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Stephen Bury Cobweb Neil StephensonStephen Bury is a pseudonym for a co-writing effort by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George. Cobweb is their 2nd book as co-authors, after 'Interface'.
The story is written to play in an alternative recent history, although it could just as well fit in with the facts as we know them from the 1st Gulf war, edited as they are when they reach us...
It follows two separate strands in the build up to the war. On the one hand we have gutsy Betsy Vendeveter, a low grade analyst in the CIA, who has just stumbled over a connection that nobody else has noticed, and then committed career suicide by actually releasing it, which means she seriously overstepped her boundaries. Especially as her observation, concerning mid-Eastern graduate students, biological weapons, and associated skullduggery torpedoes all the careful work, done over many years, of James Gabor Millikan, US Diplomat to the Near East, and main shaper of US foreign policy in the area. So, from thereon she is shunned, shunted about, and only helped in the most obscure ways – the service wants, no, needs her insights, but cannot be seen to want her.

The other strand follows Deputy Sheriff Clyde Banks, working in the fictional twin townships of Wapsinicon-Nishnabotna; a man with both feet on the ground and heaps of common sense, but also with a small child to look after and his wife in Kuwait. And with the odd quirk, of course. For example there is a lot of local animosity between the two towns, like in Clyde's observation that "Everyone has a role in the cosmic story, no matter how small, dangerous, or humiliating. The roles picked out for boys from Nishnabotna tended to fit all three descriptions".
Priceless – and no prices for guessing where he grew up, either.
Wapsinicon has a University where Dr Arthur 'Rainmaker' Larson has his department – and he employs loads of foreign students to do his graduate research. And most of them are from the mid-east, obviously with passports from non-prescribed countries. All above board, clearly. Except for the ones Clyde identifies as Iraqis (in contrast to their vetted passports) and most likely up to no good; the ones showing up dead in the local lake, and the Valkhan Turks playing their own game.

The book deals with heavy topics – xenophobia/racism is a recurring theme, but also biological weapons with genetic markers to make them more targeted; then there's the classic inter-service wrangles with much higher priority than the truth, or the nation, or the nation's soldiers, and of course the all the associated backstabbing, counter-intelligence, and accompanying 'Alphabet Soup' of acronyms and abbreviations.
The story is told with loads of flashbacks, incidental data, Ellipses and little asides, a lot of which don't seem to have any bearing on the story, and only provide local colorit or general character background.

The book moves at a moderate pace, and takes a good while to get going (whilst feeding you backstory, hints, and facts about the setting), but whilst it is not the fastest book, or the most thrilling, er, thriller, it nevertheless is highly readable, interesting, and quite compulsive reading despite the moderate pace.
One thing I found startling, though, is how much of the book reminds me of Quantico by Greg Bear. Except, I found out when I looked into it, that Quantico was written 9 years later, I just read them the other way round. Without stepping into any claims on appropriating ideas (sorry, being inspired is the term, of course) or such, let's just say that, if you liked Quantico, then you will enjoy Cobweb. Or vice versa, of course.

I can recommend the book – despite its age it feels fresh and relevant; I guess the topics are just as hot today as they were in 96 (hey, there's another Gulf War on in Eye-Rack!), if not hotter…

Title: Cobweb
Author: Stephen Bury
Author: Neal Stephenson and J. Frederik George
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL: http://skating.thierstein.net
Publisher:  Penguin
Publication Date: 1998
Review Date: 080812
ISBN: 0140271836
Price: UKP 5.99
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
Topic: Thriller
Topic: Alternative History

 

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