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The Cobweb
Stephen Bury
Bantam Books, 448 pages

Stephen Bury
Stephen Bury is the pen name of Neal Stephenson (author of Snowcrash and The Diamond Age) and his uncle, J. Frederick George, who got together to write "mainstream, commercial, technothriller-type fiction just for the hell of it." (Neal Stephenson, Interzone, July/96)

Pixel Planet Review of Interface
Bookwire: Stephen Bury
Publishers Weekly Review of The Cobweb
The Linköping Science Fiction & Fantasy Archive: Stephen Bury

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alex Anderson

The first thing that needs to be said about The Cobweb is that it isn't science fiction. Not really. Though it does have elements that approach the edge, and may indeed cross the line, it's no more what we classically consider science fiction than Tom Clancy's The Cardinal of the Kremlin.

It's those elements that flirt with Outer Limits-type speculation that we wonder about here though, just as the satellite-blasting laser depicted by Clancy raises questions: Is this kind of thing possible now? Has science fact caught up with science fiction?

The Cobweb is one of those unusual experiences that's enjoyable because it points out how close to the line between the past and the future we really walk, especially with the ever-increasing speed of technological advancement we're now seeing. In that respect this book follows in the steps of Bury's last novel, Interface, and the works of Robert Sawyer: Frameshift and The Terminal Experiment in particular.

What sets these novels apart from those of Clancy and his crowd is that they address the future of biotechnology and the scientific advancements of medicine and genetics -- an area that has always been of interest in mystery novels and became fair game for science fiction writers following the success of The X-Files. Much has been written about future technology when it comes to submarines, lasers and jet planes, but the world of the chromosome hasn't been addressed in any serious way yet.

But is it science fiction? We do live in a world where picking your pet sheep out of a crowd can be a challenge after all. The thought of cloning farm animals would probably give even Phillip K. Dick's androids nightmares.

This particular jaunt into "mainstream, commercial, technothriller-type fiction" takes us back to the days leading up to the Gulf War, when Saddam was our friend basically because he wasn't Iranian. And the plot revolves around -- don't worry, I'm not giving away anything you won't get from the marketing text on the dust jacket -- Iraqi scientists using student visa's to get access to leading American educational institutions, where they can work on biological weapons which they then plan to use on us and our allies. Nasty. But then again, that is why we went to war with them.

The main characters are Clyde Banks, a small town deputy sheriff who's campaigning to replace his boss in an upcoming election (and who has a pregnant wife in the National Guard destined to go guess where), and dowdy CIA analyst Betsy Vandeventer. The small town the sheriff lives in also happens to be home to Eastern Iowa University which, sitting square in the American heartland as it does, specializes in agricultural science, a veritable magnet for Iraqi biological weapons specialists.

As the calendar flips closer and closer to the war we know is coming, things start to get squirly (read: people start to die). At the same time Betsy has overturned a few things that are rather strange in Washington D.C. Specifically she has twigged, however peripherally, to what's going on. She raises unholy hell about it, pissing off those around her who supported Saddam as an ally, and finds herself in the middle of a political, bureaucratic mess of the kind only true Luddites relish. The result: she gets cobwebbed. This means she gets separated from the meaningful business of the day and tied up in committees, reports and doing pointless research so she has no time to get into further trouble. As a threat to those above her ,she is nullified.

Of course that leaves us in quite a state, doesn't it? The baddies are on American soil, committing God-only-knows-what kind of freedom/God-hating atrocities and the only person who has the foggiest inkling to what's going on has been effectively neutralized.

For anyone who likes Clancy and spy-type thrillers The Cobweb is a worthwhile investment. The characters are strong, the writing of high quality, and the plot has few hiccups. It's not Stephenson's best work, nor even Bury's, but it's worth recommending.

Copyright © 1997 by Alex Anderson

Alex Anderson is a long-time SF reader just pompous enough to believe other people may want to read the meanderings he scribbles down between fits of extreme lethargy he calls contemplation.

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