The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   107


by Bruce Sterling

New York: Bantam Spectra, 1998

The Future Belongs to Buna

There is a scene in the middle of Distraction where the hero, a political consultant named Oscar (with a ``personal background problem,'' involving his not ever having been born in any normal sense but rather being the product of an illegal and not terribly competent lab in Colombia) gets a birthday gift from his girlfriend Greta. Greta is a Nobelist neuroscientist named who is now in charge of a huge federal biological facility in Buna, Texas, thanks to a laboratory revolution engineered by Oscar. Both are working at three in the morning (which doesn't bother Oscar much --- more of that personal background problem), but have taken a break for a quickie. Afterwards she gives him his non-birthday present: a wristwatch she built in her lab, from three cloned bits of mouse brain that normally keep the circadian rhythm, and some mouse cells rigged to express firefly genes. She's just explained how to feed it, and told him to not worry about any occasional waste that the brain/watch might excrete.
Oscar looked at the eerie device. It was clinging to his wrist like raw liver. ``It's a homemade birthday watch,'' he said. ``In the middle of all this trouble, you've gone and made me a watch. With your own hands.''
``I'm glad you're pleased with it.''
`` `Pleased'? This is the finest birthday gift I've ever had.''
Her eyebrows twitched just a bit. ``You don't think it's creepy, do you?''
``Creepy? Heavens no! It's just a step or two beyond the current cutting edge, that's all. I could foresee big consumer demand for an item like this.'' [p. 239]
Distraction makes this believable. In fact, it makes so much believable that I'm this far from the conviction that the future belongs to an alliance of crazed scientists and networked biker gangs.

Distraction begins in 2044, and its plot revolves around Oscar's political battle with the mad governor of Louisiana, Green Huey, who is one of Sterling's most entertaining if least subtle creations. This gets started with a hilarious scene where an Air Force base is conned/forced by Huey into holding a bake-sale/road-block shakedown; Oscar is among the shaken. This sort of thing happens in broken-down empires with hyper-inflation, terminal political stagnation, and a collapsed economic base. But Sterling isn't just reflecting his recent travels in Russia; no, this is a high-tech information society, so instead of being run by the Organizatsiya, the country is run by networked permanent State of Emergency committees, media spin, pork-barrel spending, and the personal ``krewes'' of members of the overclass. There are better ways for Oscar to attack Huey than to have him shot, or than to have somebody run against him. These center around the Buna National Collaboratory in Buna, Texas, a huge self-contained biological research station, ``funded, created, and built in an age when recombinant DNA had been considered as dangerous as nuclear power plants'' (p. 24). Huey seems to be trying to subvert its administration, so Oscar engineers a laboratory revolution which puts Greta in charge of the Collaboratory. (The depiction of scientists' politics and mores at large research facility is dead-on, though it may be more funny if you grew up in and around the NIH. Giving bit characters at the Collaboratory the names of present-day neuroscientists is a bit heavy-handed, however.)

Huey makes trouble for our heroes by sicking the Regulators on them. These are a cross between a mobile nation-wide motorcycle gang which manages its pecking order via an on-line ``reputation economy,'' and a self-sufficient nomadic society of drop-outs heavily into open-source hacking, computational and biological. Oscar counters by getting his laboratory revolution endorsed, sort of, by Washington, becoming a spook in the process, and by allying with the Moderators, a rival set of nomads who use different on-line protocols to regulate their reputation economy. Summarizing the plot any further would introduce spoilers, so I'll say it involves, in addition to the elements already mentioned, self-organizing buildings, the greenhouse effect, Haitian refugees, the neuronal basis of attention (hence the title), the nature of political authority and social order in the information society, the Detroit auto industry's last stand, giant mutant catfish, and the Cold War with Holland.

In addition to a good plot --- the best Sterling's done in a novel, though that's not saying as much as it should --- and the usual completely convincing depiction of future gadgetry and customs, Distraction boasts some really good characters, and some of the most enjoyable dialogue I've ever read. Admittedly, all the characters sound more or less like Bruce Sterling, but perhaps they all do down in East Texas, and anyway it's so much fun to read that I don't care that I'm listening to Chairman Bruce argue with himself.

The only thing wrong with Distraction is that Sterling reduces America to decrepitude in a totally unbelievable way. Namely: the Chinese destroy our information economy by making all our intellectual property freely available over the Internet and by satellite. I mean, it's a kicky idea, very amusing, very new world order, but really, this isn't going to fly. (Where, just for starters, is the percentage in destroying the economy of your main export market?) Coming from somebody who's world-building is otherwise more convincing than that of the New York Times, this is irritating.

Despite the back-cover copy, Oscar isn't so much into restoring democracy as restoring order. Still, this is largely a book about America and what it will and should become.

``I wasn't born in America. In point of fact, I wasn't even born. But I work for our government because I believe in America. I happen to believe that this is a unique society. We have a unique role in the world.''
Oscar whacked the lab table with an open hand. ``We invented the future! We built it! And if they could design or market it a little better than we could, then we just invented something else more amazing yet. If it took imagination, we always had that. If it took enterprise, we always had it. If it took daring and even ruthlessness, we had it --- we not only built the atomic bomb, we used it! We're not some crowd of pious, sniveling, red-green Europeans trying to make the world safe for boutiques! We're not some swarm of Confucian social engineers who would love to watch the masses chop cotton for the next two millennia! We are a nation of hands-on cosmic mechanics!'' [p. 90]
Admittedly this is Oscar seducing Greta into revolution (she replies: ``And yet we're broke''), but it's also palpably sincere (on several levels), and nicely articulates my own feelings during my rare spasms of patriotism.

Distraction is the Great American Post-Industrial Science Fiction Novel, complete with galling national humiliation, mouse-brain watches and unhappy love. What more could one want?

Disclaimer: Bruce Sterling is an on-line acquaintance; but I have no stake in the success of this book.
439 pp.
The Information Society / North America / Science Fiction
Distraction currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-553-10484-5, US$23.95, and as a paperback, 0-553-57639-9, US$6.99; LoC PS3569.T3876 D57
20 February / 11 November 1999
Thanks to Mitch Porter