Interface, Stephen Bury

Bantam, 1995, 583 pages, C$15.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37230-0

American politics are -rightfully- an endlessly fascinating topic, especially when seen from the outside. With power, greed, money and lately -as if it was the only thing missing-, extramarital sex, you can’t really go wrong. The increasingly mediatic aspect of, specifically, high-office campaigning have been the inspiration for many fine works (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Primary Colors, ROB ROBERTS…) and Interface is an attractive new high-tech work dealing with the subject.

Half of Stephen Bury is better known as Neal Stephenson, writer of such SF masterpieces like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. With Interface, he switched technological gears and collaborated with his uncle to produce one of the most entertaining political techno-thriller you’re likely to read this year. Or any year.

The jacket blurbs will try to sell you Interface as a chilling novel where one presidential candidate has a chip implanted in his brain that lets him get instantaneous audience feedback. The truth is that this particular subplot is fairly insignificant, barely exploited and then quickly forgotten. But the remainder of the novel is even better: Public Opinion moguls, redneck psychos, government-controlling conspiracists, crazy spin doctors, humble housewives, foreign neurosurgeons, nerdy engineers and a few million voters all tangle, fight, debate, act, flee or react to make this a complex, but engrossing story.

Interface is an incredibly dense novel. This is definitely one that you’ll want to read attentively; not only is there a lot of plot, but there’s also a lot of details. Stephenson is also known by his articles for Wired magazine, and his fascination for the sociologies of America is evident.

The style of Interface is even better than anything we could have hoped for. Bury’s combined voice is sardonic, clear, often hilarious and always compelling. With some books, the reader feels smarter than the author but here, not only are we conscious that Bury’s smarter, but we accept this without resentment. (“Why didn’t I think of that?”) The amount of detail is incredible; protagonist Cozzano is not described as a rich guy, but his whole family history is unwrapped before us. It’s a measure of Bury’s talent that this exposition and erudition does not feel forced or boring. Similarly, these authors don’t skimp on characterization: Everyone here, despite some very unlikely stunts, feel like actual human characters, and not puppets moved on a stage for our entertainment.

But beyond all this, beyond the enthralling prose and the grrrreat characters, what makes the novel are the Cool Scenes. Cool Scenes are these almost-perfect snippets of prose that aren’t always related to the plot, but stick in the mind for a while. We’re talking Dune‘s sandworms. Neuromancer‘s public-telephone trick. The snowballs thrown at the Moon in Earth. The cruciform resurrections in the first Hyperion volume. Interface has a lot of these Cool Scenes: A Politician vandalizing an ambulance; a blow-by-blow description of dirty campaign tricks; a psychological test; an unemployed housewife taking on a presidential candidate—and winning. This is what elevates Interface over the rest.

Despite all of this, Interface‘s conclusion is a bit rushed. Some of the parts don’t quite gel together. Threads are left untied. And we never get the “robo-candidate” novel promised on the blurb.

But nevertheless, Interface is more than a keenly successful satire on American politics: it’s great, great entertainment. You will probably even learn a few things. Buy it.

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