[Amazon Link] One of the many things for which I remain in tearful gratitude to whatever mysterious forces placed me on this Earth in this era: I have the works of Neal Stephenson to read. While I await new stuff to come out, I've gone back to dig out some of his old stuff. This book was written in the mid-90s in collaboration with "J. Frederick George". (Who is, in real life, George Jewsbury, Stephenson's uncle.) It is set in a semi-fictional US leading up to the election of 1996.

The book centers around William Cozzano, governor of Illinois, an honest and admirable politician. (Having an Illinois governor being honest and admirable is probably one of the least believable bits of the book.) The action opens on the evening of the State of the Union message, when the current US President reveals his plan to (at least partially) repudiate the massive US debt. This infuriates Cozzano enough to cause a stroke that kills many important parts of his brain.

Meanwhile, the debt repudiation causes a shadowy organization called The Network to spring into action; a lot of that multi-trillion dollar debt is owed to them, and they're willing to devote resources toward a far-fetched, yet ruthless plan to ensure repayment.

Also meanwhile, a young technologist, Aaron, is trying to get his invention past airport security guards: it is an extremely sophisticated physiological monitoring system that can reveal the inner mental and emotional state of the person to which it's attached. By coincidence, Aaron meets Cy, a political consultant; Cy realizes that Aaron's invention has possible applications in his field.

And also meanwhile, Elanor, a young black woman in Denver is teetering on the edge of financial ruin: her husband has left her with two surly youngsters and done himself in.

The fates of these folks all become intertwined in (very) unexpected ways. But the upshot is that Cozzano's brain is repaired by advanced technology (good), but he also becomes an unwitting pawn of nefarious powers as he becomes a near perfect presidential candidate.

This isn't as good as Stephenson's more recent stuff, but it's still a very enjoyable read, darkly satirical, full of wit and insight. You might think a techno-political thriller written nearly two decades ago might be a tad dated, but you'd be surprised at how timely it feels. Some things just don't change.

Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:20 AM EDT