Neal Stephenson

Reamde, Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, 2011, 1056 pages, US$35.00 hc, March 2015

If I’m to remember anything about Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, it’s going to be that this is the book that turned me off reading fiction for nearly a year.

Let me explain.

I’m writing this review roughly a year after reading Reamde. I had the best intentions of writing a review shortly after reading the book, but life happened. Now that I have a few spare moments to go through my review backlog, what’s become obvious to me is that in the months since I’ve read Reamde, I’ve read only two novels, and one of them was a beta-read for a friend. (The other? Andy Weir’s The Martian, which gave me motivation to read and review again.)

With a lead-up like this, you’d be justified to expect a scathing denunciation of Reamde as something along the lines of the end of fiction as we know it, an affront to genre fiction, or a reader-killer. Otherwise, how else to justify how someone like me, who could reliably knock off 200–300 books per year, spent the twelve months post-Reamde barely scraping by reading half a dozen books?

The answer is wholly external to Reamde, of course. A child. A wife. A house. A job. A renewed interest in movies accompanied by a checkbox-ticking intent to catch up on those must-see films. It’s easy to form a habit in which reading is relegated to a distant runner-up position once everything else has been settled. Except, of course, that nothing is ever settled.

Still, I’m not entirely absolving Reamde. Because, more than once during the time I spent reading it, I caught myself thinking “that’s it, after this novel I can take a break”. At 1192 pages, this isn’t just a novel: it’s a trilogy contained between two covers, a modern epic published as a single unit.

Or it would be if it actually had something to say.

Because while The Lord of the Rings in its uncut director’s form runs for nine hours and change, that’s still less than an average season of your usual TV network show. (A single season of Elementary, to name one of the rare shows that I watch, will take you roughly 17 hours from beginning to end.)  But take a look at the overall story and tell me if the TV show season is denser with material than the movie trilogy. Of course it isn’t. There are a lot character-building moment and scene-to-scene material in TV shows, but the overall plot movement can be glacial. So it is with Reamde’s pacing and overall content, which expands to 1192 pages thanks to intricate exposition and a damnable absence of editing, but doesn’t quite amount to much more than a TV series in the end.

It starts semi-promisingly near Seattle, as a young man sees the content of his laptop encrypted and locked by a nasty piece of ransomware. Unfortunately for him, what’s on the laptop is of crucial interest to a branch of the Russian mob, and they don’t play around. Before long (actually, no, after long), they kill the young man, kidnap his girlfriend (who’s the real protagonist of the story) and jump on a plane to China, where they hope to be able to identify and inflict a lot of pain to the developers of the ransomware. This is all taking place on the periphery of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, the details of which are explained in fastidious detail along the way.

By the time a normal novel would have had the time to wrap up at the 350th page or so, Reamde is not only just getting started, but pulls off an amazing coincidence that either breaks the novel or makes it. Because, you see, staying right next door to the ransomware developers is the world’s most hunted terrorist. As a confrontation goes wrong and an entire building blows up, that mastermind terrorist kidnaps our heroine and starts hatching a scheme to go back to Canada and sneak into the United States for his expected nefarious purposes. The rest of the novel is pretty much exactly that, with our heroine’s uncle (founder of the MMPORG) stepping in as a secondary hero. It’s a good thing that he also happens to own a vast resort, and has a past as a frontier-crossing drug-runner.

If your suspension of disbelief snapped somewhere during the preceding paragraph, then welcome to the world of the novel’s readers, whose sensibilities are somewhat blunted by the fact that it takes hundreds of pages of procedural detail before those elements are gradually revealed. Neal Stephenson writes long, as we know (most of his last few novels are physical door-stoppers, and his Baroque Cycle trilogy clocks in at a staggering 3300 pages) but with Reamde, his worst tendencies have exceeded the boundaries of acceptable info-dumping to become actual problems. The novel’s ludicrous plotting is only exceeded by its numerous lulls in which nothing happens.

