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Visionary in Residence
Bruce Sterling
Thunder's Mouth Press, 320 pages

Visionary in Residence
Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling was born in 1954 in Brownsville, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin and worked for the Texas Legislative Council in Austin as a proofreader back in the late 70s-early 80s. He edited Mirrorshades, felt by many to be the definitive document of the cyberpunk movement. He writes a popular-science column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a literary-critical column for Science Fiction Eye. He has appeared on ABC's Nightline, BBC's The Late Show, CBC's Morningside, on MTV, and in Newsday, Omni, Whole Earth Review, Details, and Wired. He lives in Austin with his wife and daughter.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:A Good Old Fashioned Future
SF Site Review: Zeitgeist
SF Site Review: Zeitgeist
SF Site Review: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
SF Site Review: Distraction
SF Site Interview: Bruce Sterling

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

It is a curious thing when the cutting edge starts to become blunt, as if the future is no longer what we imagined it might be. Bruce Sterling we remember as the author of "Taklamakan" and "Bicycle Repairman" and a dozen other stories that sliced so deep into the future that they made it bleed. But in this collection, while Sterling remains as hip to new ideas as ever he was, there is nothing that even breaks the skin. The trouble is that, for him, the future is indeed not what he imagined, with competent characters negotiating the political maze of technological change. Now he is writing about biological change, about architectural change, about social change, but he is still using the machineries of cyberpunk to tell these very different stories.

The point in this collection about which the book turns (almost literally so, since it has been placed in the middle pages), is not even the sole work of the author, it is a collaboration with Paul Di Filippo. "The Scab's Progress" is the longest work, its title suggesting a kinship with Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress," and it is as episodic as the original, but where Hogarth's social satire progressed through a series of logical and inevitable consequences, each successive incident in "The Scab's Progress" is neither the logical nor the inevitable consequence of its predecessor. The "scab" of the title is a bio-hacker, but the information contained in gene types is of a very different character to the information that is the common currency of cyberpunk, and the authors don't seem to have any awareness of this disjunction (the fact that they conclude their tale with a glossary, even one full of in-jokes, further suggests an uncertainty about the coherence of their world). And where the Rake was set on an inevitable downward course, the Scab somehow achieves a happy ending that makes no sense whatever after the sequence of daft disasters that precede it. "The Scab's Progress" is a rollicking tale full of nifty ideas and some neat set-pieces, but as you read through it you are struck with the realisation that none of this holds together.

The characteristic of "The Scab's Progress" that is replicated across this collection is the fact that it is full of ideas but doesn't actually have much in the way of story to hold those ideas together and make them work. There are, for instance, three of those irritating bugbears of modern SF by big-name authors: the very short story written for Nature. It takes a special talent to write 800 words that work as a cohesive and effective story, and most of the contributions to Nature that I have seen do not display that talent. Sterling is no exception; what we get instead is three sketches that might become stories if they were subjected to more development. If all you want is the idea, baldly expressed (and SF is the literature of ideas, surely) then these are fine; if you demand anything more of your fiction, you might as well skip these pages.

This sense of laying out ideas but not worrying too much about the mechanics of story is common in longer pieces here also. "Luciferase" gives human speech patterns (and supposedly comic names like "Vinnie") to a firefly and its predator, but other than that simply presents their life cycle from a different, more knowing, perspective. "The Growthing" is set in the computer-designed "architecture" of Greg Lynn, "the modern master of... 'blobitecture'", but an inconsequential story does nothing remotely interesting with the setting. The other collaboration in this collection, "Junk DNA," written with Rudy Rucker, is another story in which biological ideas are appropriated to cyberpunk tropes, with a satire on contemporary business thrown into the mix, and it really doesn't mix. What starts out promisingly -- a hapless bunch of people out of their depth in the business world attempt to market a new toy constructed from junk DNA -- becomes increasingly silly. The escalation of the pace from stately to tearaway in the last few pages suggests that the authors themselves had no clear idea where they were going with this idea.

Which is not to say that Visionary in Residence is a collection of complete duds; there are stories which promise more, and one or two which come close to delivering. "The Denial" is a ghost story with a neat twist, even if it is telegraphed halfway through. "User-Centric" starts out wonderfully as an exchange of emails between design geeks imagining the end user for their latest creation, but then just over halfway through crashes to Earth when the whole focus of the story shifts. "In Paradise" is a superb satire in which an American and his Iranian lover evade high-tech surveillance by simply walking away, their escape aided when immigration officials bus them across the Mexican border as unwanted aliens; unfortunately the satire seems to be the part of the story that interests Sterling least. The best piece gathered here is what Sterling terms his "mainstream" story, "Code," about a programmer who woos a receptionist by using books on how to win your man as the programme for how to conduct a romance. It is sly, witty, inventive, which is what makes it stand out from the stories that surround it.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and reviews for most of the critical journals in science fiction, as well as contributing to numerous reference books.

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