Bruce Sterling Book Reviews
by Mac Tonnies
Bruce Sterling's fiction plots a funny and cerebral course through the parallel landscapes of millennial information politics ("Islands in the Net"), phildickian meditation on identity ("Holy Fire") and, more recently, the machinations of electoral politics ("Distraction"). Sterling is scathingly witty and writes with a singular economy and grace. His futures are fast, frightening caricatures of the late 20th century, made accessible by a practiced eye for detail and an ability to create believably human characters.
Bruce posing with 20th century technological clutter.
Sterling continues to stretch his horizons. His most recent offerings show a refined commitment to the almost-hidden forces subverting our wired, media-addled consensus reality.
Mirrorshades Postmodern Archive
The Bruce Sterling Online Index
The Difference Dictionary
Beyond the Beyond (Sterling's "Wired" blog)
Sterling's science fiction is characterized by a keen appreciation for social forces and the increasingly intimate relationship between things seen and unseen (the latter being anything from genetically tailored microbes to omnipresent cultural agendas). In "Tomorrow Now," his first book-length nonfiction work since the dated but fascinating "The Hacker Crackdown" (a tome on computer crime and digital culture written in the Internet's infancy), Sterling envisions the trends, technologies, and mutant ideologies that will define the first half of the 21st century.
"Tomorrow Now" is Sterling at his chatty, global-headed best. He writes about the future with skill and heartfelt exuberance, avoiding the perils of dystopian science fiction. Readers expecting biotech holocaust or maurauding robots will probably be disappointed in Sterling's close-to-home approach. But for readers into the political ramifications of computer networks, "ubicomp," and postindustrial design philosophy, "Tomorrow Now" delivers in spades.
The future, in Sterling's eyes, is merely an alternate way of looking at history. As such, it's an artifact of our own desires and creative stamina: a perplexing realm where "dystopia" and "utopia" blend and ignite with incandescent results. True to his science-fictional visions, "Tomorrow Now" is both laugh-out-loud funny--read his commentary on the pervasive techno-ecology of pseudo-organic "blobjects"--and grimly cautionary. "Tomorrow Now" unveils a world that thrives off future-shock, held together by neobiological systems and threatened by greenhouse catastrophe. Along the way, we meet angst-ridden clones, digitally savvy terrorists, and our own posthuman descendants.
"Tomorrow Now" is imminently readable, thoughtful, and soundly structured. Required reading for committed cyberpunks and curious bystanders alike.
"Schismatrix" is considered by some loyal readers to be Sterling's crowning achievement. "Schismatrix" addresses politics, biotechnology, philosophy, and society with wit, precision and poetic detail. Sterling creates a marvelous landscape peopled by bizarre posthuman factions and lurking, profit-hungry aliens; his vision constitutes one of the most interesting futures in science-fiction. I wish I'd read this a long time ago. (The reissue titled "Schismatrix Plus" includes several short stories directly related to the Shaper/Mechanist universe described in "Schismatrix," as well as a cool introduction. These stories can also be found in Sterling's first story collection "Crystal Express.")
ISLANDS IN THE NET
Ontologically closer-to-home, "Islands in the Net" is a gripping near-future political thriller that challenges the nature of perception and probes the dissemination of political power in the early 21st century. Propelled by a tough, likeable heroine, this long novel of intrigue and day-after-tomorrow technological dazzle remains one of the best cyberpunk books of the 1980s: less conceptually bewildering than William Gibson's "Neuromancer" but far-out enough to challenge even a jaded SF reader's definition of the future.
A solid collection of short fiction, including collaborations with Rudy Rucker ("Storming the Cosmos") and John Kessel ("The Moral Bullet"). Contains the rollicking "Are You For 86?" and the enduring "We See Things Differently" (about near-future terrorism and economic upheaval). Sterling is one of the most perceptive and stylish writers around, and "Globalhead" is ample proof. For more Sterling short fiction, refer to "Crystal Express," "A Good Old-Fashioned Future" and "Mirrorshades" (ed.).
