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Book Review: "Reamde" by Neil Stephenson (2011)

Executive Summary

With Reamde, the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson, delivers a high octane, straight-up cyber thriller along the same lines as Mark Russinovich’s Zero Day and Trojan Horse and Tom Clancy’s Threat Vector, but Stephenson does it with more skill and elevates the genre in the process. The novel has everything that a cyber thriller needs: Chinese hackers, Russian mafia, cyber crime, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hacking culture, and guns. It is classic Stephenson without the denseness of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle. While it is a wildly imaginative story, the details are real and correct. If you are a cyber security professional, you will not learn anything new here, but you will appreciate a ripping good story told within the boundaries of the cyber security community. It is a good candidate for the cyber security canon, and you should have read this by now.

Introduction

I am a Neal Stephenson fan.[1][2] He started writing right at the cusp of the cyber punk genre in the early 1980s and, along with William Gibson,[3] was one of the writers responsible for making the cyber punk genre explode.[4] I just happened to be getting into the cyber security business at the same time. Consequently, he is a giant in my book when it comes to fleshing out ideas about hackers and cyberspace and what they both might look like in a few decades. His third novel, Snow Crash,[1] popularized the term “avatar,” coined the term “Metaverse,” and practically designed the first MMORPG years before real games like World of Warcraft became popular. I mention this because a World of Warcraft-like game called T’Rain is the centerpiece of this novel.

The Story

The founder and owner of the Fortune 500 company that manages T’Rain is Richard Forthrast. He is a former drug smuggler who funneled his profits into a computer gaming company and turned T’Rain into the most popular computer game on the planet. Across the world, a group of young and talented Chinese hackers and T’Rain players devise an elaborate gold-farming ransom scheme.[5] They create and distribute the Reamde virus, which essentially bricks the T’Rain gamer’s computer until the victim delivers a specified amount of virtual gold to a remote location in the T’Rain online world. The hackers collect the virtual gold and convert the gaming money into real money for profit. Forthrast’s niece, and employee, inadvertently shares a sample of the Reamde virus with her boyfriend. The boyfriend unfortunately dabbles in credit card fraud, and when the Reamde virus corrupts the computer network of the boyfriend’s Russian mob contact—specifically the group’s pension fund, the obshchak—the Russians come looking for the perpetrator. 

What follows is a mad dash around the world as the Russian hackers, with Forthrast’s niece in tow, try to get their money back from the Chinese hackers. They run into a separate collection of international terrorists operating out of the same abandoned Chinese building as the Chinese hackers and an MI6 agent tracking the terrorists. As the terrorists escape and evade the Russians, MI6, and the Chinese hackers, they end up in the backwoods of Canada, Forthrast’s backyard. Forthrast, who has been trying to rescue his niece from the beginning, gets his gun-loving family to help him orchestrate a rescue.

The story is similar in heft—almost one thousand pages—to two other Stephenson works: Cryptonomicon[2] and The Baroque Cycle.[6][7][8] The difference between Reamde and these other two stories is that Reamde is a straight-up cyber thriller along the lines of Mark Russinovich’s Zero Day [9] and Trojan Horse [10] and Tom Clancy’s Threat Vector.[11] It is much better than those examples, and you should read it just for that reason. But in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, Stephenson diverges from the main story line to talk about his adjacent interests; and he has a lot of them. In Reamde, the story is more straightforward. It is about hackers, criminals, gamers, and gun lovers. Period. In contrast to Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, this is a page turner even though it is a thousand pages long.

The Tech

Gold Farming

Gold farming has been a staple of MMORPGs from almost the beginning of online games.[5] For the uninitiated, gold framing is the term used to describe MMORPG player behavior when the player’s intent is not to play the game as the designers intended. Instead, gold farmers gather as much virtual loot available within the game for the purpose of reselling that virtual loot to other players for real-world currency. Most MMORPGs have fully functioning economies,[12][13] and gold farmers take advantage of that. Entire businesses have popped up, especially in China, dedicated to that effort.[5] In Reamde, the Chinese hackers use gold farming to convert their collected virtual ransom into real cash.

