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The Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book. I’m a huge Neal Stephenson fan. His writing is wonderful. His characters are fascinating. This book, co-written with his uncle under the pen name Stephen Bury is, in my opinion, highly underrated.

First and foremost, if you’ve read Stephenson’s recent work (Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle then you’ll probably find The Cobweb to be somewhat light reading. On the other hand, if you like thrillers, this is a very easy and palatable read.

What I enjoyed most about The Cobweb were the indictments of Washington bureaucrats, and of the way the U.S. Government works (or doesn’t, as is more likely). The books characters are people are I can relate to, whether we’re talking about simple speaking but intelligent deputy sheriff Clyde Banks or the cynical career CIA agent Hennessy. The family of wrestlers named Dhont and the (fictional) migratory Vakhan Turks added a lot to the tale.

Since I have spent five years on active duty in both the Marine Corps and the Army, I particularly enjoyed the critiques of bloated bureaucracy and the central theme of the book “being cobwebbed” by bureaucrats. The detailed descriptions of government bloat and inefficiency are spot on.

The Cobweb manages to mock politics, politicians, bureaucrats and bureaucray and I found that aspect of the novel highly refreshing. The only scene I found unrealistic or unbelievable in the entire novel was the shootout in downtown D.C., in which one of the characters survives a pistol battle only to ask, “What was that all about?” People who survive gun battles that take place inside a vehicle with the windows rolled up aren’t going to be able to hear, but I can forgive the authors since they’ve probably never heard a gun fired inside a car with the windows rolled up. I’m pretty sure a lot of the botulism stuff was unrealistic too, but I’m not a scientist, and so my suspension of disbelief remained intact in regards to the Iraqi terrorist plot to use botulism against Israel, and thereby break the coalition. I suspect that in the real world, though, such a scenario wouldn’t work, because the truth of the matter is that every country but Britain could have pulled out of the first Gulf War and the result would still have been identical. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting plot the kept my rapt attention throughout.

My favorite portion of The Cobweb is a long speech, in which the jaded Hennessy explains that government does not solve problems, it merely manages them. Bureaucrats don’t actually fix anything, they find ways to drag out and prolong the problems, making them their own and passing them on to the next crop of bureaucrats, who continue the process of managing the problems.

The Cobweb is a wonderful yarn that highlights the best and worst in people and institutions and it’s a wonderful romp through a fictional part of Iowa that I highly recommend. Guest starring two real historical characters – Tariq Aziz and George Herbert Walker Bush.

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