Visionary in Residence, Bruce Sterling

Thunder’s Mouth, 2006, 294 pages, C$21.50 tpb, ISBN 1-56025-841-1

So, Bruce Sterling has a new short story collection. Do you really need to be told to go read it?

It’s true that you may not be aware of Sterling’s reputation as a hip writer of cutting-edge fiction, sometimes in Science Fiction and sometimes not. As one of the young turks of cyberpunk, Sterling was the voice of the eighties’ generation of SF writers. Since then, he has matured comfortably into the role of an elder statesmen of the genre, a top-notch writer who has lost none of the fervour that animated him twenty-five years ago, nor the world-wide span of attention that earned him the short story collection title Globalhead.

It’s also true that you may have read most of Visionary in Residence‘s short stories already. The opening “In Paradise”, a charming little story blending a universal translator and Homeland Security threats with an inter-ethnic love story was republished in at least one “Year’s Best SF” anthology, and so was “Ivory Tower”, in addition of their initial publications in (respectively), F&SF and Nature. “Luciferase” and “The Scab’s Progress” were both first published online at SciFiction, and so on. Sterling’s been selling steadily over the seven years covered by this collection (the first one since 1999’s A Good Old Fashioned Future) and good SF readers had to work deliberately to avoid reading any of the 12 stories reprinted here. Only one, “Message Found in a Bottle”, a short-short originally written for Nature, is here published for the first time.

Roughly divided in eight sections, Visionary in Residence effortlessly shows how Sterling has grown larger than anything describable with the mere label “science fiction writer”. At he points out in the introduction to the mainstream nerd romance “Code”, the commonplace used to be strange, and mind-blowing before becoming strange. When Sterling now turns his talent to “Fiction about Science” with “Luciferase” (a story about the mating cycle of insects), the results can still be fascinating. Even a series of memos between cubicle workers can emerge as something else in “User Centric”: “There are no happy endings. Because there are no endings. There are only ways to cope.”

But don’t think that our man’s Sterling has gone all softy-real on us. Two of the book’s most successful SF stories are to be found in the “Cyberpunk to Ribofunk” section, in two collaborations (“The Scab’s Progress” with Paul diFilippo and “Junk DNA” with Rudy Rucker) that don’t push the edge of SF as much as they shake it really hard. “Junk DNA”, in particular, is weird and scary and disgusting and cool in ways that can only be explained in gooey post-dot-com ways, with high biotechnology, Russian immigrants, dodgy financial details and wasted genius. It may or may not be the volume’s best story, but it’s certainly the most visceral. It’s also, in fine Sterling/Rucker fashion, almost compulsively hilarious.

Only one section, frankly, seems to leech some energy out of the blend: The closing “The Past is a Future that has already Happened” ventures into historical, even fantastical terrain. I didn’t find this section as interesting as the rest of the collection, but that may be due to fatigue as much as anything else –reading this collection straight-through is not recommended.

With Visionary in Residence, Sterling delivers another concentrated blend of hip technological trend-spotting, sharp writing, steady laughs and mid-expanding consciousness. In recent years, Sterling has spent less time dealing with out-and-out science-fiction and more time trying new and unusual occupations: he has spent time in a design school, gotten married again, travelled the world widely, spoken at conferences… truly embracing the strange new opportunities that the twenty-first century can throw at a scribbler of invigorating fiction. There’s seldom been any less genre material in Sterling’s fiction, and yet it’s rarely been so at the very cutting edge of the future. This is not a paradox: it’s the nature of SF as it exists now.

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