Now comes the question: Is this a bad thing? After all, I did have a reasonably good time reading Reamde, even as I was cursing its length and pacing. I’m someone who audibly delights in info-dumping and excessive exposition. I’m often amused by authors who have the guts to go against the formula of good fiction (such as, ahem, hinging an entire plot on a freak coincidence half a world away), and my past reviews have shown that even when I don’t understand half of a Stephenson novel, I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But for the weeks I spent slogging through Reamde, I was also struck by the fact that, to put it bluntly, I don’t have time for this nonsense. I’m busy right now and for the foreseeable future, and my tolerance for the excesses of fiction has been eroded to nothing. I may watch a lot of movies, but I’m doing a lot of dishes (or research, or housekeeping, or cooking) during that time. My lifestyle, in other words, is not currently compatible with a lot of written fiction.

This is not going to be eternal. I’m not metaphorically burning my library and claiming that I’m done with the whole fiction shtick. I’m just recognizing that right now, I’m not a dedicated reader. This, I’ve been told, is fairly common for parents of small children, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt and telling myself that there is a time for everything.

But it took the gruelling experience of making it to the end of Reamde to give me a good hint that I didn’t have to push myself in reading if I didn’t feel like it. Stephenson, by being so verbose and meandering, has freed me in a way, by inoculating me against guilt if I didn’t pick up a book immediately afterward. After Reamde, I felt spent; done with fiction. The next few books I picked up were chunk-sized nonfiction, easy to pick up in separate unpredictable sittings. It would take The Martian, which I really wanted to read but didn’t want to spoil before the movie, to get me going again.

So, thank you Stephenson, I guess? Some people will find Reamde useful to prop up objects, protect themselves from attackers or keep the fireplace going for an hour or two. I’m more likely to remember it, perhaps unfairly, as the novel that sent me in a fiction sabbatical.

The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson

The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson

Amalgamated from:
Quicksilver, 2003, Morrow, 927 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97742-7
The Confusion, 2004, Morrow, 815 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-052386-7
The System of the World, 2004, 892 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-052387-5

For years, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle stared at me from my “to read” shelves, daring me to take the time necessary to get through its dense 2,600 pages without losing track of the plot, losing patience or losing myself in endless Wikipedia lookups.  As a Stephenson fan dating back to Snow Crash, I had purchased the entire C$120 behemoth upon publication and then lost courage every time I even thought about starting the adventure.  The first crack in my resistance came in early 2009 when I read Stephenson’s subsequent Anathem during a particularly dull long weekend in an even duller city.  The second happened in summer 2009 when I managed to finish David Foster Wallace’s interminable Infinite Jest.  The last occurred in late 2009, when I finished my year-long Hunter S. Thompson reading project and started looking for another challenge.  To celebrate the beginning of 2010, I vowed to clear that Baroque Cycle off my shelves.

Cut to: Eight weeks later.

It’s a good thing I read about two or three books in parallel, depending on location.  Even at a pace of about fifty pages per day, The Baroque Cycle is a hefty undertaking.  The hardcover books are too cumbersome to carry on public transportation; even casual home use wears them down over weeks.  These are not books that can be read in bed without special accommodations for weight and heft.  But then again, it’s tough to explain the origins of the modern world in only three books.

Because what Stephenson attempts here is nothing less than an exploration of the roots of contemporary society.  Taking place roughly between 1660 and 1720, The Baroque Cycle covers a period in which many of the foundations of our world are laid down.  Things as simple as science, mathematics and currency weren’t obvious at first: they had to be developed, harmonized and often bitterly argued over before being accepted.  What Stephenson tries to do here is to take us through a period rich in intrigue, discoveries and innovation.  To complain that The Baroque Cycle is filled with anachronisms, that it’s a historical novel that keeps making reference to modern ideas is to miss the point that the book wouldn’t exist without its unstated future: It’s all about finding out where the system of our world comes from.

