Interface: Neal Stephenson's underappreciated masterpiece

Last week I was rearranging some bookcases and I found myself holding a copy of Interface, the novel Neal Stephenson wrote with his uncle George Jewsbury (AKA J. Frederick George) in 1994. I remember when this book came out; I'd gotten a set of galleys from Bakka Books, the bookstore I'd worked at in Toronto, took them home on a Friday night, and the next thing I knew it was Sunday afternoon and I was holding a finished copy of Interface, my mind whirling, grinning like a mad saint.

This is one of those books that you return to again and again -- as I have just done, reading all 600+ pages of it in stolen moments over the past few days -- and find something new to like about each time. Bruce Sterling once told me that a technothriller is a "science fiction novel with the President in it," and Interface fits that bill. It's a novel about a lovable, no-bullshit governor of Illinois who suffers a stroke on the eve of the State of the Union address in which a feckless President announces that he is capping the amount of the budget that can go to servicing the national debt. This motivates The Network, a shadowy cartel of financial interests who control most of that debt, to buy the presidency, after installing some interesting neural interface hardware into the governor's head.

This is probably Stephenson's most tightly plotted book -- the kind of thing that proves that the sprawling, sometimes messy plots of books like Snow Crash are deliberate, not an accident or mistake. Like Cryptonomicon, the book is chock full of brilliant, memorable set pieces -- if you liked the Cryptonomicon exegesis on eating Cap'n Crunch cereal, you will love this book.

And like Cryptonomicon and the System of the World trilogy, this book makes you feel like Stephenson is tapped into some of the Big Secrets of how the levers of power work in the world, the mysterious underpinnings of finance, history, and human relationships laid out there for us to see.

I keep losing days I can't afford to this book. This last reading was probably my tenth go at it, and there were whole passages I found myself remembering verbatim, warmly, fondly (did I mention how wonderfully written this book is, on a sentence-by-sentence level? It's like the glibbest, funniest raconteur you ever met, unspooling in virtuoso form for 650 pages).

I'm really glad that this thing is still in print -- especially since that means I can now recommend it to all of you. Be prepared to lose a day or two to it. Link


  1. The other “Stephen Bury” book, The Cobweb, is also well worth reading. And it has a nice, satisfying ending.

  2. Is this the one that has the demographics firm that has the electorate sliced up into about a hundred types, each with names like POST-CONFEDERATE GRAVY EATER and DEBT-HAUNTED WAGE SLAVE?

  3. Spot on, Mr. Hayden.

    This book is amazing. Highly recommended, along with The Cobweb. When searching for more Stephenson to devour while waiting for the last ‘System’ book, I was terribly happy to find these.

  4. After many years I’m still by the perfection of the DEPRESSION-HAUNTED CAN STACKER demographic. I re-read Cobweb after the newest Iraq war started and it holds up — not to be missed, though not as awesome as Interface.

  5. This book also seems prophetic in many ways. Not necessarily the core technology, but other developments in politics and media since the book was written seem to have come true. “We have solved the problem of elections.” Indeed!

  6. I work on demographic analysis software for a living, and while the names of their clusters are a bit over the top, that stuff is otherwise spot-on. So much so, it kind of freaked me out reading it: If the only part I know a lot about is completely true…

  7. TwoShort @ #7: Do you include the EKG-etc. monitoring of the demographic ‘representatives’?

  8. I couldn’t get 30 pages into Interface. Too many times I’ve discarded SF books because of their lack of vision, or because some unforeseen invention has made their previously visionary text obsolete. I don’t fault the authors for this, I just can’t make it through the text without feeling disdain.

    I have a similar reaction to watching them cradle an audio modem in the movie Sneakers as well.

  9. An odd coincidence: I just picked up this book one week ago to read for the second time. It’s one of the few Stephenson books I haven’t read many times.

  10. I have both Interface and The Cobweb, I much prefer The Cobweb. The description of Midwestern life in a college is right out of my memory. I especially like the butcher shop stuff.

  11. I love this book, and I’d like to reiterate the previous poster’s recommendation of The Cobweb, especially pertinent in these days of Iraq the sequel

  12. I bought this book new a few years ago from Uncle Hugo’s (The oldest independent science fiction bookstore in America. Founded in 1974.) I was delighted to find it signed when I got home. This happened again with Quicksilver as well.

  13. My favorite part of Interface is Cy Ogle explaining how politicians are trained to look good relative to the gamma curve of normal TV, and how they’ll all be voted out (in favour of better-looking ones) once HD catches on…

  14. Funny timing, I only just finished re-reading thisa couple of weeks ago. I rarely re-visit books so this was quite odd but loved it just as much the second time.
    Highly recommended by me.


    I got it when I was digging through Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Great book. Totally came true in freaky ways.

    If Bush’s face was all messed because of CIA mind control, then what was Kerry’s excuse? Zombie Mind Control?

  16. I’ve not read this one, and will be on the lookout for it, but earlier this year I read Stephenson’s The Big U, which I believe was his first novel. As usual in his oeuvre it’s filled with amazingly huge ideas that he obviously understands in proper context better than your average skiffy hack latching onto the concept of the hour. Sure, it’s got some truly ridiculous plot twists, but it’s a black comedy, so I can forgive the giant mutant rats and Baltoslovenian terrorists.

  17. Great recommendation.

    Well into the story, the governor is discussing The Network and its ability to operate just below the surface of the public consciousness. His closest advisor spots a flock of birds spinning in the sky, and comments how the mass of birds can swoop and suddenly shrink in size to apparently nothing – then suddenly turn and grow to intimidating size again. I forget the exact wording, but it was such a well-written passage that every time I spot a mass of fast-moving birds in the sky I think of this book.

  18. MWISCONSIN #9:
    That must really limit the pool of SF you can read to a small, select subset of mainly very recent works?

    The giant mutant rats were totally cool in the context of the LARP.

  19. >if you liked the Cryptonomicon exegesis on eating Cap’n Crunch cereal, you will love this book.

    Ugh. That was the worst part of the entire book.

  20. Chang@#17, no, not zombies. Reality has just outdone art, is all.

    We have two *separate* shadowy groups, each backing different sides.

  21. I own both the “Stephen Bury” books, along with all the other Stephenson books. The only ones I find hard reading are the System of the World trilogy. I’m halfway through the second volume and it’s really slow going.

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