Being There meets Being Digital

Mon, 04/09/2007 - 00:00

Interface. Stephen Bury. Bantam Books, 1995

by Alan Robles

It's election year. You've hired the usual goons, bribed the local officials, paid off the reporters and rigged the surveys. Gosh darn, is there anything else a self-respecting campaign manager can do?

How about implanting a biochip in the candidate's brain? No, not to boost the candidate's IQ, heaven forbid. He or she might abandon politics altogether. Instead, the chip will let the wearer receive instant and continuous guidance on an electronic network that secretly monitors public opinion.

Karl Rove would have loved one of those back in 2004. Imagine something even better than a hidden earpiece for coaching a candidate during debate -- a device that bypasses the candidate's dim thought processes entirely. It probably isn't actually possible to do this yet, but as Interface makes clear, it's the thought that counts.

Originally published for the 1996 US presidential elections, Interface is Being There meets Being Digital, wrapped around a respectable suspense story. It sardonically sketches how the American election process is so dominated by electronic media that it moves along solely through crafted images and sound bites. Now doesn't that sound familiar?

When it first came out the book's author was identified as Stephen Bury, which turned out to be a collective pseudonym for Neal Stephenson (who went on to write the staggering Baroque Cycle trilogy) and his uncle, J.Frederick George (which turned out to be another pseudonym for historian George Jewsbury). The Stephen Bury duo only managed to write one other novel, the unremarkable Cobweb, but Interface is a gem.

The novel's technological centerpiece is a microprocessor planted in the brain of a politician, and the science is halfway believable, but don't let it detract you from the smooth-paced, hugely enjoyable plot. It's certainly a plot, all right: a group of jillionaires decides to express their faith in the American government by hijacking it. Assembling a cabal of brain surgeons, computer experts, engineers and a media adviser, the ominously named "Network" (think Trilateral Commission or the Bilderbergs) fields an unbeatable presidential candidate: a politician neurally hooked to a system called PIPER -- Poll Instantaneous Processing, Evaluation, and Reponse

It isn't just the story that's fun. Bury populates the book with memorable and memorably named rogues: Cyrus Rutherford Ogle, arch media manipulator; his mortal enemy, Jeremiah Freel, redneck lunatic Floyd Wayne Vishniak, whose named sounds like that of a Tolken orc and actually provoked a web response from a man named Vishniac explaining the word is Polish in origin.

Interface isn't a hand-wringing commentary on a deplorable state of affairs, nor is it a mass-produced Clancy clunker. It's a pointed science fiction satire that does for campaign methods what Primary Colors did for campaign personalities. Far from letting their tongues hang out over high-tech, the writers keep them firmly tucked in their cheek. A novel that has the US President favorably quoting Rasputin in a state of the nation address just isn't taking itself seriously. The drollest internal joke in the book is that the one character who comes closest to discovering the plot is the half-deranged paranoid conspiracy theorist who suspects secret forces are using mind control rays.

Readers naive to the ways of politics will get a wealth of education on the art of television manipulation. Interface gives absorbing tips on the use of zoom-ins, the sort of clothing to wear, and techniques for destroying a candidate's popularity rating within a month.

With elections coming up here, would-be spin doctors and campaign flacks could pick up a few tips from this novel. They might even consider trying to use brain implants on their candidates.God knows, our politicians could certainly do with something inside their brains.


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