It’s no accident if The Baroque Cycle also connects on a fundamental level to Stephenson’s previous Cryptonomicon.  Not only do we get early passing references to a then-new book of the same name, but many of the main characters of the trilogy are meant to be distant ancestors of their WW2/modern counterparts in Stephenson’s earlier novel.  There’s nerd Daniel Waterhouse, action hero Jack Shaftoe, and, surprise-surprise, possibly-immortal (and constant plot device) Enoch Root.  The events of the third volume lead to those of Cryptonomicon, with several plot devices set up in a way that make Stephenson’s 1999 book look even more profound.  As with Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle is keenly interested in economics, technology and cryptography.  As with half of Cryptonomicon, it’s basically a historical novel for nerds… and I say that in the fondest sense, because its focus (and attitude) is so refreshingly about topics seldom discussed in mainstream historical fiction.

Reading The Baroque Cycle, we get a sense of the heady cognitive rush as new natural principles are discovered and codified.  We get an idea of the war of ideas as new infrastructures are put in place and looked at doubtfully by sceptics.  We appreciate the risks that threatened early adopters, except that they were trying currency and political systems rather than technological gizmos.  We get to see the familiar structures of our world slowly taking over the medieval chaos of What Came Before.  As Stephenson’s trio of characters each see their own part of the world (and for a story that would be complex enough just in Europe, The Baroque Cycle does eventually circle the entire globe), we piece together a dense tapestry of interactions between a bundle of new ideas.  They meet many historical figures, and in turn act upon events as they occur.  They witness fires, revolutions and discoveries.  They’re stuck in palace intrigue, busy with far-away travels, stuck in wars and swashbuckling their lives away.  Considering the unfathomable genealogy of Europe’s ruling class at the time, using words like “epic” to describe The Baroque Cycle is, for once, being a bit modest.  Even the characters are bigger-than-nature: Not only do significant historical figures get speaking parts (from Newton to Leibniz to Louis XIV to Samuel Pepys to many others), but our fictional protagonists themselves are extraordinary figures.

And yet –for it is time to stop speaking in superlatives-, there’s no denying that 2,600 pages is a lengthy slog.  It’s an open question as to whether it’s best to already have a seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century history degree in order to fully appreciate The Baroque Cycle, or if it’s better to be awed by events as they come along.  But for readers with a preference for casual reading, making it to the end of the trilogy means being pummelled by pages and pages of historical minutia, certainly entertaining to a particular audience but a bit of a drag for others.  Yet, at other times (usually when Jack Shaftoe is stuck in another impossible situation), the book becomes almost hypnotically readable, with narrative payoffs big enough to make anyone wave their fists in the air in pure glee.  The language isn’t nearly as difficult as you may expect from a trilogy set in the Baroque era: the writing, despite a slightly-different vocabulary, feels very contemporary, with a number of linguistic anachronisms (one of them played for laughs as “sounding better in Armenian”) and ironic commentary slipped in-between declarative sentences.  Most of the novel is told in the usual focused-third-person POV, but there are occasional digressions in epistolary passages, or theatre-style script-writing.  It does nothing to accelerate the pacing of the book, but it does make it easier to follow.

If the trilogy is too long, I suspect that no one will agree as to what deserved to be cut, and if the resulting cuts wouldn’t fatally damage the result.  It’s best to read it like a butterfly, spending more time over the interesting sequences while flitting over that seems less interesting.  Sure; a lot of fascinating details will disappear that way, but at least you will be able to read the series in less time than it takes to get an undergraduate degree in history.

For genre readers used to the intricacies of science-fiction, the cycle is a unique case study.  There’s no denying that it comes from a mindset heavily influenced by science-fiction, and that it is aimed at readers of the same persuasion.  Aside from a few overt SF/alternate-history elements that get heavier play in the third volume (unusual gold; long-lived Enoch Root; a few fictional countries; at least one unexplainably science-fictional resurrection), it’s delightfully nerdy in how it stops to explain facets of its universe (sometimes dryly, sometimes not; a sequence in the second volume uses a dinner party entertainment to vulgarize new ideas regarding trade and currency) and unapologetic in its focus on science and economics.  It’s, perhaps too bluntly, a historical novel for those who were too busy playing with computers to pay attention in history class –and that’s assuming your history classes even mentioned the Baroque era.  It even pushes readers into thinking about the future and consider: Will future historians look at today’s era and see such fundamental changes?  What’s almost certain is that there are enough maddening loose ends (most of them related to Enoch Root) to justify a follow-up that will take the events of The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon a bit farther, probably exploring the future of currency.

