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'REAMDE' Review: Genre Mashup Explores Character, Radical Ideologies

Rice Krispie Treats. They are the perfect metaphor for Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, “REAMDE.” Stephenson likes to make poetic illustrations about junk food in some of his books, most famously his paean to Cap’n Crunch in the “Cryptonomicon.” This time around, it’s the aforementioned Treats, an amalgam of two fully formed foods, puffed rice cereal and marshmallows. “REAMDE” mixes the international thriller and geek gamer novels, seamlessly blending the two with only occasionally forays into obscure tech-speak.

The book, like all of Stephenson’s, is extremely character driven, flipping from one viewpoint to another, often in the same time sequence, allowing the reader to experience the action from multiple viewpoints. It revolves around a growing cast of characters, starting with former marijuana smuggler, now online pole playing game mogul, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast. He brings along his adopted niece, former Eritrean refugee — now Midwestern girl — Zula Forthrast.

The motley lot expands to include an ex-Spetsnaz security expert, a Hungarian hacker, a Hakka guide, a Chinese virus righter, a Welsh convert to Islam cum-terrorist mastermind, an MI-6 agent, and an Irish American CIA agent.

One of Stephenson’s greatest talents is on display in this novel. He has an uncanny ability to take normal people and show how they are able to achieve extraordinary things when put in extraordinary situations. Unlike the ubermen of Heinlein and Hubbard, Stephenson’s protagonists are completely fallible. They make mistakes, break nails, fall over, and land face first in the mud. Yet, they still manage, barely, to make it out alive. Well, most of them.

This novel isn’t as groundbreaking as the one that put Stephenson on the geek radar, his cyberpunk thriller “Snow Crash,” based in a dystopian future. Nor does it deliver with the super technical red meat of cryptography that defined “The Cryptonomicon.” With a few minor forays into talk of secure network protocols and some other technical minutiae, “REAMDE” is much more accessible to a broader audience than most of his other works.

What really helps set “REAMDE” apart, though, is its take on religious extremism. There are bad guys in the book. There is no mistaking who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. The villains are Islamic terrorists who have no qualms murdering innocents, rape for ideological reasons, and kill whoever gets in their way. It was surprising, actually, as every other potentially bad actor is given a positive spin. Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers, CIA network specialists, they’re all good guys, regardless of their foibles.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Christian isolationists living off the grid in the Idaho panhandle. They happily refer to themselves as wingnuts and don’t take themselves too seriously. They do take their individual rights and religious beliefs very seriously. The only really derogatory mention of them is by one character who refers to them as “Christian Taliban,” but he, too, goes to them for help and appreciates their frontier spirit in the end.

The book comes in at a whopping 1,056 pages, but the action never stops and the enjoyment never lags. The characters are believable, the story implausible and the little details that Stephenson fills the book with are, as always, breathtaking. If you have a few days to spare and don’t mind getting nothing else done, I highly recommend it for some good fun.

Content Warning: There are frequent uses of coarse language and very graphic descriptions of violence.

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