Stephen Bury

Towards the beginning of his career, Neal Stephenson used the pseudonym Stephen Bury to publish straightforward thrillers. In an old interview, he comments thusly:

”I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, ‘Let’s give this a try.’ The whole idea was that ‘Stephen Bury’ would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I’ve written them. It just goes to show there’s no point in trying to plan your career.”

In any case, I’ve recently picked up both of the Bury books (which have now been published under Stephenson’s real name) and I’m about halfway through the second one. They’re actually better than I thought they would be, but not particularly great. Part of the reason I had low expectations for the books is that the little blurbs describing the stories on the back of the books sound stupid. So far, though, the execution of said absurd stories isn’t so bad. I think this has something to do with uncommon settings and characters, something Stephenson has a knack for. Nothing really approaches Stephenson’s popular works, but these are diverting enough thrillers.

As of right now, I prefer The Cobweb to Interface, though I’m only halfway through Interface. I actually quite enjoyed The Cobweb and would recommend it to Stephenson fans. The story follows a midwestern deputy sheriff named Clyde Banks who stumbles upon an Iraqi plot in his hometown to produce chemical weapons during the first Gulf War. Another plotline follows a low-level CIA analyst who “exceeds her task” and makes a lot of folks in Washington look bad by noticing some anomalies in funding. Both characters are somewhat unusual, as are the specifics of their arcs (one is running for sherrif, the other is constantly bewildered by bureaucratic excess, amateur wrestling is often brought up, etc…) – not your steriotypical thriller fare, which is precisely why it’s interesting. I can see a lot of Stephenson in the story, though there’s clearly something else here (these are collaborations, after all). For instance, the Dhont family bears a likeness to the Shaftoes from Stephenson’s recent works and Stephenson’s penchant for including actual historical figures into a fictional story comes into play (at one point, the CIA analyst ends up on a boat with George H.W. Bush in an encounter that very much resembles something out of Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle).

Anyway, here’s one quote regarding the aforementioned bureaucratic excess as a Washington insider talks to the deputy sheriff:

“You and I know that something is going on in Forks County, and we would like to do something about it,” Hennessey said, “but between the two of us are about ten thousand of these people who are too busy looking down their noses at us to actually grasp the problem and take action. You must know that taking action is looked down upon, Clyde. This is the postmodern era. When events come to a cusp, we’re supposed to screw our courage to the sticking place and launch a reanalysis of the eleventh draft of the working document. Actually going out and doing stuff in the physical world is simply beyond comprehension of these people. They’re never going to do anything about the Iraqis in Forks. Never.”

Again, the story is a bit… unlikely… but it’s entertaining and approached from a distinct angle that makes it feel fresh. Interface seems even more absurd, and so far it hasn’t quite overcome that absurdity, but it’s making a valiant effort and I’m enjoying it. Interface follows William Cozzano, a popular Illinois governor, and his run for President. That’s not unlikely, but when they start talking about putting biochips into his brain and hooking them up to a computerized polling system, well, I was a little worried. It hasn’t been as bad as it sounds so far, and they do a good job building up the technology behind this so that it perhaps doesn’t seem so unlikely. They also do a reasonable job setting up why Cozzano would consent to such a risky procedure. Again, I’m only a bout halfway through, so the jury is still out, but so far, it’s ok. Not as good as The Cobweb though, and it lacks the idiosyncratic bits that made me enjoy The Cobweb so much. Still, there are some interesting characters and concepts. For instance, the pollsters in the book are interesting. Here’s a quote from one of the pollsters, who speculates on what drives politics.

“In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam.” …

“So what’s it about now?” Aaron said.

“Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media,” Ogle said. “The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under the ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like the Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces, but by groping through the steaming guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidates fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and constructing the use of eye contact, monitoring his gesticulations– whether his hands are held open or closed, toward or away from the camera, spread open forthcomingly or clenched like grasping claws.”

This seems appropriate, given the upcoming election. Interestingly, the same pollster speculates that HDTV will mark the next shift in politics, as people look different on HDTV than they do on regular TV. This may seem like a trivial point, but I guess the idea is that politics these days rely more on trivial stuff like how to position your eyes so that the whites don’t make it look like your eyes are bulging out of your head on TV.

I’d say that The Cobweb is definitely worth checking out for Stephenson fans, and probably anyone who likes techno-thrillers like Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn’s stuff (I’m not an authority on the genre though). So far, it seems like Interface would be worth reading for die hard Stephenson fans, and there might be a more limited mainstream audience for this one as well. They both seem a little better than your average thriller.