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September 1999
 
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Elizabeth Hand
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

A GOOD OLD-FASHIONED FUTURE
Stories by Bruce Sterling
Bantam, $6.99, 279 pp

SEVEN FOR THE APOCALYPSE
Kit Reed
Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England
$40.00 hb, $16.95 pb, 218 pp

STILL MORE STORIES FOR BOYS

I was almost halfway through Bruce Sterling's new and wonderfully entertaining collection, before it finally dawned on me.

Who the hell does this remind me of? The usual suspects ticked through my mind: William Gibson, Sterling's sometime collaborator, brooding Prince Hamlet to Sterling's mordantly witty Richard III [1]; Jack Womack, that cheery historian of bleak realpolitick dissolution and despair (who with Let's Put the Future Behind Us has already come up the best title for a book of this sort); Samuel R. Delany, the spiritual godfather of Gibson and Sterling and all their ilk, who with their youth (alas! graying somewhat now) and attitudinal punk posturing (to say nothing of the dogma) might as well have stepped from the pages of one of his mid-career classics: Trouble on Triton, or Dhalgren.

But no, that wasn't quite it, either. I frowned and went on Reading Sterling's collection, a longish story called "The Littlest Jackal."
    "Ex-Soviet hash isn't really very good," sniffed Aino. "They don't know how to do it right... I don't like to sell hash. But if you sell people drugs, then they respect you. They won't talk about you when cops come. I hate cops. Cops are fascist torturers. They should all be shot. Do you need the car, Raf?"
    "Take the car," Raf said.
    Aino fetched her purse and left the safehouse.
    "Interesting girl," commented Starlitz in the sudden empty silence.  "Never heard of any Finn terror groups before.  Germans, French, Irish, Basques, Croats, Italians.  Never Finns, though."
    "They're a bit behind the times in this corner of Europe. She's one of the new breed. Very brave. Very determined. It's a hard life for terrorist women." Raf carefully sugared his coffee. "Women never get proper credit. Women kidnaps ministers, women blow up trains---women do very well at the work. But no one calls them 'armed revolutionaries.' "
Bingo! I turned and pulled a moldering book from the shelf, opened it and began to read
    There is an ice wagon with a couple of horses hitched to it standing in front of a store, and when he sees the horses Rusty Charley seems to get a big idea. He stops and looks the horses over very carefully, although as far as I can see they are nothing but horses, and big and fat, and sleepy-looking horses, at that. Finally Rusty Charley says to me like this:
    "When I am a young guy," he says, "I am a very good puncher with my right hand, and often I hit a horse on the skull with my fist and knock it down. I wonder," he says, "if I lose my punch. The last copper I hit back there gets up twice on me."
    Then he steps up to one of the ice-wagon horses and hauls off and biffs it right between the eyes with a right-hand smack that does not travel more than four inches, and down goes old Mister Horse to his knees looking very much surprised.
This is from a story called "Blood Pressure," which is from a collection called Guys and Dolls, which if you have studied your American Popular Literature of the Twentieth Century, or seen a movie with a singer called Frank Sinatra in it, or maybe a high school play, you will know is by a guy named Damon Runyon. Excitedly I turned back to Sterling and a discussion between Leggy Starlitz and Aino the girl terrorist, about a series of Finnish children's books in the Smurf/Moomin mold---
    "Speffy the Nerkulen." Aino frowned. "That isn't even a proper Finnish name. It isn't Swedish either. Not even Åland Swedish."
    Starlitz turned off the shortwave, which was detailing Finnish agricultural production. "She imagined Speffy, that's all. Speffy the Nerkulen just popped out of her little gray head. But Speffy the Nerkulen sure moves major product in Hokkaido."
    Aino riffled the pages of the paperback. "I could make a book like this. She wrote this book fifty years ago. She was my age when she wrote and drew this book. I could do this myself."
    "Why do you say that?"
    She looked up. "Because I could, I know I could. I can draw. I can tell stories. I'm always telling stories to people at the bar. Once I did a band poster."
    "That's swell. How'd you like to come along with me and brace up the little old lady? I need a Finnish translator, and a former Froofy fan would be great. Besides, she can give you helpful tips on kid-lit."
    Aino looked at him, surprised. Slowly, she frowned. "What are you saying? I'm a revolutionary soldier. You should respect my political commitment. You wouldn't talk to me that way if I was a twenty-year-old boy."
Much is made of the concept of world-building in science fiction, a notion that goes something like this: If you build it, they will read. I.e., if you carefully calculate the ratio of trees to microchips, guns to butter, oxygen to radon, aliens to androids, computers, AIs, humans and such, thereby creating the literary equivalent of a set of architectural blueprints for an imagined future---well then, the resulting world-product will serve as template for that willing suspension of disbelief necessary for science fiction. Most science fiction is configured this way. Think of Dune, Foundation, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy [2]. It's fiction as architecture, blissfully free of that most traditional element of literature, character development.

