Stephenson’s debut dystopian thriller trails the lives of people in 2027 America, crippled by war, natural disasters, a crumbling economy and the threat of nuclear destruction.
Times are bleak for America in the near future. It’s suffering through the Second Great Depression; Florida has been devastated by Hurricane Luther; and having toppled countries, Iran has become a superpower. In fact, the U.S. joined the European Army to form the Allied Forces in a war against the Great Empire of Iran. Meanwhile, Iranian terrorists carry out attacks on American soil, riots are becoming more common and another hurricane is making its way to Texas. In light of all this, President Malcolm Powers must decide whether to protect his nation or save the world. Despite its global setting, Stephenson’s novel stays sharp by honing in on specific characters: billionaire genius Howard Beck, a recluse tucked away in his “fortress” with his artificial intelligence, Hal; California inmate Richard Dupree; Santa Fe, Texas, Police Chief Maxwell Harris; and President Powers. Each third-person narrative offers an account of the action, as Richard looks for escape from the lethal clouds of smoke from raging wildfires, Max and other cops encounter gunmen as the storm nears, and the president seeks counsel on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. He learns that even the White House may not be safe from rioters. Beck’s involvement in the plot is drolly ironic: He has completely isolated himself from the outside world—Hal feeds him news stories to keep him up-to-date—but his heavily fortified estate makes it an ideal spot for powerful people. Stephenson’s novel, the first of a series, feels like a buildup to a confrontation that doesn’t happen here. In the same vein, supporting characters—including an unemployed investment banker who joins the military when his family becomes homeless and a Jiffy Lube manager–turned–survivalist leader—provide riveting subplots that, at least in this book, remain unresolved. But Stephenson knows how to sear images into the brain, such as the destitute living in Central Park in “Obama-Camp” (“a throwback to the ‘Hoovervilles’ built during the First Great Depression”) and frightened citizens wearing bulletproof vests in church.
A disturbing vision of a future America, with an impact boosted by the startling authenticity of individual perspectives.