And while you may blame a certain amount of modified Stockholm reader’s syndrome for my odd affection for the series (if it’s going to hold me hostage for eight weeks, it may start sounding far more reasonable than the rest of the world), it’s probably more exact to give credit to the nerd attitude.  While I frequently wished for scissors and a more aggressive editor throughout my entire time with The Baroque Cycle, I emerge from it triumphant, grateful, slightly more educated and quite a bit awed by the entire thing.  No one can get through Anathem without understanding on a deep cellular level that Stephenson is a genius; but I could have had that realization a few years earlier had I been more prompt in reading The Baroque Cycle.

Anathem, Neal Stephenson

Anathem, Neal Stephenson

Morrow, 2008, 937 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-147409-5

Being a dialogue between a not-entirely-satisfied reader and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem:

Anathem: Hey, reader. Do you know what I am?

Reader: (Rolling eyes): Yeah, yeah, you’re Neal Stephenson’s latest brick-sized novel. Obviously, he wasn’t listening when everyone complained about the Baroque Trilogy. Did you know that I still haven’t read those books? When will I find the time to do it?

Anathem: But you read me! Am I not clever, or what?

Reader: You were also nominated for a Hugo Award shortly before I got stuck for three days in one of the dullest cities in Canada with nothing to do but read anything close by. So don’t flatter yourself.

Anathem: I dismiss the rest of the Hugo Shortlist. I’m smarter than all of them combined.

Reader: A propensity toward glossolalia doesn’t necessarily correlate with genius. The fact that you’re incomprehensible without a made-up dictionary doesn’t make you any smarter than the wicked storytelling of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, nor any more engaged than Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, nor any more sarcastically likable than John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale nor more interesting than the truckload of ideas in Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Childen. Try stopping being less full of yourself and we’ll talk on more amiable terms.

Anathem: But… surely you must be impressed by how I re-invent much of human philosophy and science in barely less than a thousand pages!

Reader: I hate to break it to you, but it’s been done before. Thousands of students do it every year, and they’re using the real words, not poisoning the information well of its audience with a made-up mythology. I understand that your point is to show off how intelligent you are, but that’s where our conceptions of the novel-as-a-novel may clash: Reinventing philosophy is not something I need from my pleasure reading.

Anathem: But, but, but! You always say you like fiction that make you think!

Reader: I also enjoy reading books that don’t send me back to my freshman year manuals in order to do my homework. You’re also ignoring the crucial point: I don’t mind a bit of thinking in addition to my fiction, but I mind when it displaces it. Face it: how much of a story is in your nine-hundred pages? How quickly would a more efficient author been able to tell it with a reasonable amount of detail?

Anathem: You’re being unfair! I am a beacon of intellectual rigour and ambition in a wasteland of mere entertainment! You’re just indulging in cheap contrarianism for the sake of a querulous review!

Reader: I’m perpetually guilty of contrarian sarcasm, but it comes from the heart. Look: You’re just too long and convoluted for your own good.

Anathem: Ah, but admit it; after so long spent living in my world, you’re proud of what you have achieved! You’re feeling better for the effort you’ve spend reading me!

Reader: So, what, you’re supposed to be my tough-love thousand-page buddy now? Did you see where I shelved Atlas Shrugged in my bookshelves?

Anathem: (Horrified) Not… the… humor section?

Reader: Fortunately for you, you’re too much of a stick-in-the-mud to be classified as funny.

Anathem: But I’m the smartest book you’ve read this year, right?

Reader: (Exasperated) Yes you are. Now here’s five bucks to go buy yourself a coffee.

Anathem: (Walking away) Woo-hoo! I’m the “smartest book of the year”!

