Atmosphæra Incognita

Neal Stephenson. Subterranean, $25 (104p) ISBN 978-1-59606-919-0

A 20-kilometer-high tower stands at the center of this idea-driven essay in the guise of a novella, in which characters struggle with logistics, but emotion is absent. Written for Stephenson’s Hieroglyph idea-incubation project in 2013, this near-future science fiction tale exhibits many plausible technological feats in Stephenson’s signature style. After Emma, a real estate agent, reconnects with her now-wealthy childhood friend Carl, he recruits her to secure an appropriate site for the tallest structure ever built. Resources are plentiful, but raising the tower and keeping it upright prove challenging, and engineering innovations are necessary to make the mission possible. Though Emma’s life becomes inseparable from the tower’s when her wife, Tess, opens “The First Bar in Space” on the top floor, they and the rest of the cast are sidelined to make way for the impressive technological achievement. Fans of Stephenson (Fall; or, Dodge in Hell) may find some interesting concepts, but the wonders of the tower are not enough to compensate for the lack of strong characters and relationships. Agent: Liz Darhansoff, Darhansoff & Verrill. (July)
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