A Good Old-Fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling
(Bantam Spectra, $6.99, 280 pages, paperback; published June 1999. Gollancz, £6.99, 280 pages, paperback; published April 2001.)
While perhaps not quite as impressive or balanced as Bruce Sterling's two previous collections, Crystal Express (1989) and Globalhead (1992), A Good Old-Fashioned Future is a fine book, combining a surface of ebullient humor with a core of keen intellectual concern. Like Globalhead, it ranges the postmodern world, assessing with an acute journalist's eye the fads, eccentricities, and psychoses of that recombinant socio-cultural soup; and like Crystal Express, it evokes the deep crisis always latent in the restless postmodern condition, the sense that the center (a dubious concept in itself) can barely hold, if at all. The result is a balancing act of the amiable and the sinister, very deftly performed.
The half of the act that seizes the eye and the ear belongs to Sterling the journalist. Any reader familiar with Sterling's articles in Wired will recognize the narrative voice of the stories in A Good Old-Fashioned Future, one that seizes on bizarre or outrageous features of the international cultural landscape and reports them with copious, hilarious gusto. In Sterling's recent short fiction, this gonzo magpie's manner is consistent to the point of monotony, but it is so observant and witty that the fault has to be forgiven. These seven tales, in their aspect as cyberpunk comedies, relate the experiences of the entrepeneurs and adventurers of the data-oversaturated Twenty First Century, a disorienting yet familiar time. Trends evident now are extrapolated to baroque absurdity, but human ingenuity can usually keep up, if only in an improvisatory way. And ingenious improvisation is a form of activity Sterling has a rare ability to convey...
In "Maneki Neko", an agent of the traditional, government-regulated variety of market economy discovers that an alternative system, one based on gifts and obligations, is pervasive and very, very efficient; the confusion of this culture clash is a model of screwball humor. "Big Jelly", a collaboration with Rudy Rucker to which Rucker has seemingly added a further component of zaniness, is a vastly-improved take on the basic Gernsbackian formula of inventors transforming the world; a drawling Texan oil millionaire and a gay Californian a-life specialist employ what they believe is primordial "goo" to create a new, commercially promising phylum of half-alive aerial jellyfish. Their wisecracking dialogues are as inventive as their crackpot biological experiments; for such unflappable innovators, great fortunes beckon.
What larks! The remaining stories are somewhat darker in implication, but their surface exuberance is undimmed. "The Littlest Jackal", a sequel to the two "Leggy Starlitz" stories in Globalhead, relates the progress of a daft conspiracy by Russian mafiosi, imperialistic Finnish anti-imperialists, a poor man's version of Carlos the Jackal, and a fast operator targeting copyright violators to establish an island kingdom, for a range of motives defying ready summary. "Sacred Cow" is an account of cynical Bollywood hacks making cinematic potboilers in a Britain laid low by the mad cow epidemic. Finally, three long interlinked tales delineate the bohemian fringes of a future dominated by rival continental trading blocs. "Deep Eddy" takes a youthful American devotee of computer-aided perception to 2030s Duesseldorf, where old traditions of riot and carnival are given resolutely postmodern twists and interpretations. "Bicycle Repairman" with equal energy moves to Deep Eddy's hometown, Chattanooga; Duesseldorf-inspired anarchy has created a fecund enclave of economic and cultural freedom, a zone that compels older structures of authority to re-assess their methods if not their priorities. The discomfiture of a gung-ho government operative is very amusingly handled. And in "Taklamakan", the most spectacular and surprising piece in this collection, an urban mountaineer first encountered in the previous story must face an astonishing social experiment beneath the Central Asian Desert, one involving false starships, a form of ethnic cleansing, and a plague of recombinant robots reminiscent of that in "Big Jelly". Again, Sterling's manner is infectiously flippant; the comic aspect of A Good Old-Fashioned Future is a remarkable achievement in itself.
Sterling offers so many hilarious vignettes that this comic face might seem his book's single, overwhelming recommendation. A Russian mobster, belonging to a rather surreal organization himself, dismisses a business association with a militant Japanese cult: "There are limits to my credulity, you know. Botulism breweries? Nerve gas factories? Hundreds of brainwashed New Age robots building computer chips for a half-blind master criminal in white pajamas?...Please inform this clown that he's dealing with real-life professionals." Elsewhere, a bicycle repair specialist reflects on a disastrous roommate: "Pretty soon the shop was creaking and rocking with all-night girl-on-girl hot-oil sessions, which degenerated into hooting pill-orgies with heavily-tattooed zone chyx who played klaxonized bongo music, and beat each other up, and stole Lyle's tools." A rock climber turned spy ponders his grandfather, who supposedly was a Seminole Indian, but who may simply have been so labeled to mask his true character as "an illiterate old geezer". This is superb jocularity, and it never stops. But there is an underlying seriousness of theme here, which progressively penetrates this rumbunctious surface.
Sterling is engaged in a sober consideration of the interface of past and future, as this volume's title implies. The future may be a dazzling prospect, enriching the present with dynamic expectation, as the brash style of these stories asserts; but there is also the dead hand of the past, infecting the future with its dark, obsolete obsessions. The gift economy in "Maneki Neko" has sinister overtones of authoritarian control, echoing the panoptic regime of The Difference Engine (1990). In "The Littlest Jackal", Leggy Starlitz realizes that brutal feudalism is re-emerging in his laissez-faire underworld; he steps out of it in dismay. "Sacred Cow" emphasizes how the ways of chauvinism and imperialism will re-surface even as the world turns upside down. "Deep Eddy" argues the redemptive quality of crowd violence, but it is violence with archaic roots; "Bicycle Repairman" describes the defeat of traditional government by the bohemian fringe, but government soon adapts--its resisters have becomes its employees by the time of "Taklamakan". And in that last story a complex picture is painted, not only of how new technologies may revive the ruthless social engineering schemes of the past, but also of how old visions of the future--"yesterday's tomorrows"--may yet be realized in all their sinister absurdity. Sterling seems to be in some uncertainty as to whether what is to come is truly as exuberantly free of baggage as it would like to believe. Does it have the integrity to be itself, to overcome the pull of the past? Does it, in its glossy postmodern superficiality, have any integrity at all? Beneath Sterling's usual extroverted voice there are whispers of doubt.
A Good Old-Fashioned Future, then, is an exhilarating and reflective book, seven eclectic baubles, which at times glimmer darkly. Sterling is a literary magpie, but one able to see beyond the glitter, to the bleaker heart of the matter.
This review was originally published in Nova Express, Volume 5 Number 2: Fall / Winter 1999
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 5 February 2000