In The Beginning… Was The Command Line, Neal Stephenson

Avon, 1999, 151 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-380-81593-1

Now here’s another odd book. Originally conceived as a Wired article, then re-purposed for promotional purposes in time for Cyptonomicon‘s release and put up free on the web, In the Beginning… Was the Command Line is an opinion piece on Operating Systems that somehow found its way in book form, in libraries, available to all. It’s a technical piece and yet not a technical piece, a fantastic read by someone lucky enough to know an esoteric subject in depth, yet still be able to write about it for everyone else.

In a room full of geeks, Neal Stephenson needs no introduction. Lucking out on the fading edge of the cyberpunk craze, his breezy Snow Crash wowed plenty of Science Fiction fans and (later) earned enough good will to net Stephenson a Hugo Award for The Diamond Age. Later books have not been so explicitly Science-Fictional (Heck, his latest trilogy is a work of historical fiction set at the dawn of our modern world) but no matter… for in the meantime, Stephenson had become enough of a nerd demigod that his audience is now willing to follow him wherever he goes.

In the Beginning… Was The Command Line is a chatty essay about the very strange business of operating systems. Those pieces of software mediating the transactions between users and machines, applications and files. That business didn’t exist fifty years ago; now it’s worth multi-billion dollars, most of which are flowing straight into Microsoft’s business account.

In this essay, Stephenson describes his own experiences with OSs, as a student, as a coder and as a writer. He grabs on to just about any socio-technical tangent he can find and tries to find the place of Operating Systems in today’s world. Are they (bad) metaphors? Are they essential? Which audiences do they target?

It doesn’t amount to much in terms of a structured argument. Perhaps it’s best described as a lengthy rant fuelled by considerable intellect. Stephenson fans already know that the man can’t write a decent ending, and it’s a bit of a comfort to find out that he can’t manage to do so here either. But through the whole book, there are fascinating nuggets of hard ideas. The broad distinction of users between Morlocks and Elois isn’t a bad metaphor, reaching deep into something technical help-desk workers have known for a looong time. The parallels between operating systems and Disneyworld touch upon the vast layers of abstraction that have been layered, for centuries, over our society.

Naturally, this book is written for a certain tech-aware crowd, and it often plays shamelessly to the crowd’s favour. There is an amusing segment describing Linux that will resonate with most hackers. (“It’s a tank! And we’re giving it away!”) Stephenson is both conversant in technological trends and gifted enough to write about them; this make In the Beginning. Was the Command Line an interesting artifact, halfway between the literary and the computer field. It’s interesting to note that even though it’s now pushing five years (a lifetime in technological contexts), the book hasn’t aged much: References to the obsolete BeOS system now have be seen in a historical context (a recent interview with Stephenson confirms that he has since become an unabashed fan of Apple’s OSX) but overall, the market dynamics and socio-technical reflexions haven’t changed a bit despite Linux’s growing acceptance and the introduction of Windows XP.

Fascinating from start to finish, In The Beginning… Was the Command Line should provide geeks and technologically-friendly readers with a good read, plenty of minor revelations and maybe even a new look at the tools they’re using on a nearly-daily basis. Best of all, you don’t even have to buy it in a bookstore: it’s all available on-line.

The Big U, Neal Stephenson

Harper Perennial, 1984 (2001 reprint), 308 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-380-81603-2

Neal Stephenson vaulted to the top of the SF best-seller list with 1992’s Snow Crash, (a book that became a surrogate bible for many cyber-heads even as the Internet took off) but this first success wasn’t his first book. That honor would belong to 1984’s The Big U, which quickly became a collector’s item as geeks of all stripes started hunting it down in used bookstores and rummage sales. For a while, copies of the book fetched three-figure prices in online auctions. Stephenson was reportedly disenchanted with the book, but even less happy with the price-gouging and so allowed the book to be reprinted following the boffo mainstream success of his Cryptonomicon in 1999.

After reading the book, it’s hard to understand Stephenson’s reluctance to acknowledge The Big U: Even if it’s nowhere as polished, sophisticated or impressive as Cryptonomicon, it still ranks highly above most of what I’ve read recently.

