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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2011
This is a decent (if long) page-turner, but lacking in both cool uses of advanced tech and Stephenson's usual long diversions on subjects philosophical/technological/etc, and leaving a rather bog-standard story about terrorists that has a surplus of "just so" coincidences and abandoned story subarcs. Not the author's best work.
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Zula Forthrast and her boyfriend Peter visit Uncle Richard at his Canadian ski resort. Richard got his start as a small-scale marijuana smuggler slipping along little-known trails between Canada and the U.S. He left the increasing violence of this life for the slightly-less-violent world of online gaming. Before long he founded a company to develop the large-scale online gaming environment of T'Rain. Richard returned to the land of his beloved Canadian trails and bought a big chunk of it to build his resort.

Peter unwisely uses the resort as a hand-off point for a file of stolen credit card numbers. His flash drive introduces the Reamde virus into the other party's computer system. This gets various people... upset. The resulting fuss embroils Russian gangsters, Islamic fundamentalists, government spies, trigger-happy mercenaries, trigger-ecstatic backwoodsmen, and--very occasionally--legitimate law enforcement. Everybody shoots at nearly everybody else. Eventually some team up and others check out. I won't spoil the story with specifics. But even one or two of the characters seem to find all of this action a bit implausible.

Flashbacks provide needed breathing space as we learn more about Richard's history and the intricacies of T'Rain. This is necessary to understand a few plot twists. The Reamde virus, it seems, works by encrypting files on players' hard drives. They can only get the encryption key after paying a ransom in virtual gold at a specific location in T'Rain. Thanks to the challenging features of the game, the large number of ransom-payers, and the finer points of money laundering, this isn't easy. So things get intense online, too.

These parallel plots are well-balanced. Reamde is recommended as a pretty good read.

What Reamde isn't, surprisingly, is science fiction. It is marketed as a techno-thriller, but I'll confess to having missed this. While reading I had believed that the "goldmining" and other economic transactions in T'Rain were clever extrapolations. When I mentioned them to my World of Warcraft-playing son, he set me straight. At least the deals he's been in were for smaller amounts. So far.
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on June 30, 2012
Neal Stephenson's "Readme" was published on September 20th, 2011. I don't know if it was intentional to publish it in anniversary month of 911, but given the international terrorism element of the story it is somehow fitting. "Readme" is a large book, with a story which arcs from a computer virus which extorts gold in a computer game (which can be turned into money in the real world) to the Russia Mafia, to international terrorism, but the core of it all is the relationship between Richard Forthrast and his adopted niece Zula.

Given that the title of the book refers to a computer virus, one would expect that the virus and the game that it involves would play a more central role to the story than it actually does. Not to say that the Reamde virus isn't important to the story, quite the contrary, it is the virus which sets off the entire chain of events. Stephenson clearly spent a lot of time coming up with the concept of the virus, and the computer game it uses to extort funds from those infected, and the early part of the book incorporates the discussion of the game, and its underlying premise. The strategy behind the development of the game is told in some detail, and is important to the character development of Richard.

The virus works by encrypting the user's data, and informing the user that to release the data they must deliver a certain amount of gold (in the computer game) to a specific location. Where it goes wrong is when Zula's boyfriend has promised some data to a buyer, but then cannot deliver because his data stick has become encrypted by the virus. It then turns out that the person interested in the data is a member of the Russian mafia, which results in an attempt to find the programmer who created the virus. The story then heads to Xiamen, China to bring in the hackers, but as they attempt to capture the hackers, Zula's attempt to warn them results in the involvement of some Islamic terrorists, who just happen to be in the same building. The chain reaction doesn't stop there though, as the terrorists, led by Abdullah Jones, a black Welshmen who also is being tracked by MI6, manage to take Zula as a hostage.

The Islamic terrorism plot dominates the story the rest of the way, and of course it all comes back to an attempt by the terrorists to get back into the U.S. from Canada by using Zula's rich uncle. In my opinion, this is unfortunate, because the terrorism plot was the least interesting to me, and outside of the Abdullah Jones character I found it to be rather cliché. Most, if not all, of the terrorists are two-dimensional characterizations, while the characters in China, and those associated with the Russian Mafia were much more interesting, as was the concept of the game and the virus.

The end result is that this is a solid book, and it will keep the reader entertained, but my personal rating can't go above three stars. Even Stephenson's books which are not at his peak are well worth reading, and this one is no exception. There are many great characters in this book, though I thought that it was a bit unrealistic how much everyone (except for the two-dimensional stereotypical terrorist characters) were so entranced by Zula to be a bit over the top. Because I wasn't that interested in another "terrorist" story, I thought that the story dragged for a substantial section, but for those who want that type of story it may not be an issue.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2012
I'm a Stephenson groupnik. I own all the books he has written, save one. If I get started on the Baroque Trilogy or on Anathem or on Zodiac, it's difficult to stop me. To the point that my family religiously avoids to bring me in "started" mode relative to these.

