever and often funny in many of its details, Reamde is certainly solid adventure-fun. Stephenson occasionally gets lazy with hyperbole (claiming a medical scanner is: "the size of a nuclear submarine", for example) and detail bogs down some of the writing as well (though for the most part he carries that off surprisingly well), but it's certainly a solid read. But there's material here that might have made for a whole lot more, too .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 September 2011

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Reamde: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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