And yet there is another stream of consciousness available to writers, and for all the hi-tech jargon and rape and pillage of the global village, Sterling plunges right into it. He's a master of contemporary cultural dissociation, often played for laughs. His plots are succinct and darkly funny, as in "Sacred Cow," where India becomes a world superpower by default---everyone else has died of mad cow disease, but Hindus don't eat beef, natch. Yet more than anything else, the tales in A Good Old-Fashioned Future are purposefully, almost deliriously, character-driven. And because we believe in them, the world he weaves around people like Leggy Starlitz and Deep Eddy Dertouzas and Pete the City Spider is utterly believable, a burned-out near-future Earth populated by polyglot gangsters and optimistic opportunists who might have stepped through the wrong manhole in Runyon's Manhattan and come out in Sterling's outer Mongolia: a bit nonplused, perhaps, to find themselves gazing into a nuclear test cavity now fizzing with organically reproducing robots, but still walking the walk and talking the talk.
    "Saaaaa . . ." riposted Mr. Inoue, patting the plasticized top of his shaven head. "The electroneural stabilizers of His Holiness the Master. They will soon be in mass production at our Fuji fortress."
    "You got like a kids' version of those, right?" said Starlitz.
    "Of course. His Holiness the Master has many children."
    "So have you ever considered, like, a pop commercial version of those gizmos? Like with maybe a fully licensed cartoon character?"
    Mr. Inoue blinked. "I was led to understand that Mister Khoklov's associates could supply us with military helicopters."
    "The son of a bitch is on about the helicopters again," Starlitz explained in Russian.
Sterling is a master of character-through-dialogue. He still hasn't matched the best example of this, from Runyon's contemporary Ring Lardner---
    "Are we lost, Daddy?" I asked tenderly.
    "Shut up," he explained.
---but he comes pretty close, in lines like
    " 'Life is very exciting today,' said Schreck with a smirk."
There are seven stories in A Good Old-Fashioned Future, and they are all pretty wonderful. Even the weakest of the lot, "Big Jelly" (a collaboration with Rudy Rucker), is still fun, a big pink pop-bubble of a tale about artificial floating jellyfish that begs to be illustrated by William Joyce, of A Day with Wilbur Robinson fame. "Taklamakan," the best (and most recent, to judge from its magazine pub date) work, builds upon previous stories and characters to reach a peak of hallucinatory wonder and terror, as the urban climber Pete (he of the City Spiders) finds himself in a garishly desolate part of the central Asian desert, confronting "an entire new means of industrial production" of "revolutionary weirdness." The means of production harks back to John Varley's "In the Hall of the Martian Kings," among others. But Sterling's presentation is both more terrifying and ultimately more believable than anything I've read before. The reason is not his descriptions of the bio-engineered, self-replicating creatures, although those descriptions are marvelous. Even in "Taklamakan," here at the end of all things, the secret of Sterling's success lies in his characterizations---all those beautifully-drawn losers and dreamers, spooks and mooks who wouldn't be out of place in a Scorsese film, if only they'd straighten their clothes and remember to smile at the boss. A Good Old-Fashioned Future is great fun, but it's also a great book, a literary dark horse if ever there was one. If science fiction were the last race at Belmont, I'd put all my money on Bruce Sterling to win.

* * *
[1] Note to overly literal readers: Bruce Sterling is not a hunchback.

[2] There's a funny ironical justice to this, since a long time ago in a magazine far, far away, Mister Sterling (he's the one in the dark glasses) gave Mister Robinson (he's the one waving a copy of David Copperfield) a hard time in something then called The Cyberpunk-Humanist debate. But I won't go into that here.

* * *


Like Sterling's collection, Kit Reed's Seven for the Apocalypse depicts a fractured, fractal, world, a place you recognize but not somewhere you'd want to visit; and then you think, Oops, here I am. Not all the stories here are genre works. The best one, "Voyager," is not. It is a beautiful, tragic piece about a man living with the emotional and physical fallout of his wife's Alzheimer's disease; in its concision, and the heartbreakingly commonplace rendering of mingled love and despair, "Voyager" brings to mind John Bayley's Elegy for Iris.
    You look up one day to discover the person that you think you know is no longer that person; she's drifting out to sea, drawn by the tides into an unknown ocean while you stand, helplessly ranting, as she bobs away.
The other stories in Reed's collection, while neatly done, never quite achieve the emotional resonance of "Voyager." "On the Penal Colony" comes closest, with its deft, dark depiction of Old Arkham Village, a New England tourist trap in the Old Sturbridge Village mode, whose ersatz colonials churning butter and sweating over a blacksmith's forge are actually prisoners, their ankle monitors hidden beneath their costumes. It's Shirley Jackson updated for the millennium, and no mean feat. The collection's centerpiece, the short novel "Little Sisters of the Apocalypse," is ambitious and strobe-lit with streaks of brilliant writing. Within an affluent island enclave straight out of J. G. Ballard, a number of women await the return of their men, five years absent now in a war that may be nothing more than a rumor, or a game, or an excuse to get away from their wives. But the men are returning; their trajectory is paralleled by an attack by the Outlaws, the displaced people who once lived on the island, and the rumbling motors of the titular religious order, nuns led by Sister Trinitas, whose own name is an acronym for the story's more transcendental Concerns---
    As Mary Alice Warner she was only a woman, designed for a limited role in the movie of life. As Trinitas, she's not there yet, but she's closer.
    In transit, Trini thinks. We are all in transit.
The straightforward narrative of "Little Sisters" is broken by snippets of what seem to be notes from the author, musings on Reed's own father, a submarine commander missing in action, and her mother's slow agonizing death from Alzheimer's. These notes, brief as they are, are ultimately more affecting than the story, which gets blind-sided by its own ambition and too many narrative threads.

But Reed has a mean way with aphorisms ("When the world ends, the last person standing will be a woman"), and enough heart that her story manages to be moving despite its technical flaws. The collection's last tale, a trope on the classic fairy tale "The Juniper Tree" called "The Singing Marine," is black and nightmarish and eerily satisfying, just like the original. It leaves the reader thirsty for more, which is a good way, maybe the best way, to end any book.

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