Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review of A Good Old-fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling

In 1986 Bruce Sterling edited an anthology of stories he called Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.  A manifesto of sorts, Sterling wrote not only an introduction to the book, but an intro for each story.  Focusing entirely on the art and ideology of cyberpunk, the anthology drew ire from some readers; not all of the stories fit their expectations of what they thought the sub-genre to be.  The same disagreement could never appear regarding Sterling’s 1999 collection A Good Old-fashioned Future.  Like arrows clustered around the center of a target, Sterling’s stories strike different places but are all aimed at the same point: cyberpunk of the unalloyed variety.  Reminiscent of the Sprawl stories in William Gibson’s Burning Chrome but with more cynicism and focus on tech influencing politics and vice versa, Sterling’s collection is at the core of the sub-genre no matter which way you look at it.

The pieces collected in A Good Old-fashioned Future were published individually between 1993 and 1998.  Not skipping over minor advances in science to get to the ‘good stuff’ of the far future, they focus on just a few years down the road, particularly the little evolutions in science, technology, and industry, and the effect they have on culture and society at large.  The collection is loaded with: imaginative gadgets and concepts one step beyond the current state, behavioral changes and zippy lingo associated with said tech, and the political factions (including bizarre agendas) which evolve in the wake of societal/technological change.

But Sterling does not overtly appear to be trying to predict the future in the collection.  Rather, it seems he is interested in presenting varying perspectives on the future to comment on today.  Most of the stories present slightly over-the-top ideas, which makes this analog vague.  But Sterling never asks for the surface details to be taken seriously.  As the title hints, the stories push the reader to evaluate current societal norms, the manner in which they evolve and have evolved, the role of technology, and what it all means to society today.  Thus on top of being a gushing outlet for creativity, the stories also possess a flavor more cynical and satirical than realist or plausible, in turn commenting indirectly on the ever-more-complex nature of tech, legality, politics, and culture.   Regarding the writing itself, Sterling is not the stylist that Gibson is, however, his manner has immediate impact.  It also doesn’t hurt that for as wild as some of the ideas are, they are unique, making the collection interesting reading conceptually.

The following are brief summaries of the seven stories in the collection.

A one-off about the Asian cat sitting at the cash register of businesses worldwide, “Maneki Neko” is the story of Tsuyoshi, his smartphone, and the result of following the instructions he receives on it.  A video renovator, Tsuyoshi thinks nothing of passing along snippets of interesting old video onto the web.  Though he doesn’t know who is behind it, he always gets something free in return, that is, as long as he’s willing to follow a few simple instructions.  Helping his wife deliver a maneki neko one day, all hell breaks loose after blindly following the commands of his smartphone.  A look at the anonymity the web offers and the degree to which it has permeated life, Sterling’s satirical take on modern life does explain how all of the cats ended up scattered around the world.

Tug-Tug Mesoglea is an entrepreneur with an idea: "Artificial Jellyfish: Your Route to Postindustrial Global Competitiveness!".  In “Big Jelly” (co-written with Rudy Rucker) his idea comes to spectacular life with the help of a drug snorting, broad-minded Texan venture capitalist named Revel Pullen.  Tug and Revel alter egos to Rucker and Sterling, the story is a cyberpunk romp about a product in development that goes wild.

The Littlest Jackal is another Lekhi Starlitz story, this time about a forced secession gone awry.  The Russian mafia seeking to keep its hold on financial flows, at the outset of the novella Starlitz has been brought on board to coordinate an offshore bank on the Swedo-Finnish island of Alands.  Contracted along with Starlitz is an eccentric hitman calling himself Raf the Jackal and his hipster girlfriend, Aina.  The three, together with the help of mafia man Khoklov, put into place the pieces, including hackers and militia, to incorporate the bank and takeover the small island in the Baltic.  Group dynamics troublesome, the plan eventually comes to a head—and not in a way any of them imagined.  Featuring the same main character from a previous Sterling novella Hollywood Kremlin, and who would go on to star in the novel Zeitgeist, The Littlest Jackal is the middle story in the Leggy Starlitz series but reads fine as a stand-alone.

“Sacred Cow” is the story of Jackie, a nonplussed filmmaker who has shifted his operations to Britain for financial reasons; the plague rattled country proves much cheaper to produce Bollywood style films than his native and now affluent India.  90% of the British population destroyed by mad cow disease, Jackie has his pick of the land, employing empty-headed actresses and extras at will, stages and settings available wherever he wants to shoot.  Empty-souled, the piece is less a story and more an overview of the cultural vacuum of pop culture Jackie lives within.

Before Google Glasses there were spex, and “Deep Eddy” tells the story of a young man’s s first trip to Europe wearing a pair of the data collecting/producing frames.  Essentially a mule for data pirates, Eddy is contracted to travel to Dusselfdorf to deliver a package.  Met at the airport by a stiff-backed female bodyguard, the two pass through the marginal areas of the city to avoid detection on their way to the drop-off.  This means passing park-hogging domes full of anarchists, soccer hooligans, and an impending street riot of informational and political proportions.  The Wende on, Eddy ends up in a fight for his life as two of the cities most ideological pirates battle it out.  Wholly satirical, Sterling has a lot of fun imagining Germany on Infobahn steroids.

“Bicycle Repairman” is the story of Lyle Schweik who lives in a burned out high-rise in Chattanooga.  His earnings meager given the poor who live around him, it beats being a tooth in a gear working for a big bike conglomerate from Lyle’s point of view.  Trouble starts for the independent young man when he receives a package from Eddy—who is still across the pond.  The old piece of hardware containing nothing but political footage with obtuse subtitles, Lyle ignores the antique piece of tech, that is, until a stranger visits his shop and makes him think twice.  Given the people hacking out a living in the half-destroyed urban infrastructure around him, the focus on bicycles and the manner in which tech influences the basics of life, the novelette is highly reminiscent of William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, particularly Virtual Light.  The story line of Sterling’s novella may be a bit forced, but the near-future imagination remains unique.

Not what lies in the desert, rather under it, “Taklamakan” is the story of Pete and Katrinko—two spies sent to cover up an operation gone bad in the Chinese wasteland.  Their boss’s orbital having crashed in the desert, killing him in the process, the two must remove all traces and get out before the Chinese spot them.  Coming upon a nuclear waste dump and finding corpses, the two decide to take their mission further, and in the process discover a social experiment beyond comprehension.  A singular note on which to end the collection, “Taklamakan” is planetary adventure of the generation starship variety that never leaves Earth.  How?  That’s certainly for the reader to discover.

In the end, A Good Old-fashioned Future is a collection of cyberpunk stories that is focused nearly entirely on ideas, particularly the near-future of technology, its application in society, and the politics and social behavior resulting.  Sterling obviously enjoying the creative effort, character and theme take a backseat to extrapolation on scientific advances and socio-political schemes of the first-half of the 21 st century.  Neither prosaic or emotionally deep, the stories nevertheless reside at the heart of what most would consider cyberpunk, and, for such fans, will be readily enjoyable.  As mentioned, those who enjoyed William Gibson’s Burning Chrome will certainly find something to like about A Good Old-fashioned Future despite the stylistic differences.

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