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.
Today I finished “REAMDE” by Neal Stephenson. I didn’t know anything about it before starting (other than it was written by Stephenson and I read all of his stuff) and given the capsule description above (and the title, a play on a mistyped filename) you might think it was another techno-thriller like “Snow Crash” with a MMORPG twist, but it’s actually closer to “Cryptonomicon” where the technology plays a lesser role in the story. So where “Cryptonomicon” was about World War II and code-breaking, “REAMDE” is about guns, international terrorists, guns, Chinese hackers, and more guns.
Richard Forthrast is the creator of T’Rain, a World of WarCraft-like online game that is being used by a sort of money-laundering system by a group of Chinese hackers who created the REAMDE virus. REAMDE is a lot like the current, real-world, CryptoLocker ransomware trojan: it encrypts all the files on your PC and then makes you pay money to get the decryption key. Instead of requiring a credit card payment, however, the REAMDE hackers require payment in virtual gold inside the T’Rain video game, which they can then exchange for their own local currency. This causes a problem for Richard and his system administrators, however, because so many infected users are joining T’Rain and travelling to the online location with gold to pay the ransom. This is attracting other T’Rain users who are just killing everyone who wanders into the area with gold resulting in a huge online war of sorts.
Meanwhile, Richard’s niece, Zula Forthrast, is researching REAMDE because her boyfriend, involved with some shady people, accidentally infected the PC of a Russian mob boss with the virus and that Russian is now threatening to kill them both if they can’t recover his files. The search leads them to Xiamen, China in pursuit of the hackers and eventually turns into a story of international jihadists, British and American spy agencies, and a final showdown in the Pacific northwest.
It’s always fun when real-world events align with something I’m reading. Like I mentioned earlier, the biggest one was that REAMDE is remarkably like the recent CryptoLocker trojan (which luckily no one I know has been infected with). Additionally, there’s a brief scene in the book that takes place at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state and shortly after I read that section I noticed the “WWE Salute to the Troops” special on TV that took place at the same base.
So while “REAMDE” wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting, it was still a great book and fun to read (I just wish it had more of the T’Rain/technology stuff in it).
Up next on my reading list is something I suspect will be more of a challenge: S.