REAMDE by Neal Stephenson; William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2011; 1,044 pages, hardcover, $35.
“REAMDE” mentions Maine just once: At one point, one of the characters discards us as a possible venue for the bad guys’ next move. But if “The Bourne Identity,” the body count in “MacBeth,” William Gibson’s cyberpunkery, or the hypnotic profluence of Stephen King’s stories ever appealed to your attention, then you can drop everything and pick up this novel by Neal Stephenson.
The action diffuses shotgun-blast-like from Richard Forthrast, an ex-marijuana smuggler who in his comfortable late middle age has engineered a global “World of Warcraft”-type computer game as a prospering business. After an unexpected encounter with his niece, Zula, whom his heartland Iowa family adopted when she was a little girl refugee from East Africa, Richard hires her into the computer game company. It soon comes to light that the company’s servers have been infected by a virus called REAMDE, which interferes with the plans of some Russian mobsters, and Zula via her insipid hacker boyfriend stumbles innocently into the trouble. With the central characters locked and loaded by around 100 pages in, the plot of this book takes off like an RPG and then accelerates for the full remaining 900-odd pages.
The story careens intelligently and wryly among the channels and caves of computer geekdom, one of Stephenson’s specialties, and develops (though incompletely, unfortunately) some through-and-through metaphors on the relationship of the virtual world to the real world. The nexus is money. Stephenson understands 21st century culture — including, in detail, the great American gun fetish — as well as anybody writing in it today. We also get startlingly accurate depictions of a Chinese city where I once lived (trying not to give anything away) and other locations (that are not Maine). There’s a chance you might end up in Islamabad, if that tells you anything. By the last 150 pages you feel like the story has been on the brink of an epic shootout since page one.
The characters in “ REAMDE” are the most fully realized of any of Stephenson’s many arcanely lengthy novels (which include most notably “Anathem” and “Cryptonomicon”), and to reiterate, the action after a certain point is nonstop. It has that Stephen King-like virtual vividness you want to inhabit permanently (while safe from being part of the body count, that is). This is thriller storytelling of highly literate intelligence and AK-47 potency.