Wednesday, August 23, 2017


by Neal Stephenson
Recommended Ages: 14+

What do Islamist terrorists, Chinese hackers, Russian gangsters, British spies, mountain militiamen of the American northwest, and creatures from a medieval sword-and-sorcery fantasy world have in common? Improbable as it may seem, they all get caught up in one big, complicated, deadly mess when a piece of low-rent ransomware (bascially, "Pay us $73 and we'll send you the decryption key so you can have your computer files back") targets users of a massively multiplayer online role-play game called T-Rain.

T-Rain was designed by its founder, Richard Forthrast, to make the most of a fact resisted by the proprietors of other online games, such as World of Warcraft: the tendency of certain users to try to monetize their game-play. Underlying all the game-world's medieval combat simulation stuff is a detailed geological structure purpose-built to allow young Chinese operators to mine virtual gold and turn it into real-world money. That isn't the only thing the game has going for it, though. It also has a mythology designed by not one, but two bestselling fantasy authors, and a user interface so true to life that it has actually been used to beef up airport security. But thanks to some technobabble that is not within my powers of description, it also exposes some of its users to a cyberattacker calling himself the Troll, who requires his victims to transfer the ransom money for all their saved files via an in-game cash drop. When thousands of characters suddenly show up at a certain place in the fantasy world of T-Rain, loaded with gold, hordes of bandits take advantage and a chaotic melee breaks out.

As generally happens in a situation like this, one of the first victims is an associate of a Russian mob boss named Ivanov, who instantly blames Forthrast's adopted niece Zula and her slightly dodgy, internet security consultant boyfriend Peter. Held at gunpoint, Zula narrows down the Troll's whereabouts to the Chinese city of Xiamen, where the couple is illegally whisked forthwith, joined by a Hungarian hacker named Csongor, a former Soviet special forces soldier named Sokolov, and the latter's team of armed bodyguards. There they use wardriving to narrow down the Troll's location even further. But at the last moment, Zula lies to Ivanov about which of two possible apartments houses the hive of hackers who have inconvenienced Ivanov. As a result, Sokolov and his men find themselves in a firefight against a jihadist cell headed by Interpol's most wanted terrorist, a black Welshman named Abdallah Jones. When the building blows up around them, Zula falls out of the frying pan into the fire - which is to say, she becomes Jones' hostage in a madcap flight from China to Canada.

A stupendously complicated plot then unfolds, with several groups, pairs of people, and individuals converging at a point on the border between British Columbia and Idaho, where it all ends in blood. Along the way, we meet a member of the Hakka tribe of "big-footed women," a CIA snake-eater in a remote corner of the Philippines, an icky busload of white male sex tourists and their very young Asian escorts, a motley crew of Islamists from a variety of backgrounds, and a female spy who goes off the reservation to hunt down the most dangerous man on earth. Also, there's a man-eating cougar in there somewhere. Get used to flinching. You'll be doing a lot of it.

Three brief phrases in this book stuck in my mind, illustrating why the language-mad side of me fell in love-at-first-book with its author. Two of them came from the same chapter, around the middle of the book: "repurposed cuisine" and "sous-novelists." The third popped up closer to the end: "vehicular mosh pit." Even without knowing anything else about the book, I would be interested just to see what a writer who thinks up phrases like that will do. They aren't very big spoilers, considering the audio-book version (read by Malcolm Hillgartner) consisted of 32 CDs and lasted me more than one and a half round trips between southern Missouri and northern Minnesota.

Neal Stephenson, whose fantasy novels I understand are pigeon-holed alternately as "cyberpunk" and "baroque," is also the author (or at least co-author) of the "Baroque Cycle" of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, and such novels, spanning from the mid-1980s to the present day, as Zodiac, Snow Crash, Interface, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, Seveneves, and most recently The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I tend to balk at diving into a very long novel by an unfamiliar author, but after making his acquaintance through the easy-to-take medicine of an audio-book, I'm eager to read more of his stuff.

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