This post contains spoilers for Neal Stephenson’s Reamde.
There are a lot of things that are fascinating about Reamde, which, though I think it’s far from Stephenson’s best, is an enjoyable riff on macho adventure stories. But one of the things that’s lingered with me most is the fact that this is a story about international terrorism that ends with an event much like real ones: the shooting of a notorious terrorist in the head by a noted American badass. And yet the person who does the shooting is a private citizen rather than an agent of the United States government, which is strikingly marginal to the Forthrast and Friends War on Terror.
Yes, government agents play small roles in this story. Seamus, a late entry, is a highly skilled government agency, but his most important function is getting Csongor, Yuxia and Marlon into the United States, in part by explaining that he’s going to try his darndest to marry Yuxia. Similarly, Olivia’s a government agency, but she does her most important work when she’s kind of off the reservation, causing a lot of trouble with Sokolov or trekking into the rural United States by foot and bus to hook up with Jacob’s clan. But the people who kill far and away the most terrorists, and who come up with the most creative and effective responses to terrorism do so as private citizens. I’m all for the idea that terrorism should be handled by law enforcement, and when strictly necessary, by surgical military strikes rather than big wars, but there’s something very different about suggesting that we could have a more targeted response to terrorism than by suggesting we can make it not just private, but personal, enterprise.
It seems to be part of a larger concern the book has with will. The terrorists have to continually and deliberately stick to their rejection of Western society lest they fall prey to its temptations: “they’d made a conscious decision to turn their backs on all that. Like smokers or drinkers who’d gone straight, they were more dogmatic about this than anyone who’d come to that place naturally. Only Jones had the self-confidence to let himself be amused, and that was how he and Richard ended up making eye contact.” Seamus’s argument about getting his motley crew to the United States is largely based on their sheer cussedness: “Let’s focus on the fact that these people have been in physical contact with Abdallah Jones, rammed his vehicle, shot him in the head, been tortured by him, in the very, very recent past. Seems worthy of a free ticket to Langley, don’t you think? Can’t we buy these kids a cup of coffee at least?” Zula’s determination is a product of the fact that early in her life, she had absolutely no choice but to keep going: “she had dreamed of the flight from Eritrea, the six-month barefoot march into the Sudan and the quest for a refugee camp willing to take her group. The faces had faded from her memory, but the landscape, the vegetation, the feel of the march had stayed with her and become the continuo line underlying many of her dreams.” Chet has the courage to take out a bunch of the terrorists via suicide bombing. And for Richard, his moment of clarity comes when he’s able to focus his will for the first time in years: “He was in beautiful wilderness that he had known for almost forty years, just sitting and waiting, alert and alive, banged up, half in shock, but probably soaked in endorphins and adrenaline for just that reason. And no one could reach him via phone or email, Twitter or Facebook, and bother him. His whole mind, his whole attention was focused on one thing for the first time that he could remember.”
And the people who exhibit that kind of will make it to the end or die with honor. In an odd way, I thought the finale, which is reminiscent of the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, worked better than that book. In Harry Potter, the moral of the story is that if you defeat great evil, you get to settle down to a comfortable middle-class existence: normality is the highest prize. But in Reamde, there’s a sense of lingering costs, and of a continual striving towards greatness. Richard deals with his guilt by giving Sokolov John’s legs. Yuxia’s sticking with Seamus for now, but she’s not giving in easily—his quest continues. Zula’s convinced she has something to pay for. The corporation’s proved itself flexible enough to incorporate Marlon into its corporate structure: hackers aren’t really rebels, when you end up with terrorists in the mix. And now that Zula’s proved herself, Csongor’s next up to try to demonstrate that he’s worthy to become a Forthrast. The world comes full circle in a year. And the work continues.