It takes place on the pseudo-fictional “American Megaversity” campus, an entirely artificial structure called “the Monoplex” composed by a series of eight massive towers arranged around a central campus building. As an institution of higher learning, it can only disappoint 30-year-old junior Casimir Radon: students seem to be far more interested in drunken partying than good grades and there’s more anarchic violence on-campus than anywhere else in the city.

Typical? Maybe, but Stephenson stomps the pedal to the metal and never lets go. American Megaversity students use so little of their brain capacity that they eventually devolve to a state where the halves of their brain stop forming a unified whole. Those morons quite literally start hearing “voices in their heads”. It wouldn’t be so bad, but alas the campus is also overrun by radioactive rats, fanatical D&D players, anarchists, illegal kitten pushers, religious nuts, foreign revolutionaries and a physics student building a mass-driver railgun. That’s in addition to the usual bunch of campus neurotics. Very Bad Things are about to happen and our narrator is in the middle of it all. Unlike many campus novels, this one is quite literally about how university can kill you if you allow it to.

But even then, The Big U is one of those books that will make you laugh out loud repeatedly, a delight of gonzo writing style than you’ll have a hard time abandoning whatever the circumstances. Even though my own campus experience was nowhere as bad as the one described here, I only wish I could have read that novel at the time; maybe it would have made everything more amusing. The novel certainly plays well with my own liking for high-concept satire, tech-infused plotting and a dense prose style. The increasing bursts of violence may upset some (there are certainly a few disturbing passages in here) but fit increasingly well with the rising chaos of the book. Too many novels step back from the abyss just before we have the chance to have some fun, but The Big U jumps in it with glee and Jolt-fuelled abandon. The Big U is Hell on Campus. You’ve been warned.

In the end, my only quibble with the book is that when the dust has settled at the end of the story, we have the outline of a conclusion, but scarcely any resolution about the relationships between the characters. Stephenson makes his characters so sympathetic that the bare-bones conclusion is a let-down.

So what are you waiting for? Find The Big U right now, especially if you’re a college-age fan of Stephenson’s other works. Despite the original 1984 publication date, you’ll find that the book hasn’t aged much, and still is one of the best read you’ll find even this year. While we’re anxiously waiting for his next book (Quicksilver, due 2003), this will do.

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

Avon, 1999, 918 pages, C$39.50 hc, ISBN 0-380-97346-4

Wow. Where to begin?

By the physical object itself. Cryptonomicon is a big book. At 918 pages, it’s a pitch-black hardcover that will occupy fully 4.5 centimeters of your shelf. That is, if you decide to plunk down the 40 Canadian Dollars that will grant you the privilege of carrying this pound brick.

Judging from my local bookstore, however, even the monetary argument will deter few. (I grabbed the last of six copies, three days after its arrival in the store) Only the “Neal Stephenson” is required to attract fans. After a much-remarked SF debut titled Snow Crash (which has since become a cult classic), Stephenson won the Hugo with The Diamond Age and co-wrote two superb contemporary thrillers with his uncle under the pen name Stephen Bury (Interface and The Cobweb).

Cryptonomicon is far closer to the meticulously-detailed, intricately plotted Bury novels than either of Stephenson’s own SF novels. For one thing, more than half the book takes place during World War Two (echoing Bury’s description of another conflict, the Gulf War, in The Cobweb) and the other half takes place in the present.

Techo-geeks should be relieved to note, however, that Cryptonomicon is no “mere” WW2 or present-day thriller. Cryptonomicon begs to be fitted in a new genre, “Wired-Fiction”. Stephenson has written for the magazine several (including one of the best article the magazine ever published, “Mother Earth, motherboard”) and his latest novel reads a lot like the ideal novel for Wired-heads. This is a good thing, mind you.

Judge for yourself: The present-day plot concerns Randy Waterhouse, an Internet expert who finds himself in business to construct a data haven in Southeast Asia. The WW2 plot revolves around Randy’s grandfather, a brilliant mathematician who spends the war breaking Axis codes. Cryptology, technology, hacking, computers, business and a myriad of other subjects are frenetically explored and brought together in Cryptonomicon, at the greatest pleasure of all the techno-geeks in the audience.

