Tag Archives: Bruce Sterling

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling

Del Rey, 2009, 295 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-46062-2

My latest yearly reading statistics confirmed suspicions left by a look at my 2009 reviews: During the past year, I have read less Science Fiction than usual, and practically ignored the latest SF published in 2009 to the profit of current non-fiction.  I do not disown SF, but today’s real world seems so much more interesting than even richly imagined futures.

So if anyone could bring me back to SF in a big way, it’s Chairman Bruce: Sterling has, over the past two decades, successfully built his reputation as a global-head, an elder statesman of the genre with his finger on the pulse of what happening now.  His annual WELL “State of the World” addresses are condensed wisdom, and few other writers can switch as effortlessly from fiction to futurism and back.

Why is The Caryatids such a boring mess, then?

I may have been expecting too much.  Indeed, looking at Sterling’s past decade, it’s easy to start thinking that his novel-length work has been a case of hype over substance.  Distraction (1998) was the last unarguably enjoyable Sterling novel.  Present-day techno-fantasy Zeitgeist (2000) was weird for its own sake: not a bad reading experience, but not exactly a fully satisfying SF novel either.  The Zenith Angle (2004) mused about techno-thrillers and post-9/11 American paranoia in amusing ways, but was also perceived as a contemporary sideshow more than a real meaty Sterling novel.  Now, with The Caryatids (his third novel in ten years, if anyone’s counting), Sterling returns to real-future speculation.

Alas, it’s speculation of the catastrophic degree.  The seas have risen, political power blocks have shifted in entertaining fashions and it’s up to a group of cloned sisters to cope with the aftermath of even worse things.  The Caryatids is more hopeful than most in that even the novel’s future has a future, but readers who, like me, are getting fed up with catastrophic thinking may not find the book entirely to their liking.

It really doesn’t help that the book is both a schematic mess.  Three of the cloned sisters are operating in the three super-power blocks left on Earth, and much of the novel is about one man meeting all three of them in turn.  There are worse ways to set up a travelogue to show us the future, but I’m not sure that there are duller ways.  Because the book is rife in self-conscious dialogue, jumping from one idea to another without much of a care for the ideal “entertainment experience” that readers should expect.  There are plenty of good concepts throughout The Caryatids, but the attitude in which they’re delivered seems to exasperate more than illuminate.  The most interesting parts of the book, which is to say the dialogues, are also its most ridiculous moments: They seem cut-and-pasted from smart-ass web forums in which every interlocutor is sure that they hold the key to how the world works.  Do these self-satisfied snippets of future dialogue support a plot?  Isn’t it enough of a burn to ask the question?

That The Caryatids would be so dull and forgettable is a surprise.  I normally live for this kind of mid-future social extrapolation, and have no basic objections to cleverer-than-thou characters.  But this novel simply doesn’t work no matter how generous I try to be.  While I could be wrong, cranky, over-sugared or simply out to lunch on this novel, a quick look at The Caryatid’s online reviews reassures me with social proof that I’m hardly the only one to be disappointed: the Amazon reviews of The Caryatids alone are about as bad as I’ve seen them on a top-tier SF novel.  In novel-length fiction, Sterling has spent the last decade becoming an acquired taste, and it may be that he has overreached himself here.  I don’t have any good explanations: I’m just staring at the novel with dashed expectations, scratching it off my list of potential Hugo nominees.  Now let me go read another non-fiction book and see if it’s any better.

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.

Mirrorshades, Ed. Bruce Sterling

Ace, 1986 (1988 reprint), 239 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-53382-5

Short story collection may be a staple of written Science Fiction, but few of them pass the test of time. Year’s Best SF collections have their place, of course. Sometimes, theme anthologies can be good for a giggle or two. But very few of them can outlast their print runs. Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions duo still reigns supreme as a genre landmark, but those were original anthologies published at an unusual junction in the field.

Then there’s Mirrorshades, which has sailed through two decades to still end up as one of the defining cyberpunk books. Not many 21st-century readers may have held a copy in their own hands (it took me years to find even a battered water-stained paperback edition), but it’s still listed as one of those books you have to read in order to understand the bright flicker of what was cutting-edge Science Fiction in the eighties.

This is an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that Mirrorshades is a reprint collection where even Bruce Sterling’s all-new introduction is a summation of what he was writing in his “Cheap Truth” fanzine. Mirrorshades is a classic collection: It’s meant to be the distillation of an attitude, the portrait of a movement and the dawn of a new Science Fiction. With time, it has become a time capsule. It’s hardly a definitive cyberpunk anthology (anything missing “Johnny Mnemonic” is incomplete, almost by definition), but it’s there to make a statement more than a curriculum document for English Literature students.

