Christmas Book Review

December 11, 2011

Books make good gifts if well suited to their recipients’ reading habits. Here’s a current favourite, a big, honking adventure running heavily to geeks and gun nuts:

Neal Stephenson. REAMDE. Harper Collins. 2011. $35 USD.

Neal Stephenson first came to my attention when a librarian said, “My husband loves this book.” She handed me Cryptonomicon, a tale about Alan Turing and the young mathematicians assembled at Bletchley Park in England during WWII and asked to break the codes used by the Axis powers.

Their ultimate task was to crack the code used in the German Enigma coding machines to communicate with the U-Boat fleet. England’s fate lay in the balance. Their invention of a steam-powered computational device based upon a pipe organ led eventually to the development of the modern computer.

Stephenson is comfortable with the huge canvas and several generations of characters involved in the evolution of an idea.  Crytonomicon goes from Bletchley Park through to a project laying data cables across the Pacific and a massive Indonesian gold mine.

My son and I have read all of Stephenson’s novels, and eagerly awaited REAMDE’s arrival.  So it had huge shoes to fill.

The first chapter is vintage Stephenson in its ingenuity: a shadowy, rich and oft-divorced uncle hesitantly returns to a farm in northern Idaho for the annual Thanksgiving family reunion and dinner. Formalities completed, everyone quickly dresses in heavy clothes, grabs all available firearms and lines up along the creek bed for the target shoot, an afternoon in which everyone shoots ordinary and exotic firearms for the sheer fun of it. As supplies run down the uncle slips away to the nearest Walmart to buy more ammunition. It’s clear the guy is loaded and a bit embarrassed about his wealth.

Other family members know about him primarily from his Wikipedia entry, which he claims has a number of errors of fact.

Gradually it emerges that Richard Fortrast has made his way in the world from draft dodger and B.C. hunting guide to marijuana smuggler, to developer of the largest and most lucrative video game on the planet.

We also meet, Zula, a bright and very adaptable young woman from central Africa adopted in her early teens by Richard’s sister and still troubled by her early life as a refugee.

Shooting up a ditch with a Glock isn’t likely to carry my attention much beyond the first chapter, but Richard’s video game empire is pretty interesting. The big innovation of T’Rain is the legalization of the sale of game property outside of the game world, something rigidly forbidden in other game platforms.

Seems many players of T’Rain do so professionally, gaming to earn weapons, spells and currency which can be traded for cash to other players through a number of electronic outlets, the most common a simple charge card credit. Richard’s particular genius has been in the melding of the economy of the game world with the somewhat more literal economy outside it.

Other characters arrive. The rather shifty boyfriend of the niece gets her into an awkward situation with a Russian gangster in urgent need of cash to fill an unexplainable gap in Mob books. His online payoff comes to a sudden halt when REAMDE, a new computer virus, encrypts everyone’s computer files until each machine user coughs up a ransom – in T’Rain gold, to be paid within the T’Rain game platform.

In a rage the mobster rounds up a group of mercenaries and sets out to find the writer of the virus, kill him, and complete the deal which he believes can restore his standing with the Mob. All signs point to a city in China where a large number of hackers make a living on T-Rain.

We also pick up a British MI6 employee who can easily pass herself off as a Chinese national. She’s on the scene, not because of REAMDE, but as part of a world-wide search for an Islamist terrorist, Jones.

Inevitably the Russian mobster and his mercenaries interact with the Chinese hackers and the terrorists. The leader of the mercenaries turns out to be quite an interesting character.

Our heroes of various stripes do innovative things with ships, airplanes, mountain bikes, guns, hand-to-hand combat, computers and an occasional hand grenade.

Expect to be surprised.  For example in this novel the heavily armed redneck survivalists are actually pretty good guys with solid family and religious values.  An adventure novel sprawls over many exotic settings, and this one spends time in China and Indonesia, but the main action rotates around the short stretch of border B.C. shares with Idaho.

Stephenson plugs the latest cool car (Scion xB), runs through a huge list of highly-desirable firearms, sends a group of unsuspecting geeks to an Indonesian sex-tourism hotspot, crashes around in snow-covered woods in an F-350 pickup tricked out with tracks, and generally has a good time.

It’s a fine read for those who like new gadgets, computers, globetrotting stories and unlikely ideas which work.

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If your favourite quote is Thoreau’s “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” you’ll probably like the following.

Rod

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The way in which Yul had decided to join us on our journey north was strange to me.  There had been no rational process, no marshaling of evidence, no weighing of options.  But that was how Yul lived his whole life.  He had not-I realized-been invited by Gnel to come out and pay us a visit at the fueling station.  He had just shown up.  He did a new thing with a new set of people every day of his life.  And that made him just as different from the people in the traffic jam as I was.

So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes, and tried to fathom what it would be like.  Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts.  All of the story had been bled out of their lives.  That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy.  But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this:  not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will.  The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story.  If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong:  a blackout, a strike, a spree killing.  The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.  People who couldn’t live without story had been driven into the concents or into jobs like Yul’s.  All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Saeculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion.  How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure?  Something with a beginning, middle and end in which you played a significant part?  We avout had it ready made because we were a part of this project of learning new things.  Even if it didn’t always move fast enough for people like Jesry, it did move.  You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story.   Yul got all of this for free by living his stories from day to day, and the only drawback was that the world held his stories to be of small account.  Perhaps that was why he felt such a compulsion to tell them, not just about his own exploits in the wilderness, but those of his mentors.

Neal Stephenson.  Anathem.  HarperCollins.  2008.  p. 414