Bitcoin

In Reamde, Stephenson takes that phenomenon to the next level. Most MMORPGs distribute loot randomly within the gaming world, but the T’Rain game designers built their game differently; they built their game world from the tectonic plates up”? Naturally occurring gold deposits form around the game world similarly to how they form in the real world. Tom Bissel, writing for The New York Times, described it this way: 


“Two things have assured T’Rain’s commercial success: actual geological laws have been programmed to govern its terrain (it is this feature from which the game’s name derives); and the game uses a currency system based on real money — treasure mined from the strata of T’Rain’s crust can be transformed into earthly coin.”[14]

Taking a step back from that explanation, I realize that the T’Rain economy functions eerily similar to how the bitcoin economy works.[15] In both systems, the amount of treasure available in the world is finite and is worth only what the people within the economy are willing to pay for it. I could find no reference that confirms that connection between T’Rain and bitcoin, but I do find it an interesting coincidence. Stephenson is arguably an expert in how money systems work.[6][7][8] Bitcoin launched in 2009,[12] and Stephenson published Reamde in 2011 [16]. Even if the connection was unintentional, Stephenson had to be at least thinking about bitcoin while he was writing the book.

The Connection between Cyber Crime and the Mafia

Reamde reads like a spy novel with mafia crime bosses engaged in multiple firefights with international terrorists, MI6, and good old boys from Idaho, but Stephenson takes the time to explain that the Russian mafia is not normally that exciting. Professional enforcement methods aside, the members are businessmen trying to make a living in a crazy international system. They overcharge for cotton from Uzbekistan. In Canada, they avoid gas taxes. Internationally, they buy and sell lots of credit card information. The fact that the latter happens to be cyber crime does not really matter to them.[16] Stephenson also explains why the Russians are prone to this kind of cyber crime work. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s, the Russian people were scrambling to make ends meet. Many were highly trained in the hard sciences but could find no work. Some turned to credit card fraud as a way to make a living. If you were a teenager who was good with computers, you were suddenly cool and in demand. In hindsight, it is obvious to see why cyber crime exploded in Eastern Europe.[16]

Wardriving

Wardriving is the act of driving around town with a collection of remote networking gear and looking for unsecured WiFi routers.[17] In Reamde, the Russian mafia needs to find the Chinese hacker hideout in China. They kidnap the good guys and whisk them away to Xiamen, China, so that the good guys can help them with the search. The good guys, under threat of death, search for the Chinese hackers by wardriving the streets of the city and frequenting the many Internet cafes, or wangbas, that most of the locals use for Internet access. 

Lock Picking

Some of the good guys in our story are traditional white-hat hackers (hackers that exploit weaknesses in systems not to steal or to cause mischief but to understand how those systems work and perhaps to offer better ways to build those systems). One interesting cultural phenomena that emerged from this hacking culture is a fascination with locks and how to pick them. If you have ever attended DEF CON, you already know what I mean. There is usually a room dedicated to the lock-picking craft, and every time I have wandered in there in the last five years, the room is jammed with expert lock pickers showing wannabes how to get started.[18] In Reamde, the good guys lock pick their way out of several situations, and Stephenson takes a moment to explain why these white-hat hackers might have that skill.

MMORPG Battle

During the course of the story, the good guys who are working for the Russian mafia deposit the ransom of virtual gold into a remote area of T’Rain in the hopes that the Chinese hackers will unbrick their computers. A problem arises when the T’Rain community discovers the Reamde virus scheme. Many clans within the game stake out the route to the remote location in order to ambush the Reamde victims before they deposit their virtual gold. In T’Rain, if you kill an adversary in the game, you collect his or her valuables. The Chinese hackers need to collect the ransom and walk it out of the remote area and into a T’Rain city where they can convert the virtual money into real money. With the clans blocking their path, this becomes problematic. What results is a massive clan battle between the Chinese Reamde clan and all of the other T’Rain clans in the game. Stephenson completely captures the complexity, stress, and strategy of directing hundreds of your own teammates that are maneuvering across a vast virtual terrain against thousands of hostiles whose intent is to prevent you from doing just that. 

Guns

I am not a gun expert, but even my naive view of the world could tell that the characters in this novel use a lot of guns. In the acknowledgement section, Stephenson gives credit to Deric Ruhl for being perhaps the first ballistics copy editor ever employed.[16] Although all characters pick up one gun or another throughout the story, Stephenson’s last 150 pages describe a running gun battle across the Canadian tundra that has all the earmarks of a real-life MMORPG. If guns are your thing, you will love this book.

