Neal Stephenson, Reamde, Atlantic Books, 2011.
This large novel is a present-day adventure story spanning the globe, with a wide cast of characters, and touching on many contemporary issues of interest. When I was younger, I would have felt daunted by a novel of over a thousand pages. Now when I see such a novel by an author I appreciate, I look forward to a long visit within that author's imagination.
The book's title is the name of a computer virus, a distorted form of the term "readme". Much of the early book focuses on a massive multi player online role playing game, T'Rain, its creation involving two very different fantasy authors, the way it is used by players to launder money in the real world, and the virus attack on it. All of this setup, along with the title, led me to expect that this would play a major role in the story, with the action taking place on two levels, in the game and in reality, as with Stephenson's famous early novel Snow Crash.
However, while the game serves an important function within the story, and in connecting some of the diverse characters, most of the action takes place in the real world. Perhaps the gaming world is now so familiar to many readers that it was not such an interesting setting. Perhaps the author thought that some of the readers of a mainstream present-day thriller would be overwhelmed by the gaming side of the story. Or maybe the story just went in a different direction. I was a bit disappointed by this, but came to accept it.
Among the main characters are Richard Forthrast, the founder of the company that created T'Rain, his niece Zula, and various people involved in kidnapping her and trying to rescue her. Without giving too much away, some of these include Russian mafia members, Chinese hackers, Islamist terrorists, and undercover agents. The story takes place in many different countries and employs various modes of transportation and communication.
The plot seems to be strung together by a series of coincidences. In some cases these makes sense within the context, but sometimes they seemed a little far-fetched. The characters are clearly distinguished and act in accordance with their motivation. So while the story itself sometimes stretches the reader's suspension of disbelief to the limit, my interest in the characters, their actions and interactions, and in seeing how the whole situation could eventually be resolved, maintained my engagement with the novel.
The pacing of the story is good, with the sections spent with different characters or groups of characters well-balanced and serving to keep the reader in touch with actions happening around the same time in different places. Uncharacteristically for Stephenson, there are relatively few "digressions", except for some flashbacks, and most of the exposition takes place naturally in conversations between the characters.
The novel contains elements that will interest a wide range of readers: action, adventure, international terrorism, gaming, undercover anti-terrorist work, politics, and travel. All these elements are mingled with realistic descriptions and engaging characters. The individual scenes have a vivid realism that makes them believable, even though when you draw back and look at the entire plot the coincidences show again and make the story as a whole seem less likely. This made for a strange reading experience, with the work feeling realistic when seen up close, particularly when identifying with the characters, but more fantastical when viewed from a more distant perspective.
The novel's ending was dramatic, and brought together a wide range of elements and characters. At the same time, it seemed to emphasize the problem with the coincidences once more, with the terrorists encountering just the right combination of opponents at just the right place and time. It also felt, to me at least, as though it was making a political point, perhaps taking a rather libertarian position. This makes sense in the context of the book, but if this were a real story being reported, I could imagine the political exploitation of these events. Of course, authors are free to make political points if they wish, but since they are also inventing the events that make the point they are trying to make, it seems rather self-serving.
I enjoyed this novel and recommend it to a wide range of readers, including those who may not have read Stephenson's previous novels because they were classified as SF or historical fiction. Its present-day setting makes it accessible to a wider audience, and may introduce new readers to one of my favourite authors. However, this is not, in my opinion, his best work. But even a novel that is not his best is better than most of what is being published today. I look forward to seeing what his imagination will bring us next.