Distraction, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1998, 439 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10484-5

Power can take many forms. Most of us either think of power as being incarnated by electricity, violence or (inevitably) politicians. But even for politicians, elected officials often don’t wield as much power as we’d believe. Considerable influence can be attributed to non-elected personnel in the politician’s staff, who can analyze situations and recommend favourable alternatives. Bruce Sterling’s last novel is a true political science-fiction novel, exploring the sources and consequences of power in a future America that’s far stranger than anyone but Sterling could imagine.

Distraction features protagonist Oscar Valparaiso, a political operator with “personal background issues.” As the novel begins, he’s happy but exhausted: He just managed to elect his candidate, an architect with senatorial ambitions. He soon has to face his biggest challenge, however, in trying to rationalize the operations of a federal research institute. His effort will have greater repercussions than he ever hoped for.

But as with most Bruce Sterling novels, mere plot descriptions do little justice to the actual book: It’s the constant accumulation of details that makes the novel so enjoyable. The United States of 2044 aren’t quite as impressive as today. Military bases get operating funds by establishing roadblocks. Vast bands of high-tech nomads roam the countryside. Louisiana, led by a charismatic leader, is on the verge of secession. A new Cold War is taking place between The United States… and the Netherlands.

It’s a measure, either of America’s current insanity or Sterling’s talent that despite the rather high comical/ironic content of Distraction, the novel remains believable. Part of this impression should be attributed to the author’s refusal to play around with a single-tone future like so many inferior SF writers. Distraction‘s future feels real because it’s composed of widely disparate elements without necessary relevance to the plot. It is textured.

At some point, someone is going to have to write a thesis on how Bruce Sterling’s non-fiction writing has enhanced his novels. He’s a regular contributor to Wired magazine, and it shows: Distraction even provides comfort who everyone who ever thought that SF is destined to be “mainstreamed” in a society constantly closer to Science-Fiction. (ask Thomas M. Disch) Distraction is pure, fresh, cutting-edge SF.

It’s worth noting that despite a few exceptions, Sterling develops his characters quite well. Only the lack of development of Oscar’s crew (or rather—“krewe”) disappoints.

(Tangentially, it’s interesting to note that two of the most politically complex SF novels of 1998, Distraction and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, feature senator aides protagonists.)

Readers disappointed with the aimlessness of Sterling’s previous novel Holy Fire will be pleased to learn that Distraction has a much stronger plot. Even though the wealth of details makes for a leisurely-paced story, the impression is a least that the narrative is going somewhere. Indeed, it’s a rather satisfying story that Sterling wraps up… an uncommon impression in the field of political thrillers where dead protagonists turn up as often as back-room deals.

It’s almost a given that Distraction will find itself listed on almost every major SF award nominee list. Sterling’s already considerable reputation and Distraction‘s reader-friendliness also almost ensures that it’s going to be a strong contender for the Hugo and/or Nebula. Enjoy.

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