In this brilliantly conceived alternate history, neuroscientist Dade Ellis, geneticist Simon Grimshaw, inventor Emerson Strange, and theoretical physicist Thomas Walker came together as World Corp., intending to improve the universe through science. They succeed, ushering in an age when top scientists are also top celebrities (and gangs of "science punks" carry out dangerous underground experiments). But their unity is short-lived, with the psychedelic drug-using Thomas first to go, and things begin to unravel. Only a reclusive Emerson is left at the helm when the actions of the quarantined crew of a secret World Corp. space station threaten to change the planet in a new and terrible way. Through nonlinear flashbacks and interspersed text pieces, Stephenson expertly fills in fascinating details about the group's rise and fall. Underscoring the series's tagline "Science is the new rock 'n' roll," he peppers the text with music references. Plot-wise, the book harks back to one of sf comics' classics, the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby Fantastic Four, and artistically to the more recent through Bellegarde's affinities with wide-screen artists such as Frank Quitely and John Cassady. VERDICT Intriguing, exciting, and strongly recommended.—S.R.