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Gory Thriller Has Jet Set Meet Internet, Vegas Terrorism: Books

The cover jacket of the novel "Reamde" by Neal Stephenson. Source: Harper Collins via Bloomberg

Guns, guns, guns. “Reamde,” the intercontinental terrorist techno-thriller from Neal Stephenson, has lots of guns. Kalashnikovs, of course, plus AR-15s, Makarovs, Glocks, Heckler & Kochs, Sig Sauers and even a Wild West five-shooter.

“Reamde” is, in fact, one big, carefully choreographed, jet-set square-dance of mayhem, taking the reader to China, Russia, the Philippines and the mountains of British Columbia.

Also Iowa. That’s the family home of Richard Forthrast, an online gaming zillionaire with a murky past. Richard invested the profits from his pot-smuggling business in a ski resort, and combined his interests in money laundering and video games to start a company that operates “T’Rain” -- a massive multiplayer online game like “World of Warcraft” -- where players can turn the virtual gold they obtain on their adventures into actual money.

Marlon, a hacker from Xiamen, China, infects this virtual realm with the typographically inept REAMDE virus, scrambling the files on players’ computers and demanding a ransom in virtual gold to unscramble them. An infected thumb drive, a lousy boyfriend and some stolen credit-card numbers send Richard’s niece Zula, an Eritrean orphan, into the hands of an inept Russian gangster bent on punishing Marlon.

The plan goes wrong and Zula is kidnapped by Abdallah Jones, a Muslim terrorist mastermind from Wales bent on getting to the U.S. for one final nihilistic act of violence, possibly in Las Vegas. The hunt is on. Get the girl, kill the baddies.

Good Villain

As with “Paradise Lost” or any Batman movie, the villain is the best-rendered character in the story. Jones is a violent, hyper-confident avenger whose religious and political motivations fade before his ravenous appetite for murder.

After he, his henchmen and his hostage finish compiling a shopping list of supplies they need at Wal-Mart, Jones blithely remarks: “Will there be anything else, or can I get back to planning atrocities?”

The story also features a resourceful tour guide caught up by events, an Anglo-Chinese secret agent and a Soviet army veteran with a conscience. There’s a flatness to some of the characters, but they never slip into types and their motivations remain clear, which is all we ask from people in a thriller.

SF Departure

Still, fans expecting Stephenson’s usual science fiction and historical fiction may be disappointed by the here-and-now of “Reamde.” In “Anathem” he created an entire world with its own intellectual history, and in the Baroque Cycle he mined the minds of 17th-century Europe. “Reamde” instead dwells on contemporary topics: sex tourism, Chinese Internet bars, Russian martial arts, fuse-boxes. And guns.

Stephenson engages some greater themes. The smallness of a globe bound together by computers and private jets contrasts neatly with the vastness of trackless woods and treacherous mountainsides, where it can take an hour to travel a mile. Aspects of the exotic virtual world of T’Rain inform everyday realities such as the local Wal-Mart, which Richard compares to “an interdimensional portal to every other Wal-Mart in the known universe.”

Because Stephenson is over-fond of explaining things, these digressions can slow the plot; but don’t worry, he returns to the shooting quickly enough. And it’s not just guns, of course. That would be tedious. Stephenson also deploys rocket-propelled grenades, knives and cars as weapons. Also, a “Love Actually” DVD. That movie is scarier than it looks.

“Reamde” is published by William Morrow (1,044 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Andrew Dunn is an editor at Bloomberg news. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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