Neal Stephenson's latest novel, "REAMDE," brings black hat hackers, MMORPG gamers, virtual gold miners, Russian organized crime figures, dope smugglers and the flotsam of post-Cold War intelligence organizations into a super freaky all-night disco dance party, evocative, in terms of its well-orchestrated spectacle and cast-of-thousands, of Cecille B. Demille (or Shakespeare).
Stephenson is well known for two rather different milieu: near-future tech-heavy worlds that could be short-handed as cyberpunk and the 16th century European and Near Eastern world of his Baroque Cycle, with the Cryptonomicon and Anathem as bridges between the two. The excellent REAMDE is different. It's about a very recognizable here and now.
What makes this 1,000-page doorstop of a book a success, though less of one than many of his books (and more than others) is not the inside-out understanding of current technology or of gaming and of virtual currency (currency has been an interest of Stephenson's since the Baroque Cycle), but the characters. The characters are well developed, fully-fleshed and very likable (and hateable).
Csonger, the Hungarian hacker working for Russian mobsters; Richard, the former dope smuggler who launched a hugely popular game in the vein of World of Warcraft; Sokalov, the former Russian spetsnaz soldier-turned-bodyguard; Olivia the Chinese-British M16 agent, Zula, the Somali refugee-turned Iowa farm girl, Marlon the Chinese hacker - and the list truly does go on and on - are all either interesting or likable, often both.
Outlining the plot of a 1,000-page novel in any detail would be ludicrously reductive. Let's just say that Richard's niece Zula is kidnapped to hack the solution to the eponymous virus engineered by Marlon that is holding a Russian mob boss's files hostage and the subsequent journey moves from the Pacific Northwest to southern China to the Philipines and back to the U.S.
Pace, character, connection to a world the reader can empathize with, color and wonder, the story has all of these things.
REAMDE does not have the heft of some of his novels. It is, in fact, a spy caper in contemporary tech clothing. Post-ending, you wind up cocking your head at recollections of certain elements and events. But my overall take: it's an easy, compelling read. And in a world of small beer, his willingness, even in what amounts to a cockeyed spy novel, to tackle such a complex story in such a global context is whiskey.
The technological aspects of the book are interesting to those of us who are already interested in such things. To a non-tech reader, they would read through them. Either way, they are fuel for the human story.
Long ago I figured out that every news story I wrote was simply this: people, in places, doing things. In REAMDE, there are a lot of empathetic (and repugnant) people, in a James Bond-level of (regardless of where you're from) exotic places doing a lush lot of things (including tech things).
Stephenson photo by Jean Baptiste