on July 24, 2015
I read the back cover and thought to myself, there's no way all of these characters can come together in a plot that works. (A smidge cynical maybe but hey). Happy to report that Neal proved me very wrong while catapulting himself into my top ten favourite authors. Love this boom! Bought 3 copies so far so I didn't have to part with mine!
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.”
I am in awe of the tireless, hyper-creative entity that goes by the name 'Neal Stephenson'. The author photo accompanying his works is an obvious fake, and evidence is accumulating that 'he' is in fact a sentient NSA supercomputer designed to write its way past the meta-fictional barriers that divide the physical world and the fictional world. Until proof of this turns up on Wiki-Leaks or something similar, I'll have to seek out whatever clues can be gleaned from 'his' books. I can't think of another writer so freakishly prolific, for one thing. Since 2000 he's written the 2700 page 'Baroque Cycle' (a legitimate masterpiece that reinvents historical fiction); the 1000 page 'Anathem' (an ingenious work of speculative fiction that imagines another universe with many historical parallels to our own, in which huge monasteries, made up of monk-like orders that seal themselves in for decades, centuries, and even millenia, are desperate to avoid the toxic culture and technologies 'extra-muros'... These monks are not religious, however... They are scientists and philosophers, historians dedicated to protecting the ancient knowledge lost to the rest of their world. A visitor from beyond their universe threatens to undo not just their way of life, but their very existence... 'Anathem' is his greatest work to date, and is already a modern classic of both SF and Fantasy); Then we come to Reamde, all 1300 glorious pages of it. Involving a cast of characters too numerous to count, Reamde follows the misadventures of Zula Forthrast after her computer-geek boyfriend Peter sells a flash drive containing illegally obtained credit card information to a man representing an unpredictable Russian mobster named Ivanov. Unfortunately, the drive contains a virus acquired from the online environ of T-rain, a World of Warcraft-type MMORPG created and owned by Zula's very wealthy uncle, Richard Forthrast. When the panicked middleman shows up at Zula's apartment, they discover that the credit card info has been very deeply encrypted. A Troll, living in an isolated region of T-rain and protected by his own army of goblin bandits, is demanding a ransom in virtual gold... gold that has a real world currency exchange rate. From there begins an entirely wild, but somehow credible, course of events - flying to China with Ivanov on a private jet, so as to seek out the Chinese gold-farmer/viral extortionist whose T-rain avatar is the Troll; an insane gunfight between the Russian Mobsters and an Al Qaeda cell of bomb-makers, which initiates an epic battle of wills between the charismatic Islamic terrorist Abdallah Jones (responsible for multiple bombings around the globe) and Sokolov, a Russian Spetsnaz-turned-Security Expert (hired as muscle by Ivanov). From there, things get even messier, as Zula becomes the hostage of Abdallah Jones and his Al Qaeda crew, who proceed to steal the Russians' jet and cleverly chart an undetected course to British Columbia. From there, they plan on using Zula as leverage to convince her uncle Richard, who used to smuggle dope across the border by navigating a cross-country trek, to act as their guide. Various parties make their way to B.C., some of them Intelligence or Military hunting Jones before he launches his attack south of the border, while others are following the trail for their own reasons(such as Sokolov, who respects Zula and is determined to avenge his slain employees by killing Jones; Marlon, the Chinese youth whose alter-ego is the Troll, owes his life to Zula, who purposely sent the Russians to the wrong apartment, the one that just so happened to house the bomb-factory; Csongor, the massive but good-natured Hungarian hacker who Ivanov hired for computer support, has fallen in love with Zula, and will stop at nothing to rescue her; and Yuxia, a brave Chinese local acting as the Russian's guide, is drawn into the mess by chance, but she sticks with Marlon and Csongor in order to aid her new American friend. Stephenson abandons his usual slow. patient start for one of the most exciting books I've read. Given how freakishly prolific he is - writing some 5000 pages for the books mentioned above, as well as a book of essays and short stories, AND another three-volume series called 'The Mongoliad', which he co-wrote with a small group of writer friends - what is perhaps most impressive is his style. He is an excellent writer, avoiding cliches and employing a sharp, drily sardonic wit to each carefully conceived sentence and paragraph. Highly recommended.
