Trompler Foundation Archives

Unbury Stephenson

While I wasn’t quite done with Neal Stephenson, I had resolved to be more circumspect in the future.  However, Boing Boing’s cred is still good with me, and a post last December pointed me to Interface, a collaboration between Stephenson and his uncle published (under the nom de plume "Stephen Bury") between Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.  A comment in the same thread also mentioned the other "Stephen Bury" book, The Cobweb, and I read both in rapid succession.

Interface describes the confluence of a Presidential run by a charismatic Midwestern governor, William Cozzano, ostensibly uncorrupted by Evil Federal Politix™, and a neuro-technological breakthrough that permits a brain-implanted chip to stimulate imagery in response to radio signals.  Cozzano has a stroke and a shadowy cabal sidles up with the chip technology while simultaneously hiring a sophisticated demographer, Cy Ogle, who outfits his focus groups with satellite-uplinked biofeedback monitors.

Published in 1994, the novel is pretty clearly set during the 1996 election, although it curiously omits the proper nouns "Clinton," "Democrats," and "Republicans."  The event that sparks both Cozzano’s decision to run and his stroke is the announcement by "the incumbent President" to default on the debt owed by the U.S. government to foreign lenders, which is ironic given the Clinton Administration’s achievements in reducing the country’s debt.

In addition to the Cozzano clan, the brain surgeons, and Ogle’s pollsters, there are a number of sub-narratives, some of which make rewarding contributions and some of which not so much.  It becomes a sprawling mess with a typically abbreviated ending, and Stephenson doesn’t seem to have decided what to think about politics.  Nevertheless, there are some interesting discussions, and the book doesn’t suffer for having been published contemporaneously with the popular birth of the Internet while omitting the Net’s obvious application to the public-feedback scheme; it’s all-too-easy for the 21st-century reader to make the necessary extrapolations.

What’s unusal about Interface is the judgment Stephenson renders upon the spinmeister Cy Ogle.  All of Stephenson’s other works are panegyrics to the Geeks, the Hackers, those who understand the System of the World.  Stephenson is full of sympathy for people born into circumstances that place great obstacles on the path to understanding the System, but he expects everyone to get on the path and start walking.  Stephenson’s Hacker-Heroes might not always be victorious, but they are always vindicated.  Cy Ogle is clearly the Hacker of the vox populi, but even though Ogle defeats the ratfucking adversary that Stephenson pulls out three-fourths of the way through the book, he is lumped in with the ill-described Illuminati he serves and comes to share their ignominy.  For Stephenson, it is noble to crack the Enigma Machine or wright the network of international finance, but hacking representative democracy is apparently beyond the pale.

The Cobweb is much more specifically set in 1990 in Washington DC and in eastern Iowa.  Published in 1996 and centering on an Iraqi project to develop biological weapons at American universities, the book retains some currency for understanding how American bureaucracies (governmental, academic, and corporate) can and do conspire against American national interests.  Understanding the System of the World is presented here as a recipe for cynicism, and the only hope for efficacious salvation lies in the diligent earnestness of Mormon ingénues from Idaho and taciturn deputy sheriffs from Iowa.  I suppose crossing the Mississippi from west to east is the equivalent of being cast into the Pit of Corruption.

The world-weary Hacker in this book is Hennessy, ex-CIA spook who quit the Agency and somehow wangled some kind of investigatory fief with the FBI in order to get around that pesky firewall we heard so much about after 9/11.  The afore-mentioned ingénue is a CIA analyst who blows the whistle on Iraqi misuse of USDA subsidies, embarrassing the (first) Bush Administration just months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  This dooms her career, but Hennessy swoops in and explains that while he cannot save her job, he can prolong it enough for her to get the goods no one else wants to get:  that Iraqi scientists have been creating bioweapons with the knowing and venal complicity of elements of the American government, universities, and corporations.

The crucial details of the plot, however, are only available to Clyde Banks, a local deputy with native intelligence, a good heart, and not much else.  These parts of the book were somewhat awkward, as Stephenson desperately wants to portray Banks as one of the best people in a very good part of the world, but he cannot make him as suspicious or as worldly as someone as fallen as Hennessy.  So, we get a character behaving more painfully stupid than we think they ought to be (c.f. Sylvester Stallone’s turn in Cop Land).  Stephenson’s tendency to schedule major plot developments off-screen unsettles me, as it makes me feel like I failed to pick up on some important foreshadowing.  When Banks fails to make the obvious connection when his partner collapses and dies after chasing a horse escaped from an agricultural research center staffed by Middle Eastern students at odd hours of the night, I feel stupid coming in the other direction.

The Cobweb is more succesful than Interface, probably because it’s ambitions aren’t as great.  The climax of The Cobweb was warmly remniscent of that of Zodiac (still one of my favorites), replete with the final piece of the puzzle being discovered with mere hours before the Scooby-Doo villains make their getaway.  For better or worse, I couldn’t discern any impact in either "Bury" book from the collaboration with Stephenson’s uncle.

Until I (re-)checked the publication dates, I thought that both "Bury" books pre-dated Snow Crash; that Stephenson mixed them in with The Diamond Age indicates to me a curious ambivalence about what he wanted to accomplish with his writing.  Taken together, each book includes a contribution to Stephenson’s vision of American virtue, which might come in handy when we get around to setting up the First Distributed Republic.

Copyright © 2008 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.