Over the past few decades, Neal Stephenson has secured his place as a deep thinker among the speculative elite. He’s done so most notably with works that are set anywhere but the here-and-now: the dystopian future of 1992’s Snow Crash, the less dystopian, nano-technology-dominated future of 1996’s The Diamond Age and the late 17th-century milieu of The Baroque Cycle trilogy.

With his latest book, Reamde, Stephenson goes contemporary, and though this is by no means his first foray into the plausibly current, the result will likely win him plenty of new fans, even if some of his old ones find cause to grumble.

Reamde starts with protagonist Richard Forthrast, a man whose fortune began with drug smuggling and has grown to absurd proportions due to his role in creating a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game called T’Rain. (Think World of Warcraft, the next iteration.) By novel’s end, a veritable United Nations of engaging characters has been introduced. Foremost of these is Richard’s niece, Zula, an Eritrean orphan adopted into the Forthrast clan, but plenty of others have their time to shine, including a Russian “security expert,” a Hungarian IT expert for shady enterprises, an MI-6 spy, and the Chinese hacker responsible for the titular virus. (The antagonists, led by a Welsh terrorist bomber, aren’t too shabby, either.)

At times, Reamde feels like a seminar in “Advanced MMO Theory and Execution,” and indeed, this is probably the most speculative aspect of Reamde. Some of the explication is needed, especially for readers unfamiliar with MMOs, but mostly, these sections are more page-slogging than page-turning. Fortunately, the pages do turn, and the expertly paced thriller reasserts itself.

Therein may lie the problem for diehard fans of Stephenson’s early efforts. Reamde is a well-wrought, conventional thriller that has much more in common with Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (or with Tom Clancy, minus the technophilia) than with most of Stephenson’s previous fare. Reamde is Stephenson, minus the big questions and “then” or “there” settings. For some, that will be a problem. Regardless, Reamde is a mostly riveting read, guaranteed to harvest a crop of new readers for its author. And, grumbling or not, the old ones aren’t going anywhere, either.

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