Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review of Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling

Love him or hate him, Bruce Sterling is one of the most intriguing voices in science-fiction.  A successful writer of fiction and non-fiction, as well as being a speaker of the most unique and presumptuous nature, his words carry regarding the future of technology and society.  At base a humanist, Sterling’s work reflects the potential implications of applying the knowledge humanity acquires to economic, ecological, and socio-political environments.  A good example of his aims, Islands in the Net presents all of these facets in a political drama/thriller that continues to touch upon ideas in today’s world despite the 25 years that have passed since its publishing.  

Islands in the Net opens in the year 2023.  The world appears much the same as it does today, but with a few small differences.  Multinational megacorporations wield ever-growing clout in systems which continue to utilize capitalism.  Banks that operate in safe zones today have evolved into the data havens of tomorrow, trading currency and information both on and off the legal radar.  The UN has been usurped by the Vienna convention, a group that acts in above-the-law capacity under the guise of protecting civil liberties in countries which have signed the treaty.  And lastly, the hotbed of African political chaos has worsened.  Foreign commercial and political interests continue to pressure, pillage, and outright seize its governments and people, the result being an unstable continent filled with terrorism and tyranny.

On the global commercial scene is Rizome, a progressive corporation of economic democrats.  At the beginning of the story, their internet concerns lead them to bring together representatives from the banking and data havens of Singapore, Luxembourg, and Grenada in an effort to come to an accord regarding the systematization of data and data transactions.  With business more transparent, Rizome believes that fewer assassinations, terrorist activities, and intrusions into weak political systems will occur.  The meeting takes place at Rizome’s eco-Lodge in Galveston, Texas where local representative Laura Webster acts as coordinator.  The atmosphere tense from day one, things go ballistic when tragedy strikes, and whether she wants it or not, Laura is dragged into the ensuing global reaction. 

Islands in the Net is a patiently plotted, satisfying novel.  Thankfully lacking the minutiae of Tom Clancy, Sterling slowly but surely unwraps the story, culminating in a semi-revolutionary series of events that (slightly) change the hue of world politics.  There is enough realism to make the economic and political matters feel plausible, and likewise enough imagination to bring into focus the futuristic, technology-influenced concerns on the agenda.  Action does exist in exciting enough spurts to push the story to its next phase, but emphasis remains on real-world concerns and the people affected.

Published in 1988, Islands in the Net holds up well to the test of time.  In the two decades and a half since, the world has shifted in unquantifiable fashion, not all most of which Sterling gets correct.  The increased political power of global commercial interests, the web’s ability to disseminate information beyond censorship, and the continued destabilization of Africa as a war ground are all main features of the novel.  The subsequent tech which remains unrealized nevertheless has a very realistic, practical feel.  Sterling a vat of eco-ideas, many of the groups described survive on technology that is both simple yet evolutionary.  Single-celled protein provides bland but cheap nutrition to millions and old technology is salvaged and put to new and modern uses (the renovated tanker is great), and so forth.  But whether manifested or not, the world envisioned makes for interesting reading.

Islands in the Net likewise deserves commendation for characterization and cultural representation.  The protagonist is a woman, and more importantly, a modern, intelligent woman motivated by a combination of personal choice and the situations she finds herself in—just like the real world.  The conclusion of Laura’s story may be a touch trite, but while being put through the wringer, personally and politically, she is by turns victim and decisive participant; Sterling does not over-compensate by making her larger than life, and in turn produces a character readers can relate to.  

Regarding cultural representation, many corners of the world, famous or otherwise, are visited or touched upon.  Largely avoiding cultural appropriation, Sterling tries to realistically present what life is like in places beyond the West from what appears direct experience.  He may not succeed 100%, but there is a definite feel the peoples and cultures are not simply being used for story, rather vice versa.  Topping it all, Sterling uses the platform to condemn commercial interests which take advantage of people in underprivileged areas—a topic that continues to grow in importance.  (This is not to say that human rights is the focus of the novel, rather that it plays a role.)

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Islands in the Net is, however, its ability to blur the line between terrorist and terroree.  The reader never knowing the good guys and the bad, at all times Laura’s situation is far from delimited.  The political angles are presented realistically so as to supersede any localized, i.e. black and white, understanding, and in turn suspense is heightened.  As a result, Sterling is able to filter the variety of political ideologies down to a bottom line: those who use violence as a tool in propagating their worldview, and those who seek to avoid it in favor of discussion and compromise, which makes for interesting discussion, indeed.  When Sterling cuts into the notion that America is the world’s policeman, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

I’ve yet to read a review lauding Sterling’s prose, and rightfully so.  The author going about matters in a direct, straight-forward manner, readers should not expect to be wowed by stylistics in Islands in the Net; Sterling is to be read for ideas and the interesting manner in which they are used.  This is not to say he is a terrible connecter of words, only that the language used will neither impress nor disappoint.  

In the end, Islands in the Net is a savvy political drama/thriller with near-future tech (some that has become real and some that remains imagined) wholly embedded and informing the storyline.  The year is 2023, but it is a world that is quite familiar, especially given the circumstances Sterling was prescient of.  (When you read such lines as “You Yankees don’t even have a real government—just capitalist cartels.” is it really so far from truth in the US today?) The book features a solid, empathetic main character who believes information is to be used for the benefit of all, not just as a tool for political leverage--and of course its share of speculation on tech.  It is after all, core cyberpunk.  (But do ignore the cover.)

(This review has also been posted at


  1. Good review! It’s cool to see somebody writing and discussing about this Bruce Sterling’s book in "nowadays". I read “Islands in the Net” (“Data Pirates” in the brazilian portuguese translation) 2 years ago. At the end of the book I would to talk about it with somebody that read it too. But, unfortunatelly, I didn’t found any person in Brazil (searching in communities on internet).

    To be honest, I found one guy, but he read the book a long time ago and can’t remember. At that time, I wasn’t encouraged to try to talk with people of other countries, because my english at that time wasn’t good (even today, I have a intermediate broken english, sorry about this). But something happened: 2 months after I created a community “Bruce Sterling” in SKOOB (a books social network in Brazil), the translator of “Count Zero” and “Starship Troopers” answered me! :-)

    Like many people, I guess, I had a disappointment when I realized what the book was about. Because the translated title (“Data Pirates”) gave me a idea of a “traditional” cyberpunk story, like “Neuromancer” or Johnny Mnemonic.

    But after this initial “shock”, I started to stay immerse in this fictional universe created by Bruce Sterling and how he was right in many “predictions” of the future. For example, the drones. Nowadays, drones became popular and U.S. Army is using it.

    At some point, the plot became a action movie / thriller like, but very good!

    Bruce Sterling always talks about Brazil and other Third World countries. And as a brazilian citizen, I have to say that he was right in the mainly idea of future. Brazil for sure it’s a good example of the “high tech, low life” in cyberpunk books.

    Best regards!

    1. Firstly, thanks for stopping by. Regarding your English, no worries. I haven't lived full-time in the US for more than a decade, so I'm completely used to hearing English spoken as a second language. I'm a bit curious why Brazilian publishers changed the title to "Data Pirates" ("Islands in the Net" seems easy to translate), but I guess, as you noticed, they might have been trying to get the cyberpunk audience interested.

      There is another author who uses third world countries, that is Ian McDonald. Have you read River of Gods (set in India), The Dervish House (set in Turkey), or Brasyl (set in Brasil, of course)?

      Are there any Brazilian authors writing science fiction that might be translated into English?