So, I used to really, really like Neal Stephenson. I read all of his earlier books (even Zodiac
and The Big U
). But somewhere along about the Baroque Cycle, I fell out of love with him -- not that he stopped being a good storyteller, but man those books were long and took forever to get anywhere.
Anyway, picked up Reamde
hoping to get some of the old Stephenson cyber-thriller love again. And Reamde
is a very good tale, action-packed and filled with a ton of interesting characters in a plot that wends its way through the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, and the World of Warcraft.
Though there are a number of characters who have interweaving threads throughout the novel, the ostensible protagonist is Zula Forthrast, the adopted Eritrean niece of Richard Forthrast, a billionaire gaming tycoon who funded his start-up with money earned by smuggling pot across the US-Canada border. There is also an ex-Spatnaz Russian "security consultant" who starts out as hired muscle for the Russian Mafia but ends up being one of the good guys, a Chinese-British female MI6 agent who shags like James Bond, a Boston Southie CIA agent, a black Welsh Muslim leader of an international terrorist network, a Hungarian computer hacker who used to provide IT support for the Russian mob, a Chinese hacker who wrote a virus to extort money from American MMORPG addicts, and a Chinese tour guide who got dragged into the whole thing by accident.
That should tell you why this book is so long - it takes hundreds of pages to set up all the different plot threads that introduce these characters, connect them one way or the other, and then bring them all to the wilds of Idaho for a big blazing showdown, with much added firepower contributed by the heavily armed Christian fundamentalists who are as thick in the area as cougars and grizzly bears.
This book should be geek heaven: it's pretty much non-stop hacking + massively gratuitous expenditures of ordnance, with not one, not two, but three highly capable hot chicks.
I liked it a lot. It's a great story. Not a single character was boring. People die messily. There are heroes and villains and lots of things going boom.
But it's no Cryptonomicon
, and the similarities were great enough that I cannot help comparing them and reading Readme
as basically an updated rehash of Stephenson's first great sprawling cyber-thriller.
Thing is, Cryptonomicon
was not unflawed either, but it was this gonzo uber-geeky techno-thriller back when Linux was something weird that only the cool kids knew about and "cryptography" was black magic used by hackers, terrorists, and secret agents, and it had Heinleinian women and World War II flashbacks and a hunt for Nazi gold and it was just so magnificently over-the-top with its nerd hero and making fun of dot-commers and soapboxing about post-modernist Hobbits, I freaking loved
seems to recycle a lot of the ingredients (not to mention character archetypes) of Cryptonomicon
, and if you liked Cryptonomicon
, you should like this book too, but Reamde
just seems to lack that edge
that made Cryptonomicon
a classic. I can totally see Cryptonomicon
still being regarded as a classic years from now, even though it's already pretty dated with its long-winded expositions on public key encryption and open source operating systems. I am not sure Reamde
's intersection of globalism and organized crime and the far-reaching tentacles of the War on Terror, told via Chinese gold farmers vs. Russian mafia vs. Islamic terrorists vs. American bootstrapping nerds, won't just read as dated years from now. (Well, one can only hope the War on Terror will be dated years from now - probably not, though.) It's all story and Stephenson stills loves his Heinleinesque characters (while thankfully not being quite as sex-obsessed as old RAH), and in many ways it's a more matured, polished novel than Cryptonomicon
, but, but... it just didn't quite hit five-star awesomeness for me. It's a really good book, but it isn't full of awesome rants and absurdly capable but endearingly messed up characters and audacious ideas that will make you think you're joining the cool kids club by reading it. So, I give Reamde
a very solid 4 stars. Reamde
reads like slightly mellowed Neal Stephenson, or one of Michael Crichton's better novels if Michael Crichton had ever not been a hack.