I’ve decided to go back and read some of Neal Stephenson’s earlier writings, and I started with this book.
It’s a very decent thriller, with some aspects of a mystery and some of a spy novel. The plot is initially divided into separate stories which then become one story. The first follows Clyde Banks, who is a sheriff in a small, fictional town in Iowa (near where Stephenson lived for a time). The town has a large university. The second story follows Betsy Vandeventer who is an analyst at the CIA.
The plot centers on the US invasion of Iraq following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Without giving too much away, there is an Iraqi plot to develop biological weapons in the US for use in the upcoming war and this plot is foiled by the combination of our heroes.
The book works (even though it’s a bit dated) because of the interesting way in which each of the places, namely Iowa and DC, (and the characters that are very much of the places) are portrayed. The characters are a bit over-the-top without going so far over-the-top in the good way that makes Stephenson's later characters so great. But he's great on the workings of government, for example:
Larking Schoendienst had told Betsy that in D.C> there were two ways to murder policy without appearing to have committed a crime. One was cobwebbing, in which a person with an idea—usually a young and bright person with a good, new idea—would fall victim to the surrounding bureaucrats, who would exclaim, “Why, that’s a good idea!” and throw out a web of reporting requirements, consulting requirements, or new budgeting procedures. Soon the person and his idea would be totally immobilized by a shimmering silken cocoon, to be put away and devoured another day. The second method was the interagency task force. “You have to remember, Betsy,” Schoendienst would say, “that D.C. is not about solving problems. If we solved problems, there would be nothing else left to do and we would all have to go out and something honest—like fry hamburgers. No, D.C. is about keeping jobs, which we do by managing problems. There is no higher achievement than making a problem your own, managing that problem, nurturing that problem along until you’ve made it to retirement and hopefully mentored a whole new generation of young bureaucrats to whom you can bequeath the problem . . .”
The interaction between universities and government and elitism on display among the diplomats are also worth paying attention too.
This book isn’t nearly as interesting as Stephenson’s later work, but I still found it enjoyable. It made a long flight go by quickly and it had sparks of the very interesting stuff that was to come later from Stephenson.