The charm of Cryptonomicon lies largely in its unrepentant didacticism. This is techno-docu-fiction at its most extreme, including graphs, equations and pages-long digressions on arcane subjects (Few reviewers have resisted the impulsion to note the four-page exposé on how to eat Captain Crunch cereal, and I will not be an exception.)

In the hands of a lesser writer, Cryptonomicon might have been an interminable bore. But fans already know Stephenson’s quirky prose style, and the result provokes emotions oscillating between intense fascination and audible hilarity. This is an amazingly well-written novel.

This book is filled with so many good scenes that it’s hard to know which ones to highlight. At least keep two of them in mind: The most hilarious is certainly the wonderfully-funny business plan. The most impressive is Randy’s character-defining hacking apex. Thinking of it, Randy’s expedition account (“The Weird turn Pro”) is also mesmerizing…

It’s not a perfect novel by any mean; the ending -while stronger than Stephenson’s other solo novels- is still annoyingly incomplete. At least one character is still mysteriously unexplained —what’s this about several other volumes in the series? And, for a 918-pages novel, it’s curiously lacking in plot. My own techno-nerd sensibilities kept wanting to go back to the present-day thread, but I’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the novel worth editing out.

No matter: Much like Interface and Snow Crash were stupendous books, Cryptonomicon easily ranks as a must-read novel of 1999 for technically-oriented readers. It’s big, it’s impressive, it’s exhilarating and, in all seriousness, you get a full forty Canadian dollars’ worth of entertainment.

The Cobweb, Stephen Bury

Bantam, 1997, 384 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37828-7

The first thing you won’t notice anywhere on the paperback cover of Stephen Bury’s The Cobweb is any association of Bury with young SF superstar Neal Stephenson. (It is well known that Stephen Bury is the pseudonym that Stephenson uses when collaborating with his uncle.) Unlike Bury’s first novel, Interface, which loudly advertised “co-written by NEAL STEPHENSON”, The Cobweb is promoted as being “A frightening and savagely witty new thriller from the author of Interface

Whatever Bantam’s intentions were, it is clear that The Cobweb is not Interface and at the same time a novel very much in the style of the previous novel. In short, this isn’t Stephenson: this is Bury.

The Cobweb is a thriller mostly taking place in the last few months of 1990 in a small town somewhere in Iowa. Deputy sheriff Clyde Banks has a few problems: He’s trying to be elected sheriff, his wife is gone to war in the Gulf and mysterious crimes are happening in his town, with prime suspects being foreign students studying at the local university…

It’s always a risk to write a near-past thriller. Events have to be restrained, characters can’t do things that would clash with our perception of history. In other words, we already know how the story will end, at least in broad and general terms. Despite this, an impressive amount of very good novels (notably Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and The Fist of God) have successfully bridged this difficulty. The Cobweb joins their ranks.

Most of the novel is centered either on Clyde Banks, or on a humble Washington CIA analyst named Betty Vandeventer. Their personal struggles become more fascinating than the bigger events surrounding them. The novel is a page-turner, and Bury’s gift for characterization is evident.

The prose is also delicious, a mix of good storytelling with a wealth of details. We come out of the novel feeling as if we know more about the world that we did before. Bury’s take on the development of the Gulf War is especially interesting, exposing plausible links and consequences that explain a lot. The co-authors have a firm grasp on political, economic and scientific concepts, and this knowledge goes a long way in assuring the aura of believability essential for any thriller. They manage to make bureaucratic infighting exciting, which is an achievement in itself.

Bury’s fascination for details, already visible in Interface, makes The Cobweb worth its price in paperback: This is a curiously satisfying thriller, unlike other books in the genre which can be read in a flash and feel as insubstantial as hot air.

This isn’t Interface, but it’s as good. Whatever Bury wishes to write next, his readers are assured of a very good read.

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.