Stephen Bury

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.