by Neal Stephenson
: Stephenson's fourth solo novel, set primarily in a far-future Shanghai at a time when nations have been superseded by enclaves of common cultures (``claves''), abundantly justifies the hype that surrounded Snow Crash, his first foray into science fiction. Here, the author avoids the major structural problem of that book-a long lump of philosophical digression-by melding myriad perspectives and cogitations into his tale, which is simultaneously SF, fantasy and a masterful political thriller. Treating nanotechnology as he did virtual reality in Snow Crash-as a jumping-off point-Stephenson presents several engaging characters. John Percival Hackworth is an engineer living in a neo-Victorian clave, who is commissioned by one of the world's most powerful men to create a Primer that might enable the man's granddaughter to be educated in ways superior to the ``straight and narrow.'' When Hackworth is mugged, an illegal copy of the Primer falls into the hands of a working-class girl named Nell, and a most deadly game's afoot. Stephenson weaves several plot threads at once, as the paths of Nell, Hackworth and other significant characters-notably Nell's brother Harv, Hackworth's daughter Fiona and an actress named Miranda-converge and diverge across continents and complications, most brought about by Hackworth's actions and Nell's development. Building steadily to a wholly earned and intriguing climax, this long novel, which presents its sometimes difficult technical concepts in accessible ways, should appeal to readers other than habitual SF users. Author tour.
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