Conclusion

This novel has everything that a good hacker novel needs: Chinese hackers, Russian mafia, cyber crime, MMORPGs, hacking culture, and guns. There is even a bit about how to survive a zombie apocalypse too. It is classic Stephenson without the denseness of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, and it elevates the genre of the cyber security thriller above other entries in the field. While it is a wildly imaginative story, the details are real and correct. If you are a cyber security professional, you will not learn anything new here, but you will appreciate a ripping good story told within the boundaries of the cyber security community. It is a good candidate for the cyber security canon, and you should have read this by now.


Note 1: 


I worked for iDefense (a VeriSign Inc. business unit) the first time that I wrote about Reamde. Jason Greenwood, the current general manager and an old friend of mine, has graciously allowed me to reuse some of the original content from that essay for this updated blog post. iDefense is still one of the best commercial cyber security intelligence outfits out there. If you have cyber intelligence needs, you should consider calling those guys.

Note 2: 


Reamde is a Cybersecurity Canon Candidate. Please visit the official page sponsored by Palo Alto Networks to read all the books from the Canon project.



Sources

[1] "Book Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)," by Rick Howard, Terebrate, 10 November 2013, last visited 27 December 2013,

[2] "Book Review: ‘Cryptonomicon’ by Neal Stephenson (1999)," by Rick Howard, Terebrate, 8 December 2013, last visited 27 December 2013,

[3] "Book Review: ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson," by Rick Howard, Terebrate, 14 October 2013, last visited 27 December 2013,

[4] "Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto," by Roblimo, Slashdot, 9 October 1999, last visited 8 October 2013,

[5] "The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer," by Julian Dibbell, The New York Times, 17 June 2007, last visited 28 December 2013,

[6] "Quicksilver: Volume One of The Baroque Cycle," by Neal Stephenson, 2008, last visited 28 December 2013,

[7] "The Confusion: Volume Two of The Baroque Cycle," by Neal Stephenson, 2008, last visited 28 December 2013,

[8] "The System of the World: Volume Three of The Baroque Cycle," by Neal Stephenson, 2008, last visited 28 December 2013,

[9] "Book Review: ‘Zero Day (2011)’ by Mark Russinovich," by Rick Howard, Terebrate, 17 February 2013, last visited 28 December 2013,

[10] "Book Review: ‘Trojan Horse (2012)’ by Mark Russinovich," by Rick Howard, Terebrate, 28 February 2013, last visited 28 December 2013,

[11] "Threat Vector (Jack Ryan Jr. #4)," by Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney, Published by Putnem Adult, 4 December 2012, last visited 28 December 2013,

[12] "Bitcoin beginning to go mainstream," by Donna Leinwand Leger, USA Today, 21 November 2013, last visited 28 December 2013,

[13] "On Virtual Economies," by Edward Castronova, July 2002, last visited 28 December 2013,
http://bit.ly/19HdnNY

[14] "Neal Stephenson’s Novel of Computer Viruses and Welsh Terrorists," by Tom Bissell, The New York Times, September 23, 2011, last visited 26 December 2013,

[15] "12 questions about Bitcoin you were too embarrassed to ask," by Timothy B. Lee, The Washington Post, 19 November 2013, last visited 28 December 2013,

[16] Reamde, by Neal Stephenson, published by William Morrow, September 2011.

[17] "Wardriving Burglars Hacked Business Wi-Fi Networks," by Mathew J. Schwartz, Information Week, 23 September 2013, last visited 28 December 2013,

[18] "Defcon Lockpickers Open Card-And-Code Government Locks In Seconds," by Andy Greenberg, Forbes, 5 August 2011, last visited 29 December 2013,

References

"Book review: Neal Stephenson’s 'Reamde,' " by Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post, 5 September 2011, last visited 26 December 2013,

"Bestseller Stephenson’s new, hi-tech gaming thriller is a world apart," by Val Nolan, Irish Examiner, 19 November 2011, last visited 27 December 2013,

"Has Neal Stephenson become too accessible?" by Andrew Leonard, Salon, 18 September 2011, last visited 27 December 2013,

"Neal Stephenson’s Reamde: Baroque or Bloated?" by Ethan Gilsdorf, Wired, 23 September 2011, last visited 26 December 2013, 

"Stephenson's REAMDE: perfectly executed, mammoth, ambitious technothriller," by Cory Doctorow, boing boing, 14 September 2011, last visited 27 December 2013,

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