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Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

01/07/2005. Contributed by Tom Martin

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pub: Bantam Spectra. 618 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.00 (US), $21.00 (CAN). ISBN: 0-553-38343-4.

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Conspiracy theories are a popular theme for thrillers, both prose and film. Everyone would like to think that the reason a lot of bad things happen are down to the efforts of one man or organisation, working secretly for their own gains. That way, when the conspiracy is unmasked towards the end of the story, our heroes can get together and right the many wrongs in the world.

Perhaps the reason conspiracy theories abound in thrillers is simply how effectively they fit the plot formula - plus they give us an excuse to exercise our paranoia. The 'man' is out to get us or, more usually, is out to get the US President, as is the case in 'Interface'.

Neal Stephenson broke a lot of ground in the early nineties with cyberpunk novels like 'Snow Crash' and the 1996 Hugo Award winning 'The Diamond Age' - intelligent Science Fiction novels that caught a lot of attention. Around about the same time, together with co writer J. Frederick George, Stephenson wrote 'Interface' and 'Cobweb' under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. These two books were much more mainstream, political thrillers, in the vein of Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum.

Despite 'Interface' being a political thriller, Stephenson and George still find plenty of room for some interesting science to launch their plot from. When prominent politician William Cozzano suffers a stroke with loss of speech and movement, a group of doctors come to him with a breakthrough new treatment - a chip is implanted into his head to bypass the sections of his brain destroyed by the stroke. The treatment works so well that Cozzano continues what he was planning to do before the stroke - run for President.

As the book progresses, it becomes more and more clear that the companies involved in his election campaign and those that healed him are inexplicably intertwined. The technicians developing the chip offer him a few 'extra features' to the chip - they can make him recall memories by stimulating parts of the chip by radio.

Cozzano's daughter, Mary Catherine, and best friend Mel Meyer begin to suspect something fishy about Cy Ogle, the man running Cozzano's campaign for election. His PIPER 100 poll - a group of a hundred people from key demographic groups with a device attached to them which measures their emotions during Cozzano's speech - seems to uncannily match the things that come out of Cozzano's mouth in his improvised speeches.

As election night gets closer and Cozzano leaps ahead of his rivals in the polls, Mary Catherine, Mel and Cozzano's running mate Eleanor Richmond confirm their suspicions. In a sub-plot, Eleanor , a black woman living in a trailer park, rises rapidly through the political ranks following her live-on-TV dressing-down of a Republican candidate in a rally near her home. Ogle, watching the emotions of his poll group, is using the implant to generate memories in Cozzano's head - memories that lead to him saying things that appeal to the people in the focus group.

Cozzano is the figurehead a shadowy group of individuals is putting into the White House to suit their agenda. Mary Catherine, Mel and Eleanor, plus Cozzano himself, have to figure out a way to free his mind from their influence before Inauguration Day.

'Interface' is sharp, involving and frequently witty. I'd hesitate to call it Science Fiction, although I think most people who enjoy the genre wouldn't be too disappointed with this book. The characters are extremely identifiable and memorable and the prose has that unputdownable quality to it that make this book a quick read, despite its large page count. Definitely one for a long plane journey or day by the hotel pool.

The only gripes I had about 'Interface' were ones I mainly didn't notice whilst I was reading. The quality of writing lulled me into a false sense of security about the plot. I didn't notice how unbelievable some of it was until I thought over it later. The speed and ease with which the brain chip is developed, Cozzano recovers and Eleanor Richmond evolves from trailer park mom to potential vice-president are a little far-fetched. The veneer of quality in the writing masks this whilst reading, but it niggles slightly after the fact.

The ending, after such a well-paced development, seemed a little rushed to me and a lot of major events happened in the space of a few chapters, which I felt was perhaps one twist too many. But overall, Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George produced, back in 1994, a thriller that should entertain most of the people that pick it up and conjures up a few interesting conspiracy theories of its own.

Tom Martin

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