“Reamde” by Neal Stephenson – Long, enjoyable read – “Snow Crash” all grown up


“Reamde” is more than 34 hours long and I still regretted reaching the end.

Malcolm Hillgartner delivers a masterful performance that kept me engaged throughout.

The opening chapter of REAMDE reads like something from John Irving or Richard Russo. It establishes Richard Forthrast, online war game billionaire and former smuggler, in the context of his Iowa farming clan family which covers the American spectrum from “American Taliban” Freemen, living off the grid, through Vietnam vets working the farms to Zula, Richard’s adopted Eritrean niece.

The home team here is American in all its flavours, but the game is played, both online and in real life, on a global stage, stretching through Canada, China, and the Philippines, with characters from the Russian, the UK (a half-chinese British spy, a Scottish fraudster and a black Welsh Jihadist), Hungary, and China.

The plot is complex but clear and its twists and turns are driven as much by the characters as it is by the underlying situation.

The themes are rich and rewarding: the links between the cyberworld and real life, the nature of money and power, the clash of cultures between the West and the rest, the power of friendship, the limitations of money and the value of honour in uncertain times.

Richard Forthrast is in his 50’s. He’s lived long enough to make parts of the cyberpunk fantasy imagined in Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (published in 1992, two years before the World Wide Web was born) into a reality and is now living with the consequences.

The book is named after a computer virus that preys on people in the real world and makes them pay up in Cyberspace (shades of Bitcoin here), starting a real world hunt for the hackers that spirals out into ever-increasing mayhem.

The action scenes are crisp and focused. The sense of place is strong. The people are believable.

In the end I wondered if the on-line game was really so important to it all. Then I slapped my forehead, gave the obligatory Simpson’s “Duh!” and realised that that was perhaps Stephenson’s main message: of all the kinds of reality that are out there, the one that matters most is the one where you do anything you have to to make those you love safe.

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