Friday, October 27, 2006

The web of fear

Am still running to catch up with last week’s escape, with works clamouring at the door like a monster. Real life has not made this a little bit easier, but we shall not go into that now…

Nimbos leant me Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. (It used to be by “Stephen Bury”, but Stephenson is so big and famous these days they now use his real name.)

It’s the last of Stephenson books I had left to read – not including his non-fiction nor the one even he says doesn’t count:
The Big U is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago.”

Neal Stephenson.

Written in the late 90s and set during Gulf War One, Cobweb is about shenanigans in an Iowa university that might be linked to Saddam Hussein’s threat to use chemical weapons. A red-neck cop and a Mormon CIA agent both struggle, despite the best cobwebbing efforts of the procedural system, to figure out exactly what it is going on. And not to get killed in the process.

Like “Bury”’s Interface (a much better book, I think) it’s brutal and surprising and intricate, with a lot of political kudos. There’s real passion in how the system snafus the best efforts of good people to somehow get things right – big issues trashed by little politics.

There’s a nice bit late-on where the cynical, weary CIA man wonders if his niece is right, and the war’s about nothing but oil. We’ve seen him out-play the players and get his fingers in all pies, but even he doesn’t know.

Stephenson’s books are festooned with great and unusual characters living strange yet believable lives. He’s keen on exacting detail, so his worlds are built solidly from paper-clips up. And often there’s a great warmth and vitality to geeky underdogs.

It’s odd to read now – the plot links Iraq to a more general US foreign policy, the real enemy being Iran. It also includes a threat to crash a plan into a US city and talk of Saddam’s many WMDs.

The army are warned about the effects of anthrax and Clostridium botulinum, and it occurs to me now that today’s cosmetic-use Botox may be linked to the research done when it threatened our soldiers. Fashion taking its cues from mass slaughter…

It’s also odd that the book’s two protagonists never meet (though one leaves a note for the other). I suppose that sets them up to be played in any film by De Niro and Pacino – I wonder which of those would play Betsy?

Like other Stephenson books, the plot builds and builds to a disappointing last splurge, in this case an action sequence which felt thieved from something else. Clyde seems suddenly to be written for Steven Segal, unkillable and doing the job of a whole army.

So recommended, but try Interface and Diamond Age first.

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