Bantam Spectra, 1999, 279 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57642-9
Readers already familiar with Bruce Sterling’s brand of Science-Fiction should smile at the misleading title of his latest short story collection. Because if Sterling is famous for something, it’s definitely not for writing “good, old-fashioned” futures.
One only has to take a look at his third novel, Schismatrix (1985) to see the first glimpses of a major talent at representing new and unsettling vistas. Schismatrix was a bold departure for hard-SF at the time, presenting a future that was eerie yet believable, but never too comfortable. His latter novels fulfilled this early promise, from the globe-spanning Island in the Net (1987) to the political satire of Distraction (1998). Sterling was heavily associated with cyberpunk in the eighties, but metastased in the “Wired” crowd during the nineties, constantly staying abreast of the latest trends and technologies.
A Good, Old-Fashioned Future is his third short story collection, and in some ways the best. Unlike Crystal Express, this collection represents Sterling working on his best playground, the globalized, info-rich, chaotic future of true tomorrow. Unlike other authors content to re-use standard SF devices to build up futures more related to past SF than present reality, Sterling is constantly original. The stories in this collection are usually sufficiently well-written to stay interesting all the way through, which wasn’t necessarily the case with his previous collections. Sterling’s narrative gifts are steadily improving, and with this collection he delivers a book that’s simultaneously interesting, colorful, literate and readable.
The Hugo-nominated “Maneki Neko” introduces Sterling’s techno-vision particularly well. Here, the net has given rise to a “gift economy” that is undemanding, yet particularly powerful. You might not think too much of doing “one small favor”, but the chain of events set in motion by a series of small coordinated event is irresistible. What if every stranger you met did you some small annoyance… wouldn’t that be an unbearable day? This story -possibly the strongest of the collection- is a good old crunchy SF idea wrapped in some of the best stylistic packaging you’ll find.
“Big Jelly”, a collaboration with Rudy Rucker, is less enjoyable, as if the sort-of-satire and the light subject matter somehow couldn’t be nailed down by the writing. It’s still enjoyable as a parody of infotech venture capitalism, but not much more. It ends in mid-story.
“The Littlest Jackal” is almost a present-day story in terms of technology, but it plays with new sociopolitical ideas and manages to be enjoyable despite its lack of cohesion. The ending is also a problem, but the story isn’t bad. Rumor has it that Sterling’s next novel will take place in this particular “universe”.
“Sacred Cow” is the weakest story of the volume, being neither particularly incisive nor innovative. Rambling and pointless but still readable, proving that even at his worst, Sterling still turns out worthwhile material.
The last three novella-length stories form a loose trilogy. “Deep Eddie” is about the adventures of an American courier in Europe, where he’s dragged into a curious conflict between intellectuals, a confrontation that quickly heats up and becomes very physical. “Bicycle Repairman” is about a mechanic who finds himself the target of a government agent when he comes into possession of a subversive television decoder. The last story of the volume is “Taklamakan”, an atmospheric -but curiously unsatisfying- trip inside a closed-off top-secret facility.
A Good Old-Fashioned Future delivers no less than four Hugo-nominated and two Hugo-winning stories (“Bicycle Repairman” and “Taklamakan”)… so there’s some quality to the mix. But the high price of the book coupled with the disappointing number of stories (Seven!) doesn’t make it a necessary buy. A good choice for Hugo completists and confirmed Sterling fans, but a library loan for everyone else.