Two decades ago, Neal Stephenson became a geek literature icon, thanks in large part to his 1992 novel Snow Crash. That book fused near-future societal extrapolation, cyberpunk online interactions, and geeky infodumps with a conventional thriller. While his new novel Reamde takes place in the present day instead of the future, it follows the same trends, making it a spiritual sequel of sorts to Snow Crash. As such, it’s a showcase of how Stephenson’s writing has changed and softened over the years.
Reamde shows an odd kind of self-awareness, as if Stephenson heard his most common criticisms and wrote a novel specifically to refute them. For critics of his treatment of female characters in the past, the protagonist of this book is Zula Forthrast, equal parts determined and sympathetic whether kidnapped by gangsters and terrorists or hunting them down. His rebuttal to the charge of abbreviated, dysfunctional climaxes is not one but two extended action sequences lasting hundreds of pages, from multiple points of view so nothing is missed. Even the infodumps are integrated into the story.
Perhaps Reamde’s best demonstration of Stephenson’s growth is structural, as the story starts from an interesting, well-grounded premise: an online game streamlined for gold-sellers (a profitable nuisance in real-world games) proves extremely popular, but it’s also a target for criminals who want to turn a profit. It quickly proceeds into scenarios that would otherwise feel outlandish, thanks to two simple coincidences: an ill-advised moneymaking scheme collides with a profitable virus in the game, bringing the Russian “mafia” into Zula’s orbit; and her attempt to sow enough chaos to escape causes the Russians to collide with a terrorist cell, triggering an international crisis that drives the book’s continued momentum. The book’s thousand-pages length may seem excessive, but there’s enough incident in Reamde to make several books. It does lose the thread of some interesting ideas along the way, but it remains one of Stephenson’s most formally impressive novels.
Still, ideas are what made Stephenson so popular. Chief among them in Reamde is the story of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer role-playing videogame developed by Richard Forthrast, the second protagonist and Zula’s uncle. T’Rain has taken over the market previously dominated by World Of Warcraft. Stephenson guides readers through Forthrast’s attempts to give T’Rain a better environment for gold-sellers, and create a consistent, well-populated world for its players to inhabit. To that end, he enlists the world’s two greatest fantasy authors, a prolific-but-effective hack and a pretentious snob who claims he writes all his novels in the characters’ original language, then translates them into English.
Reamde shines when it focuses on T’Rain and its emergent narratives. The differences between its two authors turns into an aesthetic schism which itself turns into an outright war built around the importance of internal consistencies. Stephenson somehow turns the battles over fictional canon—a subject of inherent interest only to message-board junkies and television critics—into something almost as thrilling as the book’s main terrorism plot. The marriage of the thrilling and the nerdy is what makes Reamde work, and it offers a glimpse at a fascinating writer making a welcome transition back into a more accessible style.