CBC Books exclusive: Neal Stephenson

Despite clocking in at a dense 1,000 pages (seriously, bodybuilders should bench press this thing), Neal Stephenson's latest novel Reamde is a fast-paced techno-thriller full of Chinese hackers, Russian mobsters, pot-smuggling draft dodgers gone good, unexpected villains and online gaming. In this CBC Books exclusive, Neal Stephenson sat down with CBC Vancouver's Sterling Eyford  to chat about gold and the complexities of modern online gaming.


The title of Stephenson's new novel refers to a computer virus that a hacker uses to infect a popular multi-player computer game. It allows the hacker to gain access to players' files and then hold them for ransom.

"This virus is an annoyance for most people, but it turns out to be a serious problem for one very powerful gentleman who decides that rather than just suffer the effects of this virus like everyone else, he's going to track down the teenaged Chinese kid who wrote the virus and get revenge," Stephenson explained. "And adventure and hilarity ensue. I don't know where to stop when I'm trying to sum up a book like this."

It's nothing new for a Stephenson book to be thick and action-packed, and this one marks a return to the "techno-thriller" genre that he started out writing. "My very first published novel was a near future thriller-type book, and half of Cryptonomicon is set in the present day and deserves that description too," he said. "So though I have done other things, historical novels [like The Baroque Cycle trilogy], and futuristic novels [such as The Diamond Age], this was just a way of coming back to an area that I've worked in before and felt like working in again."

Stephenson was attracted to the complexity of modern game design, with its thorough world-building and stand-alone economies, which sometimes attract "gold miners," or players who play to build up credits to sell to other players. The connection between virtual economies (like the ones found in online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life) and real-world money is something Stephenson has explored before.

"I started addressing it in Cryptonomicon because I thought it would be interesting to examine this bridge between the virtual world and the world of real money," he explained. "It's just like having a laugh over my obsession with gold and currency [gold is also a major theme in The Baroque Cycle], to take it into the digital realm and have this gold be pretend gold pieces in a medieval fantasy game."

Pop culture frequently portrays online gamers as weirdos, losers or loners, but Stephenson doesn't buy that. He says he'd rather reflect the reality of the variety of people who actually do play games online. "These games are being enjoyed by not just the stereotypical nerd, but senior citizens, buttoned-down middle management types, military people," he said. And yes, he does play himself. "I play, although I don't really rise to the level of a gamer. I can be easily, humiliatingly defeated by any self-respecting 10-year-old boy in the world."

But Stephenson has enormous respect for the sprawling worlds created for online games. "Gamers have gotten a lot more demanding and sophisticated. They want a detailed world, with documentation and maps, and while they're playing, they want to be able to pause the action to search for background info on the plot they're acting out," he said. "So the trend is in the direction of games that are informed by a sense of world-building and story."

Kind of like writing a novel.

reamde cover.jpg


by Neal Stephenson

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From the publisher:

"Neal Stephenson, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Anathem, returns to the terrain of his groundbreaking novels Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon to deliver a high-intensity, high-stakes, action-packed adventure thriller in which a tech entrepreneur gets caught in the very real crossfire of his own online war game.

In 1972, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa farming clan, fled to the mountains of British Columbia to avoid the draft. A skilled hunting guide, he eventually amassed a fortune by smuggling marijuana across the border between Canada and Idaho. As the years passed, Richard went straight and returned to the States after the U.S. government granted amnesty to draft dodgers. He parlayed his wealth into an empire and developed a remote resort in which he lives. He also created T'Rain, a multibillion-dollar, massively multiplayer online role-playing game with millions of fans around the world.

But T'Rain's success has also made it a target. Hackers have struck gold by unleashing REAMDE, a virus that encrypts all of a player's electronic files and holds them for ransom. They have also unwittingly triggered a deadly war beyond the boundaries of the game's virtual universe -- and Richard is at ground zero..."

Read more at HarperCollins Canada.

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