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on 31 July 2006
I was surprised to see this book around as I thought I had read all of Stephenson's stuff. This was a great story, a real page turner. I thought it was let down (only very slightly I might add) with a couple of bits which seemed to fal into the "I haven't mentioned this before but I'll chuck it in now as it gets me out of a tight situation".

The plot was well thought out and slotted together very nicely and, unlike a few of Stephenson's books, the ending isn't a let down. I know he has a tendency to rush an ending but it didn;t seem like he did it this time.

If you liked Interface you will like this. It's easier to read than Cryptonomicon and far, far lighter than the Baroque Cycle, but Stephenson still manages to work his genious on a smaller stage.
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VINE VOICEon 26 December 2006
Like another reviewer I was surprised not to have seen this book before; I thoroughly enjoyed Cryptonomicon though I must admit the Baroque Cycle bored and defeated me! However a quick search on Wikipedia reveals that this is actually a reprint of a book originally published in 1996 under Stephenson's pseudonum, "Stephen Bury" as "The Cobweb".


A highly enjoyable, page-turning thriller about a conspiracy to develop chemical weapons in the US during the events leading up to the first Gulf war. I know now we're all ever so jaded about "WMD" but at the time they were a very real and very plausible threat.

Ever the enemy of cliche, the heroes in this book are not strong-jawed tautly-muscled ubermenschen but just normal run-of-the-mill people; one of whom happens to work for the CIA and one of whom happens to be a somewhat unsuccessful deputy sheriff in a small town in rural America. As is often the case in Stephenson's books, quick wit, subtlety, and discipline win out over brute strength and violence (a bit like MacGyver really...).

In terms of his other works this book is most similar to "Interface", which was also co-written by Frederick George and shares that books scepticism about the intentions of those with governmental power. Stephenson excels at setting up compelling, parallel strands to a story that flirt with one another and reward the reader for noticing the links; they're rarely spelled out and unlike, say Dan Brown's work, the book is light on exposition. As one of his earlier works Stephenson only gives us two parallel threads to keep in mind, as opposed to the much more difficult Cryptonomicon which doesn't just have different threads but different decades to remember!

One thing that did confuse me slightly was the cover blurb describes it as a "wickedly satirical thriller of modern america". I didn't really find it all that satirical but enjoyed it very much nevertheless.
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Having become a fan of Stephenson, first through the excellent, written for nerds by a nerd, Cryptonomicon, and then the Baroque Cycle, tomes so dense as to detectably curve space-time, it was great to see that Neal had a new one out. So I got it and read it. Throughout I was waiting for the stunningly big ideas to surface, or maybe just one big idea, but I got to the end and none arrived. I realised I had just read a well-written enough political thriller, with just maybe a bit of a satirical edge that you wouldn't get in a Robert Ludlum or a Tom Clancy page-turner but nonetheless that's all it was. Nothing more and nothing less. Exactly the sort of book I wouldn't have bothered reading if I had known. It's not a bad book, but in a finite lifetime in which only so many books can read this would not be on my list.

Another reviewer states that this is in fact a re-release of an earlier book written under a pseudonym, to cash in on Stephenson's new found popularity. I wish this had been made clear on the tin.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 September 2009
Fans of Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Big U will probably like this for the simple reason that the same sense of gross exaggeration and pinpoint satire is quite prevalent. Quite simply, Stephenson has some fun with this, from his character's names (Desiree Dhont) to 400 pound wrestling freaks.

But amongst all the fun there is a more serious bulwark that Stephenson attempts to pierce with this satire cum thriller, that of just how the American intelligence agencies really work (or don't). Starting in 1990, the book covers the national and international events leading up to and through the beginning of the serious start of Gulf War I, with the major lynchpin of the plot revolving around just why there are so many Iraqi students working for their graduate degree at a small mid-west college.

