Reamde: A Novel
William Morrow, 2011
1056 pp., 38.05
This is Neal Stephenson's all-American novel—his apple-pie, red-white-and-blue book about the U.S. of A. in all its purple mountains' majesty. Yes, its heroine is a Eritrean refugee named Zula, its hero a software mogul who's abandoned his native Iowa for Canada, and its bad guys include Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers, and Al-Qaeda terrorists. For that matter, much of the action happens in the fantasy land of an online role-playing game called T'Rain.
Still, the real subject of Neal Stephenson's new Reamde is America. Maybe more the gonzo-crazy land of Hunter S. Thompson's drug-fueled imagination—or the unpredictable, hog-stomping, baroque nation of Tom Wolfe's quick eye—than the small-town American dream of Hollywood, but nonetheless a world in which, when one of their own is threatened, Idaho survivalists, Seattle hipsters, midwestern evangelicals, and motorcycle-club marijuana smugglers combine to save the day. Because, as near as the novel comes to an explanation, that's what Americans do: When things go bad, they pick up their guns and ride to the rescue.
A paean to American gun culture—a paean to any kind of American culture—is not what readers expect from the 52-year-old Stephenson, a long-form novelist commonly called a science-fiction writer, for lack of any better way to categorize his work. When he published in 1992 the book that first made him famous, his post-American futuristic tale Snow Crash, he seemed the wildest, fastest, most complex science-fiction writer around, but hardly a cheerleader for America.
The 1999 Cryptonomicon seemed to confirm the point, as he told a complex story about gold, Nazis, and Alan Turing, all while folding in a wide-ranging exploration of the implications of computers for human behavior. With the three volumes and 2,600 pages of The Baroque Cycle, published from 2003 to 2004, he cast back again in history, retelling the entire birth of modern science, economics, and sex. In the 2008 extraterrestrial Anathem, he set out to novelize the epistemology of certainty and the metaphysics of time.
The apparent lack of similar philosophical complexity has produced a fairly general condescension toward Stephenson's latest. Reviewing the novel in Salon, for example, Andrew Leonard waves away the book as beach reading: "Whereas in past novels the filigree would reflect deeper structures in unusual and provocative ways, in Reamde the filigree is just filigree. There's nothing beneath the baroque surface." The problem, finally, is that Stephenson seems to have given up his scientific and mathematical fascinations, and "there are no equations in Reamde."
The origin, I think, of this reaction is an unconscious refusal of Stephenson's overwhelming, if somewhat peculiar, tribute to American character. Despite the opening chapter's fifty-page tour de force—an account of a holiday get-together on an Iowa farm, probably the best writing the author has ever done—the reviewers seem insistent that the topic is too slight to bear the weight of Stephenson's heavy vision.
So they look, instead, to the science-fiction element of T'Rain, the novel's role-playing game that Stephenson roughly based on the real-life—or, rather, real-life second-life—game known as World of Warcraft. Reamde's expositions of the financial, literary, and cybernetic construction of such online virtual realities are interesting, but the hidden piles of gold in T'Rain operate, in truth, only as a MacGuffin for the plot. If that's where you look for the depth of Stephenson's insight, you're bound to be disappointed. And Stephenson needs a MacGuffin because Reamde is, in structure, an adventure story, straight out of the John Buchan playbook. It's worth, I guess, laying out that plot, in all its baroque twists and turns.
Reamde—pronounced "ream-dee," the mistyped title of a "Read Me" file emailed to victims of an elaborate online scan involving the T'Rain game—opens with the fortysomething hero, Richard Forthrast, visiting his family in Iowa for Thanksgiving. They're good American farmers, for the most part, but the cousins and inlaws and nieces and nephews, the adopted children and significant others, have extended the family into a microcosm of the nation.
Richard started out a marijuana smuggler and footloose wanderer through the American landscape, but along the way he helped develop a software enterprise that has become a Fortune-500 company and left him enormously, if somewhat ironically, rich. His wealth turns out to be useful, when, in short order, his adopted niece Zula is kidnapped in British Columbia by a gang of Russian mobsters, who take her to China. Which is where she's recaptured by Al-Qaeda terrorists, who take her to the Philippines, because they want to use her to help them blow up Las Vegas.