Reviewing Mirrorshades is a bit useless: It’s so closely tied up to a historical sub-genre that fans already know that they want to read it, and those who could never stomach cyberpunk know better than to try. One might as well write a study of the sub-genre and how it has diffused in the rest of SF.

Hence this non-review, which will simply run down the list of contributors to the anthology and see where they are, twenty years later. This of this as a VH1 special, without any of the sex and drugs. (You too can obtain the following information via simple web searches, with special stops at Wikipedia and the locusmag.com site.)

  • Tom Maddox (“Snake-Eyes”) last prose science-fiction credentials date from 1996 (with two “X-Files” episode co-written with William Gibson in 1998 and 2000), but he’s currently doing well in occupations related to technology and writing, specifically in the field of “identity management”.
  • Lewis Shiner (“Till Human Voices Wake Us”, “Mozart in Mirrorshades”) is reportedly still writing, though his latest fiction seem to be mainstream novels dealing with music. The last one was published in 1999.
  • Though Pat Cadigan (“Rock On”) has published steadily since the eighties, her output has been sparse for the last decade, and her last three novels have been novelizations (Cellular, Jason X) and a sequel to a novelization (Jason X: The Experiment)
  • Looking at Marc Laidlaw‘s (“400 Boys”) bibliography for the last decade, you may think that he’s been out of the SF game entirely. But that would be entirely misleading, because Laidlaw’s words have possibly been heard/read by more people than the rest of his Mirrorshades colleagues combined: As a video game writer/designer, he has worked on the Half Life video game series, which has gone on to become one of the classics of modern computer gaming.
  • John Shirley‘s (“Freezone”) career has become far too eclectic to describe properly, buzzing between splatterpunk horror, media novelizations, music and a new novel just out in late 2006.
  • Rudy Rucker (“Tales of Houdini”) is still writing steadily, and his hip blend of mathematics and all-out weirdness continues to amaze readers in and out of genre. His latest novel, Mathematicians in Love, was published in late 2006.
  • James Patrick Kelly (“Solstice”) has become a formidable short-story SF writer, recently enjoyed a Hugo Nomination for his 2005 novella Burn, was recently interviewed in Locus Magazine and continues to be an active participant in the genre. His short stories often appear in “Year’s Best SF” anthologies.
  • Paul Di Filippo (“Stone Lives”) has steadily gained stature as a prolific genre writer, with a number of award nominations to his credit. He is also regarded as one of the best critics in the SF&F field.
  • Greg Bear (“Petra”) is still recognized as one of Science Fiction’s foremost hard science fiction writer, although his reputation has dimmed somewhat since the mid-nineties. His latest few novels have marked an attempt to gain a mainstream thriller readership, with mixed results. (His latest novel, Quantico (2005), had trouble finding an American publisher.)
  • William Gibson (“The Gernsback Continuum”, “Red Star, Winter Orbit”) was already a superstar at the time Mirroshades was published and now enjoys something akin to mainstream respectability. Since Neuromancer, his novels have steadily moved away from Science Fiction to mainstream reality… an evolution whose irony has not been lost on anyone.
  • And finally, Bruce Sterling (Preface, “Red Star, Winter Orbit”, “Mozart in Mirrorshades”) now reign supreme as one of SF’s best and most influential writer. His fiction was quick to move away from cyberpunk, and the past decade (since his Heavy Weather renaissance) has shown him as a writer at the top of his game, surfing over the world’s constant changes like few other SF writers are able to do.

And so the future histories of the young punks that defined Mirrorshades have come to illustrate the impact of their anthology, their writing and their genre. Technology still plays a heavy part in the Mirrorshades diaspora: Who could have imagined that one of them would go on to become a video-game writer/designer in one of the most acclaimed franchise of computer gaming? Who could have imagined one of them working in the very cyberpunkish field of “identity management”?

The mainstreaming of those writers also holds true for those who stuck to regular printed prose. Greg Bear and Pat Cadigan, in their own fashions, are now writing in the present. Lewis Shiner and John Shirley have been able to embrace the “punk” in cyberpunk like few other. The two superstars of Mirrorshades, Gibson and Sterling, often give the impression of pacing ahead while the rest of the world catches up: Their last two novels (including Gibson’s upcoming Spook Country) have stuck close to “the real world”, though a real world even more bizarrely amazing than what they set out to describe in either Neuromancer or Islands in the Net.

