There's this moment about a third of the way into Neal Stephenson's gargantuan new novel, REAMDE--we've been following Zula Forthrast, who's been kidnapped by Russian mobsters along with the boyfriend she'd just dumped because she found out he sold them a batch of stolen credit card numbers. The problem is, when Peter handed over the computer files with the credit card numbers, he accidentally infected the bagman's computer with a virus (named REAMDE, a deliberate misspelling of the common README file name). Once Zula and Peter figured out that the hackers who created the virus are in the city of Xiamen, the Russians smuggled them into China and forced them to help pinpoint the hackers' exact location. The confrontation is just about to take place, when Stephenson suddenly punches the literary equivalent of the nitro button, and this already engrossing technothriller is escalated into an even more amazing action extravaganza, with a jaw-dropping effect on the reader.
But wait: that recap left out all the equally fascinating plot threads about T'Rain, the massively multiplayer online role playing game founded by Zula's uncle Richard. T'Rain has a thriving economy based on trading virtual gold for real cash that the hackers are hoping to exploit, and it's also undergoing a massive cultural upheaval rooted in a dispute between the two bestselling fantasy authors Richard and his company retained to create the MMPORG's backstory. Granted, this sounds a bit confusing when you try to boil it down to 200 words, but Stephenson doesn't have any of those constraints. He can, and does, go into extreme detail about everything from technical processes to the intricate choreography of a gunfight. It's not just about showing readers that Stephenson knows his stuff, but about a genuine effort to make sure that they get it, too, and can thus better appreciate its awesomeness.
Stephenson handles all these storylines with a narrative structure that resembles a Quentin Tarantino film, with every backtrack or digression serving a precise, clarifying purpose. The comparison is also apt given how many of the novel's characters seem to recognize that, by accident or choice, their lives have become an action movie, and how quickly they embrace its patterns (along with its dialogue). Although Stephenson does eventually ease off the throttle after the major plot twist hinted at above, by then he's already built up enough momentum to keep readers engaged for another 700 pages. Bracket out a long weekend for yourself; once you get started on REAMDE, you'll want to see it all the way through. --Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com