Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review of "Crystal Express" by Bruce Sterling

Crystal Express is a 1989 collection of Bruce Sterling short stories published between 1982 and 1987.  A variety, five of the stories are set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe made popular in Schismatrix, three are general science fiction, and four lean toward the fantasy end of genre.  The stories grouped along these lines, the following is a brief summary of each.


“Swarm” (1982) – Certainly one of Sterling’s initial forays into the S/M universe if not the first, this story is poorly written (it has almost a cartoon presentation), but does a solid (if overt) job of delineating the differences between Shapers and Mechanists. Otherwise, it is the tale of two people trapped inside an asteroid filled with Investor youth and their plans for genetic modification.

“Spider Rose” (1982) – A heavily modified Shaper working alone as a deep space miner finds an unusual object for trade.  But the Investors who come looking to haggle have more than she bargained for.  A better written story than the first, not to mention containing more imagination, things turn out like no one could predict.  But then, that’s Sterling’s point when post-humanism is at play.

“Cicada Queen” (1983) – Starting with a bizarre, drug-induced initiation ritual, the story only gets stranger.  It also becomes more cohesive ideologically, and more closely parallels the political machinations of Schismatrix.
“Sunken Gardens” (1984) – Mars has been bombarded with ice asteroids by a group attempting to give the planet a livable atmosphere and plant life.  In the aftermath, another faction called the Regals hold a terra-forming competition that simply defies best environmental practices. Suffice to say, Sterling’s political standpoint is more than obvious.

“Twenty Invocations” (1984) – Anything but a traditional story, these twenty windows into the life of Nikolai are a fun experiment with structure.  Flashes of Shaper/Mechanist life also revealed, this may be the best of the related “stories” in the collection.

Science Fiction

“Green Days in Brunei” (1985) – A Canadian engineer named Turner signs a temporary contract in Brunei to get a retired millionaire’s boat business back on its feet.  Things may turn out a little too nicely—materialistically, amorously, and ideologically—for Turner, but the story portrays a window into post-oil politics in a cyberpunk setting.

“Spook” (1983) – When “being human just isn't enough fun", a secret operative looks for more from life.  He gets what he bargained for, plus some.

“The Beautiful and the Sublime” (1986) – In this future where modernism has returned to fashion, retro-retro is in, as is aestheticism.  Manfred de Kooneng vies for the woman he loves, and the more subtle his tricks, the more his soul fills with joy.  Sterling experimenting with something of a Victorian style, this is one of the best stories in the collection though it is relatively straightforward.


“Telliamed” (1984) – The cream of the collection, this is the story of the aging de Maillet and some strange jungle snuff he inhales while sitting beside the sea one day.  Vividly written, Sterling strikes a conceptual groove in the story that waxes in the mind after it is finished. Reminiscent of Gene Wolfe… 

“The Little Magic Shop” (1987)  - A short, strange tale, James Abernathy discovers an elixir of immortality, and keeps coming back every two decades to the same shop to pick up a fresh supply.

“Flowers of Edo” (1987) - A progressive, ne’er-do-well comedian and a traditionalist, former samurai walk the streets of an Edo slowly falling under the influence of foreign fashions, architecture, and engineering.  A minor adventure of sorts, the two’s supernatural encounter at the home of an artist is of telling interest.

“Dinner in Audoghast” (1985) – A group of Muslim aristocrats discuss life over a meal of gaudy proportions.  A leprous fortune-teller appearing on their doorstep, history takes a new perspective.

In the end, Crystal Express is neither a great nor terrible collection of stories.  The Shaper/Mechanist section sheds more light on that universe, but certainly falls short of the novel Schismatrix for quality (though they are highly original stories).   The sci-fi section an improvement in style and presentation, its stories take on a variety of more contemporary subjects.  Ending on a high note, the fantasy section contains the best stories in the collection.  “Telliamed” and “The Beautiful and the Sublime” are nice little pieces in highlight.  I can’t help but feel the collection lost a little something being divided into sections, however.  A certain, small degree of interest is lost in the predictability.  But this is a minor quibble.  More troublesome is the quality of writing.  Sterling finding his literary feet, it requires effort not to startle at some of the appallingly amateur syntax in several of the opening stories.  Noticeably improving as the collection progresses (perhaps a reason behind the genre grouping?), Sterling slowly draws the reader in, not to mention moves closer to social, political and cultural concerns of the present day.

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