There were times listening to George W. Bush speak that one might have considered his position as leader of the world’s most powerful country a joke. The Monica Lewinski/Bill Clinton scandal was a joke. Media flooding a story far less significant than the Balkan War, strife between Israel and Palestine, American jobs moving overseas, and other issues at the time, it called into question where American priorities lay. And Barack Obama, as inspired an orator he may be, seems to have little control over the ongoing environmental, economic, social, healthcare, and domestic policy problems plaguing the US, the middle class sinking ever closer to the lower - the system, dependent on lobbying, perhaps even more fouled than the position. With voter turnout slipping each election, faith in the American political system to solve it’s nation’s issues seems to be fading. Has it become a farce? Bruce Sterling’s 1998 Distraction would posit ‘yes’. And it has some damning, if not cynically humorous evidence, to prove it.
Intelligently deconstructing the system one satirically-edged scene at a time, Distraction looks at the intersection of commerce and science through the lens of American politics. The joke out in the open, a renegade governor tries to gain political and economic power with cutthroat means while the president fosters a cold war with the Netherlands as an excuse for invasion and voter satisfaction. Caught in the middle is Oscar Valparaiso. A spin doctor—and a successful one, the politician whose campaign he just managed was elected senator. Relaxing in the armored tour bus on the border of Texas and Louisiana just days after their victory, Oscar looks ahead to his next job and getting back to Boston to see his girlfriend. But when the girlfriend leaves him for a gig in in the ongoing Cold War and the rambunctious governor of Louisiana throws more than one wrench in Oscar’s plans for a new career, the wheels, as they say, come off the bus, and Oscar’s life heads off on a wild ride of late 21st century American politics and science.
Part surreal, part satire, and a touch (just a touch) cyberpunk, Distraction is a singular, brilliant tackling of the holes in the American political system as only Sterling can. Imminently quotable (see below), Sterling keeps the tip of his tongue tucked into the corner of his cheek, the mode just a scrinch beyond realism, the underlying ideas all too real, and the storyline as unpredictable and savvy as any novel can be. Building on the tradition of Frederik Pohl and William Tenn, John Sladek and James Morrow more so than William Gibson or Pat Cadigan, Distraction is a witty in its intelligent.
But despite the cutting humor, Distraction is ultimately a tragedy not a comedy. Real American politics too close to the relative circus Sterling portrays, indeed there are serious issues at root in the system that require mitigation if the nation as a whole is ever to shift its focus in a direction valuable to all its people. One interesting contrast Sterling makes to highlight this is how dependent America is on technical advances (aka science) and the resultant commercialization of said advances compared to Europe. Where, figuratively speaking, Europe might revert to farming in time of catastrophe with little complaint, America would be left floundering, so divorced from natural reality is American becoming. This is not to say, of course, that Europeans do not love their iPads, merely that the American system is dependent on the continual progression of science into commerce to maintain its swagger, whereas the European is more mature and composed, maintaining a broader balance across its economic, cultural, and historical power bases, a fact Sterling seems to wink at America when describing.
Holy Fire was a brilliant examination of aging, immortality, and art vs. artifice that became something of an Alice in Post-Humanland. Distraction is quite different—a work truly of its own; comparisons can only be drawn at the thematic level, the details unique to Sterling’s fertile imagination. Even linguistically Distraction is spot-on. The words flowing lockstep, I don’t know if Sterling has written a more damning or accomplished novel.
From the anarchist nomads to talking building materials, the “martians” in Washington DC to Oscar’s gel watch, Sterling fills Distraction with all of his powers as a ‘futurist’ thinker. Featuring a US government in the throes of fracture, it highlights the lack of proximity real leadership and politics have to the everyday life of Americans and their future interests. The system rendered a sublime joke, seeing how little actual progress US governments have made in the decade and a half since the novel was published, particularly with the ongoing debate within the Republican party who to offer as their candidate, seems only to warrant a re-read.
Some great quotes from Distraction:
“We’ve poisoned the ocean, we’ve burned down and plowed the jungles, and we even screwed up the weather. All for the sake of modern life, right? Eight billion psychotic media freaks!”
“America was far better suited to be the World’s Movie Star. The world’s tequila-addled pro-league bowler. The world’s acerbic, bi-polar stand-up comedian. Anything but a somber and tedious nation of socially responsible centurions.”
“Don’t you see what I just pulled here? For the first time ever, we’re getting people to pay us not to do research.”
“Instead of paying federal scientists to march your industry right off the cliff, you should be paying scientists protection money not to research your business. That’ll ensure that your industry doesn’t go anywhere.”
“He was not religious, but he’d always been impressed by Judeo-Christianity’s long political track record.”
“We’ve put so many people through the prison system that they’re a major demographic group.”