This one came from the library. I’m a huge Stephenson fan, ever since a friend recommended Anathem. After devouring that, I borrowed Snowcrash (which is probably my favourite cyberpunk novel, alongside the very different Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer). Then I found Cryptonomicon somewhere, which convinced me to go after the Behemoth: I bought the Baroque cycle. Those three volumes took a while…
So, I’m on a little semi-completist quest.
This novel, written with Frederick George, is set during the Gulf War of the early 1990s. Betsy’s a sharp-eyed low-level CIA researcher who gets the powers that be in a tizzy after noticing that money that the US is pumping into Iraq to buy food is actually being spent on weapons. Much of the plot concerns the labyrinthine and nonsensical responses that this realisation evokes in the upper echelons of government and the beureaucratic spy-machine that is the CIA. It’s satire, but it’s all too reasonable.
Elsewhere, Clyde, a minimally educated but sharp-as-a-knife sherriff, begins to notice some strange things happening around the local university. Just what is it that these mysterious middle-eastern scientists are studying?
Stephenson (and George) assembles a compelling cast of characters and sends them forth masterfully into a plot that has great breadth, and pace, and humour. There are the typical Stephenson asides — entertaining little tangents where things are explained — and his usual wry (and spot-on) observations about the way things are.
It felt at first like a big departure from the other work of his that I’ve read. On reflection, though, it nestles in quite nicely with his historical fiction stuff — it just happens to be the very recent past that he’s depicting.
A jaunt of a novel and highly enjoyable, though it doesn’t quite hit the heights of his other work. It’s shorter too — there are glimpses of how much he loves writing (as in writing A LOT), but he doesn’t give himself the self-indulgent (but welcome) free reign that resulted in his later supersized works.
I’ve got The Diamond Age lined up for the not too distant future. We’ll see where that falls on the huge-ometer.