|A Good Old-Fashioned Future|
|Bantam Spectra Books, 304 pages|
|A review by Ken Newquist
And then there's Bruce Sterling future, a post-cyberpunk dystopia where the Western powers are in decline or fighting to hold the line and technology has become the world's greatest liberator and curse.
Sterling's latest is a collection of seven short stories published in a variety of science fiction magazines and anthologies during the early to mid-1990s -- and one from 1998. They retain the pessimistic feel of the recession years, when it appeared the western powers were in complete decline, and it was only a matter of time before Japan and the sleeping giants to the east -- China and India -- took over the world.
The stories themselves take place in the early to mid-21st century, where a cyberpunk future is a fact of life -- no one, not the reader, not the stories' inhabitants -- challenges the condition of the world. But while much of the older cyberpunk stories revolve around the coming age's cybermages, street samurai, and transnational corporations, Sterling's stories deal with the normal people. That is, if you can call an urban wall-crawling adrenaline freak-turned-government spy, a PDA-addicted Japanese upgrader and a neutered bicycle repairman "normal."
The opening story, "Maneki Neko," is a subtle take on the ghost-in-the-machine genre. The main character, Tsuyoshi Shimizu, is a video format upgrader who happens to be part of a barely-hidden economy of giving. Throughout the day, he receives, sends, drops off and occasionally buys items or services for and from other people based on orders from a small, personal-data-assistant-type electronic cat. One day he is given a small ceramic cat and ordered to take it to a hotel, where he delivers it to an enraged American government agent who in investigating his hidden economy. The story is just one example of how Sterling excels in capturing the minute details of the future.
Rather than painting with broad strokes, he uses tighter ones to render his worlds with subtle details. "Maneki Neko" -- and the rest in the book -- are no exception. Rather than throw out a standard apocalyptic and insane artificial intelligence, he creates a ghost-in-the-machine with a more passive agenda. He shows, rather than tells, us what effects this AI is having on the people of his world and even when he reveals the intelligence to us, it's only a glimpse, and only for a few moments.
Sterling takes on the madness of technology start-up companies with "The Littlest Jackal," a dark satire in which the principle characters are planning to launch the first Internet-based money laundry while plotting a revolution on Finland's Aland Islands (whether the Islanders want a revolution or not). He mixes together the chaos of the Net with the Russian Mafia and then throws in the fickleness of the Japanese toy market, just to make things interesting. The plan falls apart, but does so spectacularly. Fans of movies like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs will like this story; others will probably want to pass.
The final three stories in the book are on a sort of science-fiction relay, with one character from each continuing into the next. These stories are vintage cyberpunk, dominated by toys and ideas.
The first of the stories, "Deep Eddy," introduces us to the title character, who is on his way to Europe on behalf of a political organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Deep Eddy is a child of the 21st century, free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, while being totally wired to the information superstructure. Rather than jacking in to the Net via a neural implant, Deep Eddy gets his digital fix from specs -- glasses that provide him with information about everything around him. He arrives in Dusseldorf on a mission to carry a special book to a man known as the cultural critic. In the process though, he gets caught up in a wende, a spontaneous city-wide disaster that's unequal parts block party, soccer riot and Y2K-like chaos.
In the next story, "Bicycle Repair Man," Eddy sends packages to a friend back home in Tennessee. The friend, Lyle, lives in the ruined floors of a titanic, multi-level housing project. Lyle is anything but a member of the underprivileged, technologically starved poor. He lives in the projects because he wants to, and it's there that he maintains a small, barely-profitable bicycle-repair business. It's an uncomplicated life that's interrupted by a government agent who wants one of the packages that Eddy has sent to the states.
The third story opens with one of Lyle's friends, Spider Pete, on a clandestine mission for the US government. Pete is a climbing enthusiast who has taken his hobby to ever greater heights with fingers capable of penetrating rock and metabolism-boosting ticks embedded in his arm pits. Pete and his counterpart, a neuter named Katrinko, uncover a surprising -- and dangerous -- secret buried in a Chinese wasteland.
The "good old-fashioned future" that Sterling has created in these stories takes many of today's trends and logically extrapolates them. The future Sterling shows us isn't unfamiliar or all that surprising, because more and more it is becoming our future. There are lessons to be learned here about the excesses of technology, but at the same time, the book shows the liberating aspects of the Information Age. It lets anyone be anything. And bicycle repairman Lyle speaks for his reality when defending it to his pestering mother:
"I don't need any bosses, or any teachers, or any landlords, or any cops. It's just me and my bike work down here. I know that people in authority can't stand it that a twenty-four-year-old man lives an independent life and does exactly what he wants, but I'm being very quiet and discreet about it, so nobody needs to bother about me."
Kenneth Newquist is a confessed science fiction/fantasy addict living in Easton, Pennsylvania, and working as a webmaster at a small university in New Jersey. He's regular contributor to Science Fiction Weekly and is the editor of the speculative fiction webzine Nuketown.
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