For a satire to be effective, there needs to be at least a small kernel of truth buried under all the barbs - and the portrait painted here of just how the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the rest of the alphabet soup really work is frightening because events that have occurred since this book was written (long before 9/11 and WMD intelligence made headlines) show that this portrait, rather than being a gross exaggeration generated by one (or two, in this case) fevered author's mind, is painfully accurate. It is a sad commentary on our government agencies that shows that initiative and proper application of discerning, probing minds to the mass of raw data these agencies receive, rather than being appropriately acted upon and the initiator properly rewarded, is instead bound around by `study' groups, stonewallers, credit grabbers, disavowed by everyone who stands to lose a smidgen of status because they were not the originators, denigrated, have their careers short-circuited, and in short are `cobwebbed'. There is also some sharp commentary on just how foreign policy is formed and implemented, and should be a wakeup reminder to people that the US supported Saddam's regime for a long time merely to have a counterweight to Iran.

As a story, this is a pretty good thriller, with a basic story line that is quite believable (as long as you can recognize when Stephenson is having another flight of grand exaggeration). The characterization of the deputy sheriff and the poor low-level GS-11 Washington analyst is good, and the situations they fall into actually proceed quite logically from one point to the next. Most of the rest of the characters are pretty thinly drawn, and in a few cases are mere stereotypes, but they perform their job of moving the plot along pretty well.

Not as good as Snow Crash, but it comes close.

---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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This is a really enjoyable book - a book with bite, adventure and a bleakly satirical edge. It concerns the neighbouring areas of Wapsipinicon and Nishnabotna in Iowa which have a number of hunting, fishing and camping areas, much real estate, and is the site of Eastern Iowa University. A love story sets the scene when Desirèe Dhont and Clyde Banks meet in high school, and marry then have a baby daughter. Clyde is a Deputy Sherrif with ambitions to become Sherrif. But when Reserves are called up to fight in Iraq, it is Desirèe who goes to war, leaving Clyde to care for the baby Maggie. The irony of a six foot three Wrestling champion left in charge of a small daughter is only the first surprise of this absorbing and beautifully observed situation. There are many more to come.

Revelatory characters abound. Betsy Vandeventer is a very small fish in a very large and often dangerous pond. She works for the CIA - not on operations but as a bean counter in an office. When she dares to bring up the subject of money going missing from Iraqi food aid quotas, she learns that she has exceeded her task and comes to the notice of the head of the CIA James Gabor Millikan. She is then cobwebbed, which means a great deal of extra work, a demotion and an obfuscation of her reporting capabilities. Doors are closing upon her and her ambitions are superseded. But she has one extraordinary ally.

Meanwhile Clyde has hit upon some strange events that suggest something is not right in the research facilities at the University. It appears that students from Jordan are not actually Jordinian and may be involved in a frightening and highly dangerous plot from which will stem the McGuffin of this story. As Clyde sticks to his idea of visiting every house in the area in a bid to gain votes in the upcoming Sherrif's election, the complex plot evolves into a terrifying journey in an airplane carrying a weapon designed to escalate the war in Kuwait.

Thickly populated with CIA, FBI and the large Dhont clan, their adopted soldier daughter, and the people of Wapsinicon and Nishnabotna, this is an exciting and unique reading experience. It has an abundance of wit, a measure of unbearable excitement and a full set of devious and deadly treasures. Discover it now.
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This book (published in 1996) was the second of two novels Neal Stephenson wrote in collaboration with his uncle, historian George Jewsbury. I'd read the first one, Interface, some time ago, but had neglected to pick this up until now. I'm very glad I did.

The story's a fast-moving thriller about biochemical terrorism in the build-up to the first Gulf War in 1990, involving mysterious goings-on in a midwestern university town and at CIA headquarters in Washington. There's a wide cast of characters (including some historically contemporary figures such as George H.W. Bush and Tariq Aziz) which are scattered across a variety of locations, but the story is driven forward so deftly and with such confidence that you never lose track of either what's going on or the connection between events and people. I think of this skill as a particular hallmark of Stephenson's writing - perhaps best illustrated by his recent Reamde - a hefty masterpiece which, although sprawling and complicated, is still interesting and gripping.

