Belarius's Reviews > Interface

Interface by Neal Stephenson
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Jan 26, 08

bookshelves: fiction-finished, speculative-fiction, politics, reviewed
Recommended for: Hardcore Political Junkies
Read in August, 2007

Neal Stephenson & J. Frederick George teamed up to write Interface in 1994, and the result is unquestionably a product of that era of American politics. Seen from the modern perspective (as is often the case with "outdated" science fiction), Interface tells us a great deal more about the era in which it was written than it does about the future.

Very early in the book, during the rising action, campaign strategist Cy Ogle (a James Carville/Karl Rove/Fu Manchu hybrid) says the following, which captures the book's political world perfectly:

"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 ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval @!$%#hole 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 wil 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 by groping through steaming guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate's fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute, deconstructing his 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 lengthy monologue is typical of the book, which was published before the Lewinsky scandal and before 9/11. The story is an artifact of an era where both parties were so close to center that there was no telling them apart, so the only thing that mattered was showmanship. In various tones and forms, the reader will be reminded of this political reality over and over again.

The story itself is, as mentioned above, a rehash of the Manchurian Candidate, with a twist. Independent presidential candidate William Cozzano has had a stroke, and his miraculous recovery is due to computer chips in his brain that are being tweaked by a nefarious transnational conspiracy. Effectively, Cozzano is under remote control, saying the best thing at any given moment. Meanwhile, a new "instant polling" technology reads the emotional reactions of a sample of voters in real time, so Cozzano literally respond to their concerns instantaneously. As the back of the book puts it: "Forget issues. Forget policy. Cozzano is more than the perfect candidate. He's a special effect."

This central storyline forms the spine of the book, but the narrative focus shifts constantly. At least ten characters wear the "protagonist" hat over the course of the book, which runs in many directions at once and takes a long time to get any momentum. Parts of the book resemble the very best passages of Cryptonomicon, racing at breakneck speed through really gripping subject matter. Others feel like the most amateurish moments in Stephenson's much rougher Zodiac. Whether this irregularity is due to Stephenson's relative inexperience at the time (he is clearly a much better writer now) or due to the collaboration with George is impossible to tell.

The story's narrative drive is equally irregular. Some characters (especially antagonists) are introduced but never elaborated upon, dropping like loose threads. The "main story" of the book doesn't even begin to take recognizable form until at least 1/3 of the way through the book, leaving the reader wondering in the early sections what the point of this or that tangent is. Usually, that point becomes clear over time, but not always.

Perhaps most annoying is the book's slightly self-righteous tone, especially when combined with how dated and naive its depiction of politics is. There is no question that money and media remain the deciding factors in a candidate's election, but the idea that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans was a myth from the Culture Wars. As relevant as the monologue above remains to the electoral process, it can't be the whole story, as recent election suggest. Americans do care about issues and about policy.

Despite these problems, Interface is still an amusing political thriller. Its unevenness does make it hard to predict (which is something of a plus), and ever stodgy passage is matched by a gripping one. Parts of it are brilliant. Anyone who likes their political thrillers light on the politics or their science fiction light on the science will find this book entertaining. It's a good book. But it is far from great.
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