Among all the books tied to the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Neal Stephenson’s massively entertaining new thriller, “Reamde,” may turn out to offer the best take on this increasingly fragmented, bizarre and bleakly beautiful world we now call home.
The title refers to the misspelled subject line of an e-mail virus, “Reamde” rather than “Read me.” While its early pages suggest the novel will be an intriguing if fairly boilerplate techno-thriller, “Reamde” turns out to have more on its mind than the usual complement of genius hackers and things that blow up.
Not that there isn’t plenty of both, especially the latter: reamde is a near-anagram for armed, a state in which, by novel’s end, even the most improbable characters find themselves. This is the rare book that will appeal equally to fans of both NPR and the NRA. Those put off by the novel’s heft — at over 1,000 pages, it’s about a third longer than “Moby-Dick” — should be reassured that this is perhaps the fastest 1,000-page read they’ll ever encounter. If Melville had Neal Stephenson’s gift of pacing, Captain Ahab would have had his own summer blockbuster and an action figure.
“Reamde” opens disarmingly enough, on an Iowa farm where the Forthrast family is having its annual Thanksgiving reunion. Richard Forthrast, a middle-aged former marijuana smuggler and founder of Corporation 9592, a Fortune 500 company based on a game called T’Rain, joins the rest of the gang in the Back 40, where bolt-action .22s, Glocks and assault rifles are cheerfully deployed in the tribe’s yearly target practice. The Forthrast clan is good-natured enough to welcome Richard; his survivalist brother, Jake; as well as numerous old-timers, grad students, homemakers, Gen-Xers and awed youngsters who know of Uncle Richard’s legendary exploits from his Wikipedia entry.
The next day, Richard hits the road to meet with one of the chief writers behind T’Rain, the World of Warcraft-style game that Richard designed to be gold-farmer-friendly. Fear not if these phrases mean nothing to you: Stephenson explains the inner workings of them in meticulous and amusing detail.
Gold farming, a hugely profitable sidebar to the gaming industry, generates billions for T’Rain: “Chinese gold farmers [were] young men who made a living playing the game and accumulating virtual weapons, armor, potions, and whatnot that could be sold to American and European buyers who had more money than time.” So it’s with some dismay that Richard learns that a troll, presumably a Chinese hacker, has exploited a weakness in T’Rain’s software security. He or she has sent ransomware e-mails with the subject line “REAMDE” to millions of T’Rain players, wiping out their hard drives and holding them hostage until the players pay them off in T’Rain gold that can then be converted into real-world currency.
Got that? Good. Now you can forget about almost all of it.
Because after more than 200 pages of carefully constructed lead-in, Stephenson’s novel does a U-turn — the first of many — that sends it off on a breathlessly high-speed narrative chase that may cause readers to lose as much sleep as T’Rain’s glassy-eyed players do on a weekend gaming binge. This is a novel in which Russian gangsters, kidnapped computer programmers, Chinese hackers, a Hungarian Internet security specialist, the FBI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police and MI6, not to mention numerous members of the Forthrast clan and several Liege Lords of T’Rain, all end up in pursuit of a single man. That would be Abdallah Jones, a black Welsh jihadist who’s one of the most menacingly charismatic villains since Hannibal Lecter.
Stephenson’s control of these multifarious plotlines is remarkable, as is his evocation of settings as disparate as a 21st-century boomtown in southern China, a remote island in the Philippines, a survivalist compound in Idaho and Wal-Mart. Stephenson can be both funny and chilling, often in the same passage, and he displays a wonderful knack for some truly oddball romantic pairings.
In less masterful hands, this pile-up of implausible coincidences, madcap romance, technological mayhem and nail-biting suspense might have been a train wreck, but Stephenson pulls it off. “Reamde” has one of the most satisfyingly over-the-top endings of anything I’ve read in years. For all its gun-toting mercenaries and venal hackers, there’s never any doubt who this novel’s bad guys really are.
They’re cold-blooded killers. They litter. And they don’t play T’Rain.
Elizabeth Hand’s thriller “Available Dark” will be published in February.
Neal Stephenson will discuss his novel at 2:50 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 25, in the Fiction pavilion at the National Book Festival on the Mall.
By Neal Stephenson
Morrow. 1,044 pp. $35