Not everyone can be so lucky, of course, but there are remarkably few “Where are they now?” questions about the Mirrorshades alumni. Like cyberpunk itself, they have weathered the storm that they foresaw, and cannot simply be tagged with genre labels. The world has seen their technology, heard their music, heeded their call for rebellion and decided it could find its own uses for all of that. Cyberpunk is dead because everyone now lives in it. Mirrorshades, even twenty years later, remains relevant… and that’s even throughout talking about the qualities of its stories. No wonder amazon.com (which wasn’t even an idea twenty years ago) won’t sell you a copy under US$30.

The Zenith Angle, Bruce Sterling

Del Rey, 2004, 306 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-46061-8

Where oh where have all the cyberpunks gone? Bruce Sterling’s newest techno-thriller The Zenith Angle offers a few answers and takes on the post-9/11 environment by the barbed horns.

Is it useful to point out that Bruce Sterling, chairman of what was then the cyberpunk movement, has now joined fellow neuromancer William Gibson in writing techno-thrillers? While Sterling’s been hovering near current-day settings for a while (His previous novel, Zeitgeist (2000), took place in a slightly-fantastic 1999), there’s no denying that this is the sort of emblematic factoid that makes contemporary observers of the SF scene stand up and take notice: Are we climbing the asymptote of progress so quickly that the singularity already looms over us all? Is this yet another sign that SF writers have given up on the future, flummoxed as they are by an increasingly bizarre present?

Well, maybe. But let’s not be so quick to judge, for The Zenith Angle has a number of things to say, and they wouldn’t be as relevant anywhere but in a techno-thriller. The novel begins, after a brief, prologue, on a clear morning day of September 2001. Yes, that morning of September 2001. In a few short minutes, uber-nerd protagonist Derek “Van” Vanderveer sees his whole life change. For reasons soon to become clear (his family is no stranger to dark operations, though not enough is made out of this), he ditches his comfy dot-com job to become one of the government’s top cyber-spooks. His life dominated by a shadowy war, his personal fortune in shambles, his family left behind, his career at the mercy of the vagaries of bureaucracy, he struggles to reach a new personal equilibrium after The Day That Changed Everything TM. From theoretical geek to electro-warrior (in a community where a stupid fist-fight can raise one to demigod status), Vanderveer’s an ideal character through which to study this weird new millennium, and Sterling is the man to do the job.

For he seems to realize that today’s world has a richness that is worth studying with lens polished by the tools of Science Fiction. Sterling, world-weary traveler, techno-prophet and sought-after keynote speaker, understands the world better than most, and The Zenith Angle often feels like an attempt at expressing how weird and wonderful today’s reality has become. Unlike the late nineties, dreams of electronic futures and endless leisure have been replaced by a stark battle for survival against powerful evil forces. Or have they? Because Sterling is too smart to swallow the “War on Terrorism” as anything but an empty slogan used to justify the worst the government can do. Vanderveer’s inherited idealism proves to be no match for the inertia of bureaucracy and the hollowness of the cause. Cyberpunk meets good old power-grab, and in the real world, let’s just say that the good guy doesn’t always win. But neither does he have to lose, and so the conclusion to the novel resorts to an ironic side exit in order to satisfy everyone.

There’s a fiendish plot complete with a death ray laser sandwiched somewhere in the last fifty pages, but readers already familiar with Sterling’s novel-length fiction are right in suspecting that the plot of The Zenith Angle doesn’t have much to do with its intended effect. The real treat of the novel is in the description of the “cyber-security” government efforts, packed with red tape and empty org charts. It’s in how Vanderveer, like most of us, got stuck believing in a sham that was never meant to be more than an exercise in rhetoric. It’s how the glorious days of the dot-com era were slapped around by forces outside any geek’s control.

Oh, it’s not all good. The above summary is likely to be a touch more incisive than the actual novel, which meanders from one situation from another, which has trouble balancing its satiric tone against what it it really means and lame attempts at thrills scarcely bothers to follow-up on promising plot threads. Charles Stross is blurbed as calling it “a Catch-22 for the slashdot generation” and it’s not a bad analogy, except that The Zenith Angle doesn’t (yet) have the required distance to the material to be anything but a quick rant.

But it tells us where the cyberpunks have gone. Out of the private sector and into national security. Out of the future and into the present. Out of technology, even, and maybe into politics. Pick your weapons carefully, but first decide if we’re at war, and if so, against whom.

