homo zapiens
by Victor Pelevin
(Viking, 250 pages, $24.95)

However much Homo Zapiens fails as a novel, it succeeds as a book of ideas. With its tension-less plot, interchangeable characters, overt symbols, and uncomfortable translation of Russian into modern British slang, it brings pained grimaces to the reader's face. Then there's the added torture of the author's love affair with his own cleverness and his self-indulgence during some of the longest and most rational hallucination scenes in the history of literature. Pelevin's probably the only person impressed by the novel's "creativity."

A literature expert, Tatarsky, becomes Russia's marketing czar. Pelevin's tale has been hailed as an important analysis of contemporary Russia. But his novel is more than sociology; it examines the modern mind and satirizes global marketing.

Tatarsky's slogans are both witty and satirical (the rejoinder to Nike: "Do it yourself, Motherfucker. Reebok"). Then there are the ideas about human consciousness that are damn brilliant and border on philosophy. The central chapter discusses the consciousness of watching television in terms rarely discussed, offering cogent ideas on the existence of a person's identity when zapping the remote (homo-ZAPiens) and questioning who's in control when a person watches TV.

A running commentary about the Pepsi Generation fits Cindy Crawford's confusing commercials a little too well. To get to the television theory, though, you must sit through Tatarsky eating mushrooms and contacting Che Guevera with a Ouija board. To learn of the Russian mind, you must spend an eternity in Tatarsky's dreams about Ishtar. It all begs for someone to ask the question: Couldn't the author have spared us his stabs at fiction and just written some essays? Lisa Lambert

body of secrets:
anatomy of the ultra-secret national security agency
by James Bamford
(Anchor Books, 763 pages, $14.95)

When James Bamford's first book about the National Security Agency, The Puzzle Palace, appeared in 1983, the Reagan administration tried to jail him. When its sequel, Body of Secrets, was published last year, the agency threw him a book-signing party. NSA director Michael Hayden had decided the secretive agency needed some good PR. Movies like Enemy of the State were portraying the agency as a ruthless cadre of eavesdropping assassins. The truth, Bamford reports, is even more unsettling.

The NSA, which employs more people than the FBI and CIA combined, specializes in "signals intelligence"--intercepting, decrypting and translating telecommunications from across the globe. The scary thing is not that the agency is eavesdropping on radio signals, telephone calls and email, but that it's doing such an abysmal job of it. The biggest problem is the sheer volume of telecommunications traffic: more than 100 billion minutes of telephone service each year.

Bamford describes in chilling detail the intelligence community's total paralysis on Sept. 11. Before the attacks, less than a handful of the NSA's employees could speak the languages of Afghanistan. Never mind what Bush knew last August, even while the attacks were happening, there was no one to connect the dots.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, air traffic controllers knew other planes were missing, but nobody evacuated the second tower. Fighters could have intercepted the second airliner but arrived too late because the pilots didn't throttle up for fear the sonic boom would disturb people. Bush was in second grade in Florida. Matt Buckingham