Friday, January 6, 2012

Read me


I barely made it to work today. I wanted to stay home and read Reamde by Neal Stephenson instead.

Stephenson writes big fat books: usually visionary science fiction, but there have been forays into historical fiction, too. His novels are always funny and always bursting with ideas about economics, history, game theory, and engineering. They sometimes sprawl a little, or veer off on strange tangents that, while amusing in themselves, don't take the book where it needs to go. (For instance, Cryptonomicon has a diversion on the proper technique for eating Captain Crunch which, while hilarious, doesn't necessarily serve the plot.)

Reamde, though, is tight. It is Stephenson's version of a high-tech spy thriller, and it is indeed thrilling.

Reamde centers around a popular online multiplayer computer game called T'Rain. The important thing to know about this game is that you, the player, can use real money to buy the money and equipment you need in the game; and game money can in turn be converted back into real money.

(This is clearly inspired by the forbidden economy that has grown up around the game World of Warcraft; the difference is that in T'Rain it's encouraged and highly profitable to the game makers.)

Because of this function, T'Rain becomes a center for money-laundering and cyber-crimes. That’s what the makers of a computer virus called Reamde have in mind. If Reamde infects your computer, all your files will be encrypted. Want the key to unencrypt the files on your computer? Pay a ransom by having your character in T'Rain take gold pieces to a certain location in the game world, where another character will pick them up and convert them back into real-world money. It’s essentially anonymous.

Reamde goes global. It wreaks havoc both in the game world and, when some very bad guys get infected, in the real world too. The bad guys seek to find and punish the people responsible for Reamde. Innocent bystanders get caught up in the bad guys' plans. Things go awry for everyone.

Reamde is not one of those thrillers in which someone's brilliant strategy comes off perfectly. In Reamde, most people don't have brilliant strategies; they just act, and their actions have unintended consequences. Strategies collide unexpectedly with other people's strategies, creating violent cascades of unintended consequences that splash all over the world. Russian mafia, Chinese hackers, American gun nuts, global jihadists, spies from various countries - all get dragged in to the mess caused by Reamde.

The action never stops for a moment of this 1000-page novel. If you like smart, funny books, Stephenson is always a good bet. If you like smart, funny, impossible-to-put-down thrillers, place a hold on Reamde now.

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