Review: Reamde

By » Mon, January 2 2012

reamde 450x670 Review: Reamde

Stephenson’s new(ish) Reamde is an incredibly believable and entertaining book about tactics, and is a pretty big change from his other work (outside of Zodiac or his books as Stephen Bury).

The books that Stephenson made his name on are about ideas. His settings and action, though well-researched and fascinating, tend to take a back seat to explorations of nano-tech, virtual reality, economics, cryptography and information theory, and quantum mechanics and the long now.

Reamde flips this focus, and Stephenson fans may be a little surprised or even disappointed. Which is why it’s taken me three months and a second (thousand page) read to write this review.

At root, Reamde sounds like Neal Stephenson. You’ll find references to Shekondar and Earth. You will meet large-sized hackers, autistic geniuses building game worlds, frighteningly competent military types, quirky women who confuse and inspire men to do great things, and unlikely, but dogged, heroes. The MMO T’Rain, with its mechanics and the personalities behind it, seems like it will become the core idea that Reamde‘s going to explore.

But it doesn’t. Reamde is not about breaking down abstruse concepts using cake and bicycle metaphors. It’s a thriller, a book about events, tactics, how and why things are done.

And it’s greatness. Whether it’s ex-Spetsnaz security consultants killing dudes at a British spy chick’s apartment on Gulangyu Island or the constant logistics of a jihadist cell’s run from Walmart to Walmart through British Columbia, everything is vivid and real. Typical thrillers skip over all the “sort through equipment and pack it and get it ready and repack it and transfer it” stuff. Stephenson doesn’t, but that doesn’t make it a slow read. All the time characters spend screwing around trying to figure out what to do next is vivid and believable. I’ve never been so fascinated by the actual logistics of international bizjet flights. Stephenson’s characters actually have to shit and piss.

If you’ve ever played games like “what if I were kidnapped” or “what if I were stranded in a country where I didn’t speak the language and looked nothing like the natives,” you’ll be in familiar territory. Except you’ll find that Stephenson has stripped all the bullshit heroics right out. Reamde has some of the most believable sequences and details I’ve read in fiction, from brilliant ways to use a camera phone to communicate in a country where you don’t speak the language to nuances of cover and movement in gun fights to realistic chances of escape.

What’s amazing about this book is that it’s so… plausible. Given the characters and the overall situations, it hangs together really well. I didn’t once stop and say “wait, what?”

So read it close. And if you’ve already read it and you’re a Stephenson fan and were disappointed, read it again and pay attention to tactics, because that’s the “big idea” of this book.

Then go outside with your friends and play capture the flag or paintball or airsoft and think, “what would Sokolov or Jones do?”

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