Tomorrow Now, Bruce Sterling

Random House, 2002, 320 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-46322-4

Anyone who’s been following Science Fiction over the last decade knows that Bruce Sterling is The Man. Since 1992, he has produced an impressive series of solid, cosmopolitan, cutting-edge stories. He writes with a degree of originality and complexity that is seldom seen amongst his contemporaries. At a time when SF is massively retreating back on its past glories, Sterling dares to look in our current future and write delightfully energetic Science-Fiction. He’s one of the best, if not the best SF writer today.

His latest non-fiction book, Tomorrow Now is a reflection of the abilities that have propelled him to the top. Sterling has grown up, and this book demonstrates it. Billed as “envisioning the next fifty years”, this book is more akin to a wide-ranging lecture on a variety of subject.

It’s loosely structured around Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” (as outlined in As You Like It) First on the list is “The Infant”, along with a discussion of the possibilities of biotechnology. Standard futurist stuff, though with an emphasis on the disturbingly sceptic feel these innovations will take. The rest of the book is as much about now as it is about tomorrow. “The Student” looks at today’s innovation in education through the Internet while “The Lover” examines technology made “lovable” through personalization. In both cases, Sterling isn’t predictive as much as he studies what is happening today.

This impression strengthens in Chapter 4, “The Soldier”, as it reads like a Wired article describing the careers of three unorthodox military leaders. The portrait is fascinating; chances are that even though all three have lived and fought during the 1990s, you’ve never heard their names. And yet, taken together, these three show the way towards a future type of warfare. “The Soldier” may be the book’s most interesting chapter. It clearly shows where Sterling got his ideas for his previous novel Zeitgeist, uncovers a facet of recent history few of us even know about and manages to spin it in a blueprint for the next few decades.

But Sterling also stretches his scope outside simple prediction. In “The Justice”, he discusses the growing complacency of government and becomes a political theorist. In “The Pantaloon”, he tackles economic matters and mentions his invitation to the Davos World Economic Forum with a proper degree of humility. (“If I were to cut and paste my latest 1040 tax form onto the page here, it would be far worse and more shocking that posting nude pics of myself on the Internet.” [P.216]) Finally, in “Mere Oblivion”, he muses on the environment and the dangers of global warming.

All in all, it’s fantastic reading even if he doesn’t always deliver on what we may expect from a “book of predictions.” Tomorrow Now may meander and end up being too short, but there’s no denying that it’s a new-thought-a-minute, two-quotes-a-page peek in the mind of a genius.

The only thing that really annoyed me about Tomorrow Now is the physical object itself. Published as a stunted hardcover scarcely bigger than a regular paperback, Tomorrow Now‘s presentation feels a lot like an attempt to camouflage a short book as something worth 40$. Granted, the calibre of the ideas contained therein is certainly a cut above the usual hardcover, but it still doesn’t make up for the perceived loss in value. I’m still glad I sent some money in Sterling’s pocket, but readers without my generous book-buying budget may want to borrow this one at the library… or wait for the paperback edition. I also hated the translucent cover and the title-less design of the dust jacket… but that’s just me.

Despite the above caveat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest that this is a book that deserves to be read. Despite the often-frustrating rambling and dodgy structure, there is a lot of material here for Sterling fans, think-tanks, techno-geeks, SF writers and anyone else interested in what a fun guy like Sterling may have in mind. As he points out, “you don’t want a free author in your house” [P.230] but Tomorrow Now is the next best thing. Fans of the authors are free to ponder one thing: much as his previous non-fiction book The Hacker Crackdown marked a significant shift in his fiction, what will happen after Tomorrow Now?

Zeitgeist, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 293 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10493-4

Reading a new Bruce Sterling book is the closest that SF readers can come to have a “satisfaction-guaranteed” experience. If you’ve liked Sterling in the past, he’s constantly improving himself, and even if you’d don’t really like his stuff, there are usually enough interesting elements to still make it all worthwhile.

In his latest novel Zeitgeist, SF’s premier world-traveller returns to the unclean, exotic edges of Western civilization, sort of a flashback to Europe after the American Distraction. This time, East European technicians meet Middle-eastern mafia meet American promoter meet… well, just about everyone. Leggy Starlitz, from the short story “The Littlest Jackal” in A Good Old-Fashioned Future, returns as the manager of a musical group suddenly faced with the prospect of middle-age when his daughter is dumped on him by one of her mothers.

