Reamde: A Novel
William Morrow, 2011
1056 pp., $35.00
At least, I think it was the Philippines; I got a little lost in this part of the story. Regardless, Zula is soon plane-crashed in Canada and forced over an old smugglers' path into Idaho, where the more survivalist part of her family happens to live. Gunfire ensues, and America proves astonishingly resourceful and resilient in responding to the crisis of having their relative treated this way, even if she is an adopted Eritrean refugee who has grown up to become a straightforward metrosexual of the Seattle coffee-bar type.
The cause of all this is a bunch of teenage Chinese hackers in the city of Xiamen who have launched the file-locking Readme virus. They'll unlock the victims' files only for money paid in virtual funds inside the world of T'Rain. Unfortunately, one of those whose files get locked is Zula's boyfriend Peter, just as he delivers a file of stolen credit-card numbers to Russian gangsters.
You can see, of course, what has to happen next. The Russians carry Zula and Peter to China to confront the hackers, Richard works frantically to identify the hackers from within the game, and the extended Iowa family mobilizes to rescue her. The Al-Qaeda plot turn was a little bit of surprise—where, exactly, did these terrorists come from?—but, thematically, they're necessary: Reamde is an American adventure story, and it needs a genuine enemy of America to keep the pot boiling.
Even all this wouldn't fill the book's 1,056 pages if, along the way, Stephenson didn't engage in the long digressions that have always been his trademark. We're treated to the economic landscape of a modern Chinese city, the complications of international air space, the continuing James Bondian work of British agents, the internal enforcement mechanism of the Russian mafia, the peculiarly ebullient lostness of post-communist Budapest, and the mountainous geography of the U.S.-Canadian border.
Plus, of course, the 185-page gun battle that concludes the book, about which nearly every reviewer has complained. A sympathetic reading, however, might suggest that the lengthy conclusion is no more incidental to the author's project than the book's opening fifty pages of Americana. For a futurist and computer enthusiast—for a man routinely classed as a writer of science fiction—Neal Stephenson proves himself in Reamde to be an astonishingly old-fashioned sort of author. He's trying to write an American novel, like someone wandered into 2011 fiction out of the 1950s. He wants to find the soul of the nation, and he wants to see what makes Americans think they deserve to win against the likes of Al-Qaeda.
The answer he comes up with is a combination of ones we've heard before. Americans are simultaneously weird and conventional, violent and peaceable, rule-bound and mistrustful of authority, self-reliant and deeply religious. They're also very, very nice, and Stephenson finds himself liking them—rather, one suspects, to his surprise. Certainly to the surprise of his reviewers, who were looking for something, anything, else.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author most recently of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words (St. Augustine's Press). His slice of memoir, Dakota Christmas, was recently released as a Kindle Single.
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