Mid-Reading Thoughts on Neal Stephenson’s “REAMDE”


Author: Neal Stephenson

Original Publication: 2011

Pages: 1042

ISBN: 978-0-06-197796-1 

REAMDE follows the events that spiral out of control after a group of young Chinese hackers release the computer virus REAMDE into the world of T’Rain, an immensely popular massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) created by Richard Forthrast, a draft-dodger who fled to Canada and amassed a small fortune dabbling in marijuana smuggling before going relatively straight as he and a team of prodigies developed the game.

T’Rain was built from the ground up to be appealing to young Chinese players, who farm gold and spend countless hours creating powerful characters that they can then sell to Westerners who have neither the time nor the inclination to put in the work themselves (a practice that goes against the rules of most MMORPGs). As an obsessive World of Warcraft player, Richard took note of these players and realized that one could build a massively successful business by creating a game that not only allowed their activities but encouraged them. The Chinese players turn a tidy profit and drive the intricately constructed T’Rain economy in return.

When REAMDE hits, the world of T’Rain is already teetering on the edge of outright civil war. The Earthtone Coalition, a group of diehard fans who are deeply committed to T’Rain lore and insist that characters must adhere to the game’s original colour palette, is clashing with the Forces of Brightness, a faction fighting for more creativity and brighter colours in T’Rain. Anyone who has ever been a serious part of a fandom can envision the battles over the lore, heated fights about what is canon and what is not, people at each other’s throats over how far one should be able to depart from the lore while still claiming to be a part of the fandom.

The creators of REAMDE take advantage of this volatile climate to launch their virus, a piece of ransomware that demands a payment in T’Rain gold in exchange for restoring access to a victim’s files. Simply out to turn a massive profit, the young men creating the virus could have no idea of the cataclysmic series of dominoes they would set in motion when their virus just happened to infect the wrong computer.

As for me, I’ve now reached page 583 of this brick of a book (1042 pages in my edition, to be exact), and it’s been a wild ride. It’s not at all what I expected of a book about a computer virus. As of about 200 pages in, the whole thing has been reading like one massive climactic scene, with only brief breaks in the action. This can be a pro or a con, depending on what you like. Personally, I enjoy it and find it entertaining, but it can definitely make the reading very dense. I’ve been finding that it takes me a lot of energy to keep track of what’s happening and who all of the characters are, which means I can’t marathon-read REAMDE the way I do some other books. It doesn’t usually take me a week or more to finish a book, even a thick one, so REAMDE is standing out in that regard.

I think Stephenson is walking a careful line between appealing to a tech-savvy audience and alienating the less computer-literate. Does it help if you’re a devoted MMORPG player or have a degree in computer science? Certainly. Do you need one in order to understand REAMDE? Not at all. It will certainly help you understand the dynamics of the Wor (the Earthtone/Bright conflict) if you are or have been a dedicated fandom member, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Stephenson uses Richard himself as a way of bridging the gap—Richard works with a group of tech prodigies who frequently (and believably) descend into jargon when explaining things, but he is not especially tech-savvy himself. Therefore, he frequently asks for simplification and clarification, which ensures that the average reader can still follow what’s going on and why.

I really like Stephenson’s writing itself. He has a great sense of humour and some of his turns of phrase have actually made me laugh out loud. There’s something deeply enjoyable about being made to laugh by an especially dry bit of humour when something awful is happening. It shows true skill on the writer’s part. Despite the significant size of the book, the writing doesn’t feel like it’s dragging along or being bogged down with too many details. There’s just a lot of text because a lot happens.

My only real gripe about the book so far is that a lot of the characters feel a little wooden, and I’m having trouble believing that they would act the way they do in extremely strange and stressful situations. Maybe Stephenson is just trying to create cool, heroic characters, but certain characters really have no good reason to be cool or heroic. I can’t say too much about this without meandering into spoiler territory, but it’s hard to believe how coolly and rationally a lot of the characters act, given that they’re completely out of their depth and are witnessing horrific things. People who have no real reason to have certain skills—e.g. stealth, gun use, deception—conveniently have them anyway. There’s something to be said for shock and survival instinct, which can certainly lead to unpredictable and seemingly emotionally detached behaviour, but even these have their limits, and I feel that several of the characters are pushing those limits. I’m having trouble connecting to several of them on an emotional level, though I really like a few and am waiting anxiously to see how they fare.

Overall, REAMDE has been a surprisingly action-packed, dense read so far. Some of the characters are finally starting to grow on me and feel like real people, though others still feel a little flat and unrealistically coolheaded. I can’t wait to read the rest and see how all of the branching storylines finally come together.

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