The time is 1999, but don’t expect anything like SF nor historical fiction, because Zeitgeist might best be assimilated to a magical melting pot when everything ends up as a contemporary world fantasy, with supernatural powers, time-shifting people, literal regurgitation of metaphors and more than a little meta-fictional content. (Sterling says of Zeitgeist that it’s “technological fantasy”) How else to interpret Princess Di in a suitcase?

Parts of the book feature (but never revolve around) a pseudo-musical group named G-7, featuring interchangeable girls from every country of the group. Naturally, as Canadian, I was amused at the references to the “tartan-clad, toque-wearing Canadian One [who] spoke a little French, which naturally endeared her to the French One. [She] was polite, modest, and self-effacing, practically invisible in the group’s affair [and] very pleased to be consulted.” [P.47] Heh, eh? Most of the book is like that, with its self-assured, world-weary hipster style that make it all look effortless.

Not certainly not mindless, because even with this, maybe Sterling’s lesser book since Heavy Weather, it’s still a wonderful read. Obviously, coming from Sterling, it’s all very smart and often devastatingly funny. Leggy Starlitz is obsessed with his place in “the master narrative”, and the only thing funnier than someone obsessing about that is a character obsessing about it. The final “deus ex machina” ending is a sustained howler, one of the most unique moments to be found in recent fiction. (It’s almost as if Chris Carter stepped into a typical X-Files episode and slapped some sense in the characters while saying they’re more right than they can even imagine, just not in the right way.) This Zeitgeist is fluid, and that’s the fun of it.

The flaw of the book is contained in its brilliance; the very danger that this accumulation of smart jokes, witty conversations and this-side-of-weird elements might accumulate to create a future-shock of Wired-speak and promote the moment at the expense of the book’s overall plot. There’s never a dull moment, but there are a few long stretches.

But as you may gather, it doesn’t matter very much. With Zeitgeist, Sterling only solidifies his enviable position as one of the field’s best authors. He gets away with stuff that would doom a lesser writer; the convergence of genres, the throwaway gags and outrageous meta-fictional content are not only a lot of fun, but they also feel included for a reason. Good reading for everyone; check it out at the library.

The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1992, 316 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56370-X

(Available online at http://www.lysator.liu.se/etexts/hacker/)

Bruce Sterling has acquired, in the science-fiction community, an enviable reputation as one of the smartest, most visionary representative of the genre. Indeed, in the turbulent nineties, Sterling has shown himself capable of adapting to the new wave of technology that almost made Science-Fiction obsolete. A string of excellent books (Heavy Weather, Globalhead, Holy Fire, Distraction, A Good Old-fashioned Future) have cemented his reputation as one of the current masters of the genre.

Few SF observers would have been as bold as to claim such an honor for Sterling at the end of the eighties. Sure, Schismatrix was a boffo space-opera, and Islands on the Net showed promise, but apart from a few other short stories in Crystal Express, the rest of Sterling’s fiction output was disappointing, to say the least. Who remembers Involution Ocean? Or The Artificial Kid? If anything, Sterling was showing more promise as a competent critic (Cheap Truth) and anthologist (Mirrorshades) than a fiction author.

In the early nineties, however, something happened. In 1990, a string of events rocked the computer underground. A friend of Sterling, Steve Jackson, saw federal agents confiscate a good part of his small gaming company’s assets under the pretext that he was writing a manual for computer pirates. Sterling didn’t simply get mad; he seeked the truth behind the event. The Hacker Crackdown is a journalistic account of the 1990 skirmishes between the telephone companies, the hackers, the police and the civil libertarians.

The book is divided in four parts. In the first, Sterling begins by explaining the roots of cyberspace, going back as far as the first telephone networks. In one of the best passages of the book, he explains how the telephone system went from a simple cable strung between Alexander Graham Bell’s phone and Watson’s receiver to the current unimaginably complex packet-switching network. Then he traces the effects of a simple bug which shut-down AT&T’s telephone network in January 1990.

He then takes us deeper underground, describing the subculture of the computer hackers that existed in 1990. He shows how paranoia, caused by the AT&T shutdown, percolated in a “need for action” that led police officers to raid private citizen’s house and to grab their computers—and in many cases, much more than their computers.

In the book’s third quarter, he goes from one side to the other and ends up talking about the police forces and how they’re trying to update their mandate in the information age. He discusses how most computer security outfits were severely under-funded in the early nineties. Sterling takes us at a computer-security conference, and does some hacking of his own.

Finally, he ends up explaining the most enduring legacy of the 1990 events; the electronic rights interest group that have been formed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is described, along with a variety of speculations on the future of “law and disorder on the electronic frontier”.

