Ahh, Neal Stephenson. Nerdy author par excellence, writer of books filled to the brim with excessive detail. Flipping through his work, you’ll often find the narrative buttressed with maps, dramatis personae, and maybe even a graph or two. Not this book. REAMDE, though it takes its digressions, has rather more in common with a tightly-plotted thriller than Stephenson’s earlier work. It’s a beefy, nerdy action story that happens to revolve around an MMO.
Stephenson books are divisive. Critics call them nerd fodder, snobbier nerds call them pandering. Spoiler alert: REAMDE is both of those things and it’s great. It brings the goods - strong plotting, well-written action sequences, and nerdy systems to geek out over - without the common Tom Clancy-esque glaze of uncomfortable politics and cookie-cutter characters. Yes, this story is detail laden, but they are enjoyable details.
REAMDE often avoids Stephenson’s usual foibles. This may not have the depth of an Anathem or a Baroque Cycle, but you won’t have to learn a sci-fi vocabulary or distinguish between the members of the Hanoverian dynasty. It’s purely a fun ride.
Well, once it hits its stride, anyways. Like most of Stephenson’s work, the beginning can feel turgid and interminable. Take my advice and set aside a couple of hours for your first sitting. Once Stephenson does get rolling, he’s always been fun to read, even if you don’t understand what he’s writing or find it implausible. Suspend your disbelief a bit - I found him to be an excellent guide through the worlds of the Russian mafia, flight planning, extreme libertarianism and, incidentally, MMO design.
One of the primary characters of REAMDE is Richard Forthrast, the founder/chairman of a gaming company. His flagship product is T’Rain, an MMO that maintains World of Warcraft’s fantasy themes while advancing the genre in some surprising ways.
Of course, ‘advancing’ is a debatable term. Other than the super-detailed terrain technology that gives T’Rain its name, the principle difference of Forthrast’s model is a kind of controlled, legalized RMT. It’s a feudal virtual economy, with liege lords ruling over vassals, and in-game currency easily convertible to real cash. T’Rain becomes the first single-sharded MMO to bridge the gap between Asian and Western audiences.
“[The game was] as accessible to the all-important Chinese teenager market as it was to the podgy middle-aged Westerners who were dependent upon those Chinese teenagers for virtual gold. But on the other hand, those kids in China were actually making money; playing the game, to them, was a source of income rather than an expense, and most of them were perfectly happy with the arrangement.”
“REAMDE” itself is a virus that emerges within this 'free RMT/pay-to-win' universe. It’s ingenious. I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that, as we EVE players know, our real and virtual worlds can interact in some messy ways.
Forthrast is probably the most interesting character, but REAMDE is full of them. Spies, mercenaries, hackers, gun nuts, terrifyingly maladjusted fantasy novelists. This can be a difficult book at first, but if you invest the effort, it will pay off (sound familiar, EVE players?).
The audiobook isn’t bad, incidentally. If you’re like me and you need extra stimulation while you’re camping a gate or ratting or some other mind-numbing EVE task, I very much recommend it.