on March 20, 2014
I burned through the pages. A fantastic cast of multiple compelling characters and subplots. It starts when a hacker selling stolen credit card info has his data compromised by a virus developed by gamers in China who hold the data for ransom for virtual gold in a WoW like MPG. The hacker is kidnapped by Russian mafia and dragged to China. Interesting characters cross paths. Hackers, gamers, jihadists, intelligence agents, mercenaries and homesteaders interact in a complex, spellbinding plot.
on September 3, 2013
Read it for perhaps the fourth time. Such a great book. Fun story, compelling plot, and characters you really care about
on March 1, 2013
"Reamde" is, the author tells us, a twisting of the words "Read me" which appear with most software programs. They are twisted because of a virus flooding the Internet's fictional game world of T'Rain. Players in that world compete in medieval dream battles for digital gold. The Re4amde virus hijacks the game and forces players to pay fees to recover their loot. Hence we are introduced to "ransomware" and the ongoing intriguing worlds of Neal Stephenson. You don't have to be a Net nerd to understand this - Stephenson does a very good job of indoctrinating the reader into high technology.
I am allowing four stars here not because I think it is as good a novel as "Cryptonomicon" (I don't think it is), but because Stephenson is simply one of the most provocative and entertaining writers out there. So the credit here goes to his bold, funny, epic, hugely descriptive and all-encompassing barrages of characters and scenes. Some readers are put off by Stephenson's asides and diversions - I wish there were more of them. But eventually, even this wide-reaching adventure seems to get bogged down in so many gun fights and stalk-and-destroy episodes that the head whirls and the senses are numbed. The first half, set in southern China, is the best portion. I do not fault Stephenson in any way for any of his narratives; I do fault my own patience when I have encountered a whole 1056-page realm of shoot-outs, blow-ups, hostage-bashing, hi-jacking and waylaying. That's where the senses get numbed, from overkill, even if well-described as it is here. Yet even Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy cannot/do not hold a candle to this sort of yarn weaving.
This could easily have been called "Zula's Story" as it is the feisty and unforgiving character of this little Eritrean woman, Zula Forthrast, who completely carries the novel. We do also get to like the Russian, Sokolov (no first name), a veritable James Bond of energy and resourcefulness, and to a lesser degree the Hungarian, Csonger Takacs, the reluctant bodyguard. While I understand the authors blunt detailing of, complete distaste for, and non-sympathy for terrorists (nothing could possibly make me like them, not even Abdallah Jones), I found myself liking the Chinese hacker, Marlon, in spite of the fact that I think creators of viruses should be strung up on an anthill and forgotten. And there is the tenacious and endurable Chinese guide Qian Yuxia (another reluctant heroine), and of course the fatherly Richard Forthrast, whose reminiscences into his smuggling days on the Idaho-B.C. border could make an interesting novel by itself.
Main Characters - we have a billionaire ex marijuana smuggler, a computer geek who created the Reamde virus and is benefiting financially from it, we have a Jihadist terrorist and his crew, we have a couple of hardcore RPG geeks, we have a Russian trained commando, we have a deep cover MI6 agent.
Plot Lines - all the above characters are shaken, not stirred, and for some of them they come out blazing with guns on automatic. The characters travel around the world it seems particularly China, Taiwan, England and Canada and the USA. The characters are reacting to each other and at times they are so close to each other however are oblivious to each other unaware of their ultimate destiny.
The start of this high thrills adventure is the corruption of a large number of stolen credit card numbers by the Reamde virus. Those numbers were headed to the Russian Mafia and they are not pleased to be denied their cash cow from using those numbers.
From there we go to Taiwan to deal with the creator of the virus and run in the terrorist who happen to be in the same building.
Art the end of the book we have all the factions and their still living representatives face off in a battle royal of snipers , shot guns, hand guns, grenades and rocket launchers around the Canada USA border.
Great character development, great plot line development and over laps, fantastic action scenes and great details on the RPH T'rain
Thank you to the author for the references to British Columbia, Washington State and the Selkirk Loop which are all in my neighbourhood
A large book with a significant investment in time to read, however you get so many dividends back that it is worth the effort.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED along with the authors other books Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon
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.
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.
on June 25, 2012
Can't help mentally casting this adventure ... once again a thrilling read from our favorite techno-cowboy! Readers of Anathem can relax ;) as more of a swashbuckler than the psychological romp we enjoyed last release. Good fun for all ... still casting