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Originally published Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Book review

'Reamde': criminality in a digital world

"Reamde," the 1,000-plus-page thriller by Seattle author Neal Stephenson, tells the story of a gaming magnate who becomes enmeshed in a multi-stranded criminal enterprise. Stephenson will read Sept. 20 at Town Hall Seattle and Oct. 8 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Neal Stephenson

The author of "Reamde" will appear at two locations: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 or free with purchase of "Reamde" ($35), (www.ubookstore.com or 206-634-3400). And 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free; purchase of "Reamde" is required to get into the signing line (206-366-3333).
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'Reamde'

by Neal Stephenson

Morrow, 1,056 pp., $35

Can a 1,000-plus-page thriller be called fast-paced? If it's Neal Stephenson's "Reamde," the answer's yes. This latest novel by the Seattle author sometimes called the "geek Homer" revolves around a whirlpool of criminality: A hacker gone bad promises stolen credit-card numbers to a renegade member of the Russian mafia; professional players of an online game launch a virus-powered blackmail scheme; a fanatical terrorist's bomb lab explodes, taking down an apartment building and mobilizing multiple international intelligence organizations. These situations feed into one another, entangling a cast of believably eccentric characters.

Chief among them are fifty-something gaming magnate Richard Forthrast (who made his initial investment capital by ferrying marijuana across the Idaho/British Columbia border) and Zula, his adopted-Eritrean-orphan niece. Richard and Zula share "Reamde's" focus with many other characters, all with engaging back stories and functional motivation.

True to Stephenson's baroque style, even the slightest of the book's narrative threads takes entertaining twists, and the main plot lines crisscross crazily. Unexpected turns happen so quickly there's no time to wish for a more streamlined approach.

Zula's ne'er-do-well lover wants to sell ripped-off credit-card info to gangsters. Richard's geologically correct virtual world is where online gamers extort money from other players — including Zula's lover and his thuggish customers.

Zula inadvertently pits these Russian gangsters against the bomb-building Muslim-extremist Welshman, becoming his hostage in the process. Richard can save her by leading this terrorist through the mountains to his U.S. targets.

Among the novel's many other movers and shakers is Chinese "gold farmer" Marlon. True-life gold farmers play online games to win virtual currency, which they then sell to better-off players for real cash. They're found in fellow speculative fiction author Cory Doctorow's "For the Win," too, though Doctorow's characters are clearly oppressed sweatshop workers, while Stephenson's seem more a lamentable feature of the modern scene.

Like William Gibson, another science-fiction writer beloved of the digerati, he excels at depicting realistic fictional worlds via details such as the console TV Forthrast's father uses as a plinth for a flat-screen plasma unit. And like Gibson, Stephenson appears quite comfortable telling spy stories.

"Zodiac," Stephenson's second novel, was also a (much shorter) thriller. It didn't cause the widespread excitement that greeted "Snowcrash," "Diamond Age" and his most recent book, "Anathem." Those three titles were unmistakably sf, which may be why they got that kind of attention.

But another best-seller, "Cryptonomicon," dealt with World War II cryptography and covert operations as well as cutting-edge science.

"Reamde" (the blackmailers' misspelling of the common filename "readme") isn't really a departure for Stephenson, then, in terms of its subject matter. Nor does it depart from his usual style, or the typically diverse racial makeup of his characters (though it would be nice if at least one of the female leads paired up with a nonwhite male).

"Reamde" is pure Neal Stephenson. Once again the geek Homer has produced a novel worth its every page: large enough to lose yourself in and engaging enough that you'll be glad you did.

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