But I don't get Reamde. Attention, mild spoilers follow.

The catchiness stops at the title misspelling (complete with the geek culture reference). The rest is just some book. I realize I might be overly harsh, because I hoped for a story and levels of creative imagination made almost a requirement by the other Stephenson books. But this is how I think now (two months after finishing reading). I promise that, while reading the book, my opinion was even harsher.

There is almost no scientific fiction. There is perhaps some fiction, but of the kind that, if it didn't dully happen already in the real world, one wonders why. If this book was published 20 years ago, it would have been a hit. Character descriptions are still Stephenson'esquely sharp and powerful. The "adventure" ingredients are spicy and rushy enough. This is the creation of a very talented and very experienced writer, after all. But there was something lacking all the way through. Once you finish it, you just get to stand there, scratching head. If at least the ending was not so melodramatically holywoodian.

It is my first rewiew with such a tone and I'm not happy about it.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon November 14, 2014
I’ve long been a fan of Neal Stephenson, so it pains me more than a little bit to have to be so negative regarding his latest offering, Reamde.

Reamde is a misspelling of “readme,” the name of that catch-all text file that accompanies almost anything you download from the ‘net. Stephenson likes these little insider jokes, as anyone who’s read much of his work knows. This time, unfortunately, the title isn’t the only wrong word in Stephenson’s tedious and overlong opus. There are hundreds of pages of “wrong” words, if wrong means needless, self-indulgent, or over-detailed.

Now, I’m not always so intolerant of Stephenson’s infatuation with extraordinary length. After all, I loved all 981 pages of Anathem (reviewed on this blog), and most of the 1,152 pages of Cryptonomicon. And I read all eight volumes, and the more than 3,000 pages, in the trilogy “The Baroque Cycle.” (The fact that this trilogy has eight volumes tells you a lot about the author’s excesses.)

I liked the “Cycle” as a group, but there were those unfortunate middle 1,000 pages, an endless pirate saga that would have made a good 250-page novel. And that’s pretty much the problem with Reamde. It’s a good 250-page novel that’s 750 pages too long.

The MMORG (“massively-multiplayer online role-playing game,” for the uninitiated) and hacker stuff is well done, if pretty standard by now, but the endlessly protracted terrorists vs. spies storyline that spins off from it gets bogged down in interminable detail. Stephenson is well known for indulging his penchant for minutiae — he famously devoted several pages in one of his early novels to the delicate art of mixing milk and cereal in just the right way — but here he outdoes even himself.

I suppose that he was just having fun, but when Stephenson’s deus ex machina solution to the imminent murder of a major character relies on the timely intercession of a man-eating cougar (the real, feline kind), I almost stopped reading right then. But what are you to do? After you’ve read 700 pages, to stop with only 300 to go would render all those hours of reading not only pointless but fruitless. Long books trap you that way.

I’m not saying that Stephenson has suddenly become a bad writer. Not at all! He writes with crisp clarity, and taken in isolation many of his detailed episodes are entertaining, often with a touch of irony or celebratory nerdishness. But when you add all of these set pieces together, the result is not so effective, and not so entertaining.

And, when you get to the end, you’re treated to an endless, live ammo version of a(n) MMORG, one that goes on and on and on and ….

I get it that Stephenson is playing a clever game here, having his “real” characters act out the kind of action at which their online avatars excel. But do we really need dozens of pages of detail on each player’s equipment and firepower? A few pages on how best to pour milk over cereal is fun; a few hundred pages of chasing each other through the woods is just self-indulgent. I got bored, something that a good writer should really try to avoid whenever possible.

Reamde bears comparison to the superficially-similar but much better novel HaltinG StatE, by Charles Stross. William Gibson calls Stross’s book “keenly observant of our emergent society.” Gibson knows what he’s talking about. Stross’s novel also revolves around a sinister computer hack, and it also features techno-savvy spies as major characters. It, too, is entertaining, often with a touch of irony or celebratory nedishness. But the best thing that it has going for it, in comparison to Reamde, is that Stross accomplishes his tale in 350 pages. That’s plenty. It works. There’s no feeling that the story is rushed. Characters are adequately motivated and filled out. The author’s concerns with the effect of technology on near-future society are clearly visible. Yet after we’ve finished Stross’s book, we have many extra hours of free time that we don’t have available while we finish reading the bloated pages of Reamde.

Sadly, my final advice about Reamde is this: Unless you're a Stephenson diehard, “Dot’n.”
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2011
Disappointing after the Baroque Cycle , Anathem and Cryptonimicon . Visually I thought he had a movie in mind or worse a tv series . Yes I kept reading , but found it tiresome and even predictable , even down to the happy ending , except for Uncle John . Pynchon did the same with Vineland so he's in good company ; will definitely look for a return to his earlier form with his next effort .
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