Sterling once again brings the near-future into kaleidoscopic focus. "Heavy Weather" is a deft thriller that charts the escapades of the "Storm Troupe" (a squad of loner tornado-hackers at work in the American Southwest). The author builds a dense and brooding future world complete with hyper-realized depictions of weather topography, smart machinery, VR, post-linear currency and overpopulation. Prescient and horrifyingly plausible, the author (justifiably) considers this his darkest work to date.
Sterling's unflinching willingness to explore (and break) new ground propels him to the forefront of postmodern science-fiction, and "Holy Fire" is no exception to his canon. Bristling with technological minutiae (edible buildings, computers woven from fiber-optic cloth, cybernetically enhanced canines), it tells the story of Mia Ziemann, a reserved "gerontocrat" who sheds her inhibitions via an experimental rejuvination treatment. "Marinated in the fountain of youth," she escapes medical custody and falls in with a group of European radicals. (Sterling's depiction of Mia's escapades in Europe bring to mind Wim Wender's film "Until the End of the World.") This is an excellent novel: perhaps Sterling's most human future to date, if not necessarily his all-around best.
The Chairman of the Cyberpunk Movement returns in full form with "Distraction," the gnarliest political thriller ever penned. "Distraction" is a miasma of potent ideas melded into a tale of election-year politics; Sterling has done his homework, and the scientific and ecological details that form the core of this discourse ring true. Perhaps even more convincing is his hilariously dystopian vision of the U.S. government in the mid-21st century (basically, it's a sort of concensual delusion spawned by the laptop-wielding masses). The twists and turns in this book are fewer than you might expect of a novel of "Distraction's" length, but don't fear--you'll find yourself steeped in Sterling's cutting-edge vision and come away addled, enlightened, and thoroughly distracted indeed.
A GOOD OLD-FASHIONED FUTURE
Sterling's short fiction is just as good as his novel-length stories, as evidenced in "A Good Old-Fashioned Future," his third (and best) collection to date. "Future" is more topical and less scattered than "Crystal Express" and "Globalhead," with a comic and chilling preoccupation with the day-after-tomorrow (in "Sacred Cow," India is the sole superpower after the Western world dies of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease). The most memorable story here is arguably "Big Jelly," a collaboration with Rudy Rucker that tackles wild concepts and succeeds with hysterical results.
THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE
Cyberpunks William Gibson and Bruce Sterling join forces. The result is "The Difference Engine," an alternate-history Victorian mystery/social discourse in which the transcendent heart of the digital age has been transplanted from the ubiquitous CPUs of the late twentieth century to towering, steam-driven analytical "engines." Dense, wry, and weirdly funny, "The Difference Engine" is an unlikely literary artifact that recalls Thomas Pynchon's "V." The quintessential "steampunk" novel, not likely to be superseded.
THE HACKER CRACKDOWN
"The Hacker Crackdown," Sterling's first nonfiction effort, is an engrossing and thorough look at the subcultures and civil liberties issues spawned by computer crime. Written with a novelist's eye, "The Hacker Crackdown" is consummately Sterling, as informative as it is fun. This is an essential document of the PC era. (Appropriately, "The Hacker Crackdown" is available online in its entirety.)
Check your local library or used-book store for the following...
MIRRORSHADES: THE CYBERPUNK ANTHOLOGY (ed.)
Published in 1986, "Mirrorshades" is a smorgasboard of cyberpunk's wilder capabilities. Launched by an introduction by Bruce Sterling, "Mirrorshades" offers the reader a kaleidoscopic tour through the cybernetic visions of luminaries such as William Gibson (whose featured solo work, "The Gernsback Continuum," also highlights the short-story collection "Burning Chrome"), John Shirley, Rudy Rucker and Pat Cadigan. New authors have continued to redefine modern science fiction since "Mirrorshade's" publication, but the stories contained herein stand as classics. "Mirrorshades" ensures Sterling's place as the genre's most astute critic.