How important were the 1990 events? Well, as Sterling puts it, any policeman can go to a group of scruffy-looking hoodlums hanging in front of a store and ask them to leave, or else. Few groups of hoodlums would have the presence of mind to go phone up a lawyer to protest police repression of their constitutional right of free assembly. That’s what happened in 1990; for ill-defined reasons, government kicked over the electronic anthill, and that precipitated the formation of electronic rights interest groups, whose influence continues to grow in today’s information age.

And you couldn’t find a better writer for the job than Bruce Sterling. His writing is clear, incisive and often funny. Even though he is clearly outraged at the police abuse, he gives fair consideration to everyone’s viewpoint, and the result is a superb book that illuminates computer security like few other books before. Strongly recommended. It is still, and will remain relevant. Parallels with current cases involving entertainment cartels versus internet startups (Napster, MP3.com, 2600.com…) under the guise of “piracy” when really it’s all about “consumer control” are chilling, to say the best.  Except that this time, civil-rights groups aren’t facing an opponent bound by the constitution… and they can’t compete with their dollar-fuelled lobbyists.

But don’t take my word for it; go check out the electronic version at http://www.lysator.liu.se/etexts/hacker/

A Good, Old-Fashioned Future, Bruce Sterling

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.

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.

Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 326 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09958-2

In Look at the Evidence, master SF critic John Clute has written a fascinating essay on what he calls the “true age” of a SF work. Ineptly put, this mean that despite the stated year in which a Science-Fiction work takes place, it is almost always about another year. Most of the time, a book written in, say, 1995 will be about 1990 rather than 2361. Most of the SF written in the seventies is thus about the seventies: Overpopulation, environmental collapse and feminism all figure prominently in these works. (Clute then goes on to state that a lot of recent genre SF is about 1940-1960, which is a fascinating idea that deserves exploration… but not here.)

Clute’s theory isn’t universally applicable, but works quite well in the case of Bruce Sterling’s latest novel; Holy Fire.

Before venturing further in critical theory, though, a bit of plot:  Holy Fire takes place a century from now, in a future where life-extension treatments are getting increasingly commonplace and efficient. Not surprisingly, the power is now in the hand of those who live the longest, who can invest their money in decade-long financial enterprises and can afford to wait to reap the results. There’s now “real money” and the young don’t have any. Gerontocracy is a common word in this novel.

Mia Ziemann is a medical economist nearing ninety years of age, and it’s her job to know about these things. The novel opens as she visits an old lover but a few fortuitous encounters later, Mia decides that it’s time to cash in her life savings and to be rejuvenated. Once that is done, she escapes from her medical supervision and makes her way to Europe, where she spends the remainder of the novel hanging out with anarchists, calling herself Maya, sleeping with unattractive men and finding her true self, not necessarily in this order.

It doesn’t take a diploma in literary engineering or medical sociology to guess why Holy Fire is a novel of the nineties: In an age where the baby-boomers are hitting their fifties in greater numbers (and retiring younger and younger; this critic’s father being a case in point) it’s evident that Sterling is taking a unsettling tendency and pushing it in a farther, more “Comfortable” future. Mia’s world is becoming more friendly, less violent, but also more boring with less place for innovation and initiative. Parallels…?

A better, but less exciting work than Sterling’s previous Heavy Weather, Holy Fire uses the word “postmodernist” a lot.  It shouldn’t be too surprising then that most of the novel consists of aimless wandering through the anarchist cliques of Europe. Sometimes it’s interesting, other time it’s filler until something happens. The Maya/Mia dichotomy isn’t very well defined, or at least could have been used better. This novel consciously turn the traditionally SF “coming of age” novel on its head by starring a 90-year old woman rediscovering herself using a young body. (Is it a “going of age” or “re-coming of age” novel?)

Still, Holy Fire is very likely one of the best SF book you’re likely to read this year. Sterling, a leading proponent of the now-passé (really?) cyberpunk movement, has kept intact his love of gadgets so evident in all his works. Holy Fire features talking dogs (including a likable talk-show host), translating devices (sometime reminiscent of Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish), a believable rejuvenating process (probably the most mesmerizing sequence of the book) and some impressive home pages… er… palaces.

A mature, sometime meandering work, Holy Fire strengthens Sterling’s position as one of the surest talent of contemporary SF. Perhaps too consciously post-something to achieve wide success and recognition, but smart and speculative enough to be read anyway.

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!