Month: October 1996

Heavy Weather, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 310 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09393-2.

To make a weak joke right at the start of the review: Audiences worldwide stormed theaters in June 1996 to see the thunderous tornado flick “Twister.” I was there. It was fun. This movie showed me things I hadn’t seen before and was enjoyable despite the bland plot. In that respect, “Twister” stands among the most fun of 1996’s releases.

However, an oft-repeated comment on the net was “read Heavy Weather instead.” Curious, I resolved to check, even if the decision wasn’t that hard to make: Sterling is one of SF’s best authors. His fiction has acquired impressive weight in recent years: Schismatrix is one of the best, disturbing, most impressive and complex novel to come out of the Eighties. Only the presence of Ender’s Game on the 1985 Hugo ballot prevented—

—but this isn’t a review of Schismatrix (other that to say “Rush to your stores, the omnibus Schismatrix Plus is there!”) He’s not immensely prolific (about one book every two years) but what he writes is good, imaginative, fairly readable and original.

Sterling isn’t an easy writer to categorize. He has been one of the main drives behind cyberpunk fiction, but unlike a few writers of this genre he hasn’t really stayed in the genre. Is Heavy Weather cyberpunk? There are no easy answers.

For one thing, cyberpunk doesn’t automatically associate with tornadoes in my mind. Yet, tornadoes make up a rather large part of Heavy Weather’s plot: In an ecologically unstable future America, a bunch of young people, including genius mathematician Dr. Jerry Mulcahey, chase twisters for fun and profit. Mostly fun. Among this bunch of tornado hackers lives Jane Unger, rich heiress. As the book starts, Jane uses fancy technology to make her brother Alex escape from a Mexican clinic, bringing him into the “Storm Troupe” (Please do not groan when you realize that means the members of the group call themselves “Storm Troupers…” Okay.) Alex is not very good company: He’s physically sick, rebellious, unstable. Resentment abounds in the Troupe. Will he be able to contribute to the group? And what’s that about a permanent F-6 supertwister?

Sterling mixes a lot of high-tech goodies into his novel: Truly cross-country vehicles, VR delta-planes, Library-of-Congress-on-a-disk, “Shadow Government” outlaws, the destruction of a major town, DNA remedies… Fascinating stuff from start to finish.

The feel of Heavy Weather might be considered as straight cyberpunk: The intensely gritty atmosphere is far removed from squeaky-clean typical SF labs: The techno-toys are not treated with reverence, but as ordinary tools, prone to failure or uselessness. We suffer with the characters as they don’t bathe, wear decent clothes or have a decent sex life. The evolution of Sterling’s cyberpunk themes is interesting, and should provide ample material to future Eng. Lit. majors

Yet, this is more than straight cyberpuke. We even get to like a few characters: The evolution of Alex is especially heartening, as is his consequent acceptance in the Troupe and his relationship with his sister. Most of all, there’s one very good upbeat finale, something that caught me a bit unprepared given the tone of the rest of the book. Characters are okay, readability excellent, ideas original. Recommended.

As far as windy-disaster-type SF novels go, this is almost up to par to John Barnes’ superlative Mother of Storms. And it does beat “Twister” hands down for intelligence. There’s even a cow-bit!

[Page 258 of the hardcover edition]

Jane felt a chill existential horror as [their car] remained airborne, remained flying, and things began to drift gently and visibly past them. Things? Yes, all kinds of things. Road signs. Bushes. Big crooked pieces of tree. Half-naked chickens. A cow. The cow was alive, that was the strangest thing. The cow was alive and unharmed, and it was a flying cow. She was watching a flying cow. A Holstein. A big, plump, well-looked-after barnyard Holstein, with a smart collar around its neck. The cow looked like it was trying to swim. The cow would thrash its great clumsy legs in the chilly air and then it would stop for a second, and look puzzled.

I’ve said elsewhere that the difference between visual and written SF is that the latter does deal with consequences. Here’s the proof, from the book’s two subsequent paragraphs:

And then the cow hit a tree and the cow was smashed and dead, and was instantly far behind them.

And then [their car] hit another, different tree. And the air bag deployed, and it punched her really hard, right in the face.

Enough said. Now, go read the book!