Readers familiar with his work will recognize other themes of the story, including a fascination with technology and an unsentimental view of the importance of family. There are some nice touches in the descriptions as well. Look, for example, at this [p138]:

"Ebenezer was a plain-dealing and -speaking sort. In his mind all transactions more complex than, say, buying a plate of scrambled eggs at the Hy-Vee breakfast counter, and all relationships more complex than a lifelong, purely monogamous marriage between two virgins, belonged to a vast but vaguely defined category called 'shenanigans'".

I greatly enjoyed this book - partly as a fascinating page-turner, and partly as a window back into a specific point in history which I hadn't thought about for a long time, in spite of having lived through it. Recommended.
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on 24 July 2013
Slowly but surely Neal Stephenson is creeping up my favourite author list. He has a eclectic genre list that he writes, from modern thriller, cyber books to fantasy.

Cobweb is set in the time of the first Gulf War, when Iraq have invaded Kuwait. In small town America a body of an Arab student turns up following a boating accident; but this student has been consuming alcohol. The local deputy sheriff suspects something fishy and starts to dig around the local university where the student was from.

In the meantime a low level CIA analyst is starting to get wind of an Iraqi plot happening on American soil. As she is CIA she cannot investigate, but she become the centre of a power play between two powerful men close to the president. One had been a supporter of Saddam, and is hastily re-aligning his loyalties; the other is a big chief in the CIA who also suspects that the Iraqis are up to something, but he is restricted in his capacity to deal with it. Lots of digging by the two main characters start to make them suspect that there is a potentially deadly biochemical plant in operation, and the body count starts to climb. Cue the big showdown.

Really enjoyed this in the end. It took a while to get going, but made up for it in the end. Stephenson manages to convey the vested interests in high placed officials well, the cobweb being the way that they stifle each other with officialdom.
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on 4 June 2012
This is described on the front cover as "A wickedly satirical thriller of modern America". I didn't see much satire in it: appropriate cynicism, yes, but satire, no.

The story is about the problems of bureaucracies and how demarcation lines and internal politics driven by personal ambition can lead to major mess-ups and the failure of the entire system to accomplish its primary objective.

Set during the run up to the first Gulf war the novel deals with events in the US involving the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. Published in 1997 the tale describes a situation where the various elements of the US security establishment are more involved in fulfilling their individual missions and activities than in sharing intelligence about the activities of foreign operatives in Continental United States, something that was to be highlighted by investigations held after the events of the nine-eleven attacks in the US.

One element of this book that worked well was its portrayal of the impact on people remaining at home while their loved ones in the military go off to war. This was made all the more poignant in Cobweb as it involved a reservist who is called up to serve.

This book is not a regular Stephenson novel. It is an easy to read thriller but it is not a book I would recommend strongly.
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VINE VOICEon 3 January 2010
This is set around the start of the First Gulf War and follows two main characters , an analyst called Bettsie and a troope called Clyde - in both their respective ways they uncover an Iraqi plot to deliver a bacteriologocal weapon into the Middle East
This is not your standard Neal Stephenson fare but a more straight down the line thriller with some execllent characters and some very pointed comments about how government works - or does not work ..
A guy called Millikan comes across as completely amoral (but as a diplomat that may be a good thing) and not at all interested in right or wrong - just what looks good for him - and having some experience of government the cobweb technique he uses to prevent things getting done is in use today ..
The description of central government in the US is iguana like, sitting on a rock killing anything in range and not doing anything else was very well done
The plot of the story rips along with what seem like a number of dead ends that open up to show the full horror of what was planned - and I won't spoil that , especially how the Russians get involved
A damm good story - well worth the read
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 September 2014
This is a rumbustious thriller with well-drawn characters and a beautifully-detailed picture of middle America at the time of the Gulf War. Although the war features in the story, the action is confined to the USA, and is very well done indeed.
The plot involves a likable young married couple with their first baby - he's a deputy sheriff and she's an ex-military nurse who is called up when trouble starts in the East.
So we get to discover how Dad (who is a lot smarter than others suspect) handles the international terrorist plots whilst running for Sheriff and looking after baby, whilst (this is after all Neal Stephenson and his uncle writing) the intricate dealings in Washington and elsewhere are being exposed from other related viewpoints. I greatly enjoyed it, and found it hard to put down.
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