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Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

Viral entertainment at full throttle


REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson. William Morrow, 2011, 1042 pp., $35 (paperback).

Neal Stephenson's novels can be counted upon to offer two things: a lot of information and a lot of pages.

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"Reamde," checking in at 1,042 pages and rich in knowledge that will delight anyone who likes to learn how things work, will please Stephenson's fans even though it is a departure from many of his previous novels.

All of Stephenson's fiction has thrilling moments (and as his novels tend to be big, those moments can go on for many, many pages), but this is the first of his books that is nothing but a thriller, one that will sit comfortably on shelves weighed down by, say, the complete works of Robert Ludlum.

"Reamde" rings all the genre bells. Most of it, for example, is taken up with people running away from people who want to kill them and people chasing people whom they want to kill. Characters flee and pursue across continents and oceans, and, in another genuflection to genre conventions, a great deal of ink is devoted to describing different types of firearms and how they work. (Elizabeth Hand has noted that "Reamde" is a near anagram of "armed.")

All of which is to say, of course, that "Reamde" would be as dull as most of the thrillers burdening the rack at the airport if it were not written by Neal Stephenson.

Stephenson is able to populate his improbable plot with improbable characters who, though we never quite believe in them, amuse the hell out of us anyway. The observations these characters make about the state of the world are accurate, and also off-kilter in just the right way: The characters' perceptions surprise us, educate us, and make us grin.

The book isn't as ambitious as Stephenson's "Baroque Trilogy" — there's no attempt to do anything as grand as explain the history of money — or even "Cryptonomicon" with its forays into cryptography and the ins and outs of data security. It is, however, a gripping read that will tide Stephenson fans over until his next tome hits the stands.

There has been a lot of nonfiction written about computer games, and a lot of fiction that borrows settings and characters from online worlds, but with "Reamde" — the mistyped name of a computer virus -Stephenson is among the first authors to produce a substantial fiction that in taking video games as one of its subjects (among many others), subsumes them. There are those who worry that computer games will displace books. In "Reamde" — bits of which take place in an online world — the old fashioned wood-pulp book has swallowed the computer game whole.

The most engaging character in the novel is a draft evader and former marijuana smuggler, Richard "Dodge" Forthrast. After spending a decade lost in a massive multiplayer online role-playing universe — "Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and its sequels" — and realizing that "video games were more addictive than any chemical," Dodge develops, with a Chinese partner, his own online universe, a game called "T'Rain" which goes on to make them near billionaires.

The vast piles of money to be made from, and in, role-playing games is central to the novel. The Reamde virus, it turns out, is an attempt by Chinese hackers to shake down "T'Rain" players for their virtual gold, gold that when transferred out of the online world sheds its virtuality and becomes the real stuff. The hackers expect to walk away with a cool $2 million.

A wily old dope-smuggler/tycoon like Dodge pitted against equally wily Chinese hackers might be enough of a premise for writers satisfied with pots that only boil for a couple-hundred pages, and who are happy to keep just two, or, at most, three balls in the air.

For Stephenson, the virus, introduced at the beginning of the novel, is just a bit of throat clearing. Before he's finished, it will be all but forgotten, displaced in our memories by: a Russian gangster and the Rambo-like security specialist he has hired; a Welsh-born Islamic terrorist and his band of miscreants; spooks from M15 and its American counterparts; Christian survivalists in the remotest reaches of Idaho and ... the list could go on. A character wonders at one point, "if anyone else in the world — in history — had been in danger from gangsters, terrorists and bears in the space of a single week. When would the pirates and dinosaurs show up?" (She hadn't encountered the mountain lion yet.)

It is, to be sure, the manic one-thing-after-anotherness of the plot that keeps us turning the pages of what has to be one of the fastest reading 1,000-plus-page novels ever written.

Add the artful asides that adorn the plot — how a "simulacrum" of a blue-collar bar becomes a real blue-collar bar, for example — and it's clear: "Reamde" is entertainment at its best.



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