Sunday, April 05, 2015

Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

When I was reading this book last December, up popped a spookily coincident NPR story about new developments in ransomware, where hackers would only take payments in bitcoin to free up your locked files.  Bitcoin, meanwhile, isn't far removed in either concept or practice from in-world video game currency, and we all remember the karmic hilarity when its largest exchange, Mt. Gox (still hanging on to its original name, when it was made for investing virtual gaming loot), went ass-up a couple of years ago, with hundreds of thousands of electronic Fun Bux still unaccounted for.  In Reamde, Stephenson only got ahead of these stories by a couple of years.  Science fiction?  Maybe just barely.

The story is set in motion when reclusive billionaire Richard Forthrast and his niece Zula inadvertently cross paths with a small-time criminal connected to the Russian mafia.  Chases and movie violence follow, but the nut of it all is that our short-for-this-novel thug had been contracted to deliver some data to the mobsters, but it got locked up in ransomware that infected his computer while he was up the night before playing fictional online RPG, T'Rain.  Zula winds up kidnapped and dragged along with the Russians as they look for these hackers to get the data, and a growing cast of interesting characters scramble to respond.  (It already sounds complicated, right?)  Will the kidnappers realize they've got the niece of the guy who struck it filthy rich inventing the game?

And here's a confession: I played World of Warcraft sporadically for a recent year or two.  I didn't really play it right*--because hey, it's me--but I can certainly attest how compelling is the sheer size of the world and all its official supporting background lore, as well as the organic depth it has grown from all the people wandering around and feeling out the stories.  The fictional T'Rain is fashioned as the next generation of WoW, and Stephenson delivers a pile of backstory on how something so broad could come together. 

We're introduced to many of the fictional game developers, various sorts of geek obsessives who make Richard Forthrast (Vietnam-era draft dodger, erstwhile weed smuggler, with his family of borderline survivalist crackpots) look like a grounded member of normal society.  The game world is built on an inappropriately thorough (and otherwise uselessly fictional) geological model developed by one of its founding geniuses.  One conceit of T'Rain is that it does its world-building from, literally, the ground up--that is, it is a planet which generates its mineral wealth (a big deal when everything in it priced in gold pieces) by some academic-level approximation of natural processes.  The reason it isn't called Terrain is that Richard also brought on a couple of by-the-pound fantasy authors to crank out a world's worth of cultural backstory, one of whom is a prolific hack, unapologetic about chucking apostrophes into every proper noun.  (The other fancies himself a scholar and a linguist, and they drive each other amusingly nuts.)  Sadly, these guys amount to not much more than subplots, but it's a secondary challenge to somehow fold players' rogue behaviors into the proper game.

The other conceit of the game is that it's built to encourage gold farming.  Gps are transferrable to the outside world as currency, and players can fall under one anothers' vassalage.  Low-level users are effectively paid a pittance to mine out T'Rain (often using bots), while players with higher purposes typically pay dues and have better quests.  If WoW once gave economists a small thrill to observe it as a microcosm of a regulated economy, they'd go nuts about T'Rain, which has a permanent labor class and extraction-based wealth baked right into it.  Stephenson is a good enough writer not to make this into a polemic, although I think he wants it seen as more mutually beneficial than fundamentally unequal.  He does wind out a longer picture of the players behind all the exploited toons--the world where the Chinese hackers grew up, but those guys frankly end up okay.

So anyway, the key to some criminal filing cabinet is locked up in T'Rain somewhere, and all the best scenes in the book--mostly because they're so strange--have the characters chasing one another around in the game environment.  Outside, there is a real-world pursuit going on too, and we see these hackers and trolls get to see fleshed out as real people, which is something anyone who's spent time online wonders about.  (It doesn't take long for us to get squarely sympathetic with this guy who basically writes spam emails for a living.)  There's a tightly-plotted novel in those events, and some logical conclusions. 

And instead, we have a thousand-page monster here.  It's an undeniably entertaining one (this is possibly the fastest kilopage I've ever been through--I was up late reading it every night), but there's a great big action movie that grows out of the central plot like an aggressive tumor, complete with spies and terrorist extremists and numerous deaths just off screen, just to show how evil these terrorist assholes are.  It's enjoyable as entertainment, and I'm glad that Stephenson takes moments in all this to point out actual physics of ballistics and human endurance, but there's a sense of just cranking it all out at top speed.  Romances don't really go anywhere, some of those natural conclusions are forgotten about (why didn't Richard take Marlon the hacker under his wing, just like he did his niece?  that would have been perfect) and we kind of forget about all those eccentric game developers too.  And why are the baddies so cartoonishly evil, when there's such rich comedy to be mined by pitting them against the American version of jihadis (Richard's more eccentric relatives) in the final showdown?  Especially considering that getting the whole cast to this improbable point took so much effort.

I won't fail to recommend this one (and Stephenson isn't known for his endings anyway), but I would have enjoyed the carefully tied-together version more.  I like to think he was writing as fast as he could to keep current events from catching up to his speculation.

*I think to get the most of any MMORPG, you really have to go in for the team aspect of it, block off time, and talk out loud to others.  Instead, I mostly played as a means to randomly and quietly get away from people, which is pretty much the opposite thing.  You can play WoW as a solo quest game, but it only goes so far that way.  I still miss wandering around sometimes, though.