It's a Small World After All
Why Neal Stephenson Doesn't Play World of Warcraft Anymore
by Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow, $35)
The impetus behind Neal Stephenson's excellent new novel, Reamde, is a childhood love of the thrillers of Alistair MacLean, the author, Stephenson explains, of "Where Eagles Dare, that sort of thing. I think he wrote The Guns of Navarone." There's a pause. Even over the phone, I can hear the nagging sensation of a slippery bit of trivia gnawing at his frontal cortex. "I'm going to google him while I'm talking to you," he says, and then there's the clicking of a keyboard. Google confirms MacLean's authorship of The Guns of Navarone, and adds Ice Station Zebra besides.
Of course, the world that Stephenson describes in his book is fundamentally different than the world of Alastair MacLean. The protagonist of Reamde, Richard Forthrast, is a Vietnam draft dodger, marijuana smuggler, and creator of a World of Warcraft–like MMORPG (that's massively multiplayer online role-playing game, for those without a crippling Dorito addiction) named T'Rain. After the historical fiction of the Baroque Cycle and the space operatics of Anathem, Reamde is Stephenson's first book in well over a decade to be set in contemporary times, and his first in almost two decades to take place in Seattle and the Northwest, where Stephenson lives. Or at least, it begins and ends in the Northwest, while traveling, MacLean-like, around the world. But the globe that the book spans is much smaller than MacLean's world—all the characters, including radical jihadists, Chinese hackers, Russian mafiosi, and British spies, are connected by ubiquitous internet cafes, affordable international jet travel, and the cell phones they're constantly prodding and poking. Next to Where Eagles Dare's analog thrills, Reamde might as well be science fiction. (Even the name of the book is influenced by technology; the jumbled title—Stephenson pronounces it "ream-dee"—comes from a Chinese computer virus hidden inside a misspelled document.)
Which is not to say that members of the sprawling cast of Reamde are chilly or robotic. There are plenty of visceral thrills—hostage situations, car chases, shootouts, cold-blooded murders, domestic invasions, suicide bombers, helicopter crashes—and more complex intellectual pursuits to be puzzled out. Stephenson seems to be enjoying the ride, displaying a metatextual glee—"Reader, they bought his IP," he writes in an early description of how Forthrast went from a criminal to an internet mogul—and a darkly satirical edge that has been missing from his most recent work. He quotes a daily electronic newspaper published in T'Rain that reports on a virtual war's mortality count reaching the 1,000,000 percent mark: "The one million percent benchmark is considered by analysts to be an important psychological barrier that separates a war-ravaged inferno from a chillastic gore storm." This lighter hand helps disarm the intimidation inherent in hacker-friendly bits of dialogue like "Some compilers will mess with the object code to make it harder to decompile."
Even at a thousand pages, Reamde is sprightly enough to jump between 9 or 10 plot threads without getting tangled and tripped up in itself, and, refreshingly, it does so without employing the annoying modern thriller trend of rat-a-tat sprays of two-page chapters. Stephenson explains the tricky real-world relationship between China and the Philippines with the same intelligent buoyancy he displays in his description of the aforementioned apocalyptic virtual war, which erupts over a disagreement about color palettes. The cleaning and care of obscure Russian automatic rifles feel as integral to some characters as is, for others, the ritual of setting up a pee bucket and mountains of junk food by a computer in preparation for a marathon game session. (Stephenson played World of Warcraft for a time, but he abandoned it because "this is maybe way too much information, but your character at first can go around alone and make progress and beyond a certain point, you need to work with other people," and he wasn't willing to align his weird writer's schedule or his temperament with "a random 10-year-old on the other side of the planet.")
These interplays between wildly different motivations, and the ascent from a relatively harmless computer virus into an international hostage situation, make for an addictive reading experience. You don't so much read the book as tear whole hundred-page chunks out of it with your eyes. The publicity for Reamde is thick with one particular word, hailing it as Stephenson's most "accessible" book yet. "I chuckled when I saw that," he says. "I think it's just a code word for 'this is not science fiction.' Anathem was science fiction with big ideas in it and I think [publisher William Morrow is] just trying to say 'this is not one of those.'"
But it's not "just" an airplane-friendly thriller, either. Reamde focuses on our time in a way that only a science-fiction-minded author can. Stephenson's voracious brain is always eyeing cultural and global trends, and though Reamde is more reportorial than his speculative work like, say, Snow Crash, it still represents a world you've never seen before.