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Neal Stephenson
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

W. M. Morrow / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-061-97796-1
Publication Date: 09-20-2011
1050 pages; $35
Date Reviewed: 09-24-2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction  Science Fiction

The Forthrast family re-u, as black sheep Richard Forthast calls it, begins with guns. It's a sweet scene with fathers and sons and uncles and nephews lined up and plinking at cans and dust and dirt just across the crick. The Forthrast family saga in 'REAMDE' ends with guns, and in many ways it is just as sweet, even if by that point in the narrative the body count is pretty high.

Neal Stephenson's new novel is a character-driven, tightly-plotted thriller that, though it weighs in at over a thousand pages, really reads like a 300-page guns-r-us novel. But all those pages, all those characters, take it well beyond the plot-boiler conventions it uses so well. Set in Canada, the US, China, and many stops between and around the world, 'REAMDE' offers a dense, detailed look at humanity just after the turn of the century. We're caught up in connections we create, inherit and stumble into by pure accident. One second you're answering email; the next, you're pulling a gun, or having one pointed at you.

Stephenson kicks off his plot by creating fascinating, believable and likable characters who have enough juice to get themselves into — literally — a world full of trouble. Richard Forthrast has a complicated back story that led him to create the next generation of MMORPG, T'Rain. His innovation is to enable and encourage gold-farming, but that innovation leads gold farmers in China to their own innovation, a "ransomware" virus that chooses the wrong target. Things get complicated and more so, as professional criminals and terrorists up the likelihood of deadly violence. The plot of 'REAMDE' is dense, and just as intellectually satisfying as you'd expect from Neal Stephenson. It's superb and surprising.

Stephenson wisely ratchets back on the prose styling that he'd employed in his more baroque work, historical and science-fictional. There's still a nicely-honed satirical and humorous edge here, but don't look for anything particularly fancy beyond a few lists and the twists of phrase that you want to read aloud. 'REAMDE' is smart as hell and relatively slick.

For this reader, the real appeal of 'REAMDE' is the enormous cast of characters. Everyone we meet is entertainingly written, but nobody is too far over the top. Richard, his adopted niece Zula, his brothers, John and Jake, and a number of others that readers are better off meeting on their own are all people who are wonderfully fun to read about. Stephenson clearly loves all of his characters, even those, and there are more than a few, who are disposed to violence.

And while there is plenty of violence to keep the plot moving, and incredible set-pieces that keep the reader from moving, all of this is balanced by attention to details that make it all real. Wonderful descriptions of place and a sense of connection make 'REAMDE' seem like much more than a longish page-turner. Believe me, the pages will turn. Don't be daunted by its tome-like appearance or that four-figure page count. You will read 'REAMDE' in the same span you might take to read a book three times as long. But given all those pages, you're going to take away quite a bit more. You'll visit places you've never been (and could never go) and people you could never meet — but won't forget. 'REAMDE' is, in the novel, a computer virus, while the novel itself might remind readers of William Burroughs' observation that, "Language is a virus from outer space." Stephenson aptly demonstrates that, correctly deployed, a virus can itself be a cure for a culture that threatens to lose sight of the simple, powerful joys of plots, people and novels.

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