2004-10-31 · in Books · 396 words

Suffice it to say that the first person who stepped out in front of the microphones that evening was as completely anonymous as any person could be. His job was to get the attention of the crowd. To sever all of the conversations that had sprung up among the people standing shoulder to shoulder on the convention floor. Then he introduced an alderman, who introduced a former mayor of Chicago, who introduced a former Governor of New York, who introduced a movie star, who introduced a former Secretary of State, who introduced Governor William A. Cozzano. At each stage of the hierachy, the dull roar of bored conversation diminished and the excitement of the crowd built.

This book's easy to miss if (like me) you've enjoyed Neal Stephenson's other work: it's a collaboration with his uncle George Jewsbury (under the pseudonym J. Frederick George), and it was originally published under the collaborative pseudonym Stephen Bury in 1994. George Jewsbury is a historian, and has written and collaborated on several non-fiction books (none of which I've read).

The general plot: likeable politician William Cozzano, recovering from a stroke, is offered treatment using a revolutionary brain implant through which his thought processes can be influenced. When he decides to run for President, he's unaware that he and his family are being manipulated by an organisation trying to bring about political change. (It's much less cheesy than it sounds.) The book's partly about the necessary (and interesting) technology, but more about the social and political engineering necessary to accomplish such a feat.

This is foremost a Stephenson book: there's an large cast of strong, interesting characters (on all sides), a variety of interesting settings, and a decent sprinkling of black humour. Stephenson clearly likes setting up complicated situations so we can see how his characters react, and in this book very little happens by chance; it's all orchestrated by media manipulator Cy Ogle. Being set in the late 90s, it's less obviously SF than Stephenson's post-cyberpunk stuff; it's closest perhaps to "Zodiac" (but somewhat more polished and complex).

I throughly enjoyed this book, and I suspect it'd make a good introduction to Stephenson for people who haven't read his work before. I see that there's also a second book by the same pair of authors, "The Cobweb"; I'll have to see if I can get hold of that.