The Barnes & Noble Review
Society Comes Tumbling Down Bruce Sterling's latest, longest, most rigorously imagined portrait of 21st-century American life, Distraction, is now available, and that is very good news. Anyone with more than a passing interest in science fiction anyone who appreciates fiction that illuminates the relationship between the vast, impersonal forces of social change and the increasingly beleaguered life of the individual is advised, without reservation, to read this book.
Distraction opens during the election year of 2044 and drops us immediately into the hyperactive universe of Oscar Valparaiso, a fixer and political spin artist who has just conducted his first successful senatorial campaign and has been "rewarded" with a patronage position on the Senate Science Committee. His new job sends him to the backwaters of East Texas to investigate conditions in a federally funded research institute called the Collaboratory. Once there, he uncovers a long-standing history of kickbacks, corruption, and old-fashioned political featherbedding. Oscar's attempts to introduce an element of reform into this closed society lead directly to the two relationships that stand at the heart of the novel. One is a romantic liaison between Oscar and with Dr. Greta Penninger, a Nobel Prize-winning pioneer in the increasingly prominent field of neural studies. The other is a protracted, no-holds-barred conflict with the governor of Louisiana, a classic southern demagogue named Etienne (Green Huey) Hugelet, who has his own undisclosed interests in the products of theCollaboratory'sresearch.
As in most Sterling novels, the plot is designed to support an immensely detailed vision of a near-future society that is at once familiar and deeply strange. In the America of Distraction as in its real-world analogue, the fractured, surreal societies of post-communist Russia the center has long since ceased to hold. The ongoing greenhouse effect has led to disastrous new weather patterns. Ocean levels are rising. Entire species are disappearing at a record rate. On the international front, the Chinese have won a decisive victory in their "economic war" with the United States by the simple expedient of publishing all proprietary American software over the Internet. In the aftermath of that defeat, chaos and fragmentation reign. Sixteen distinct political parties now exist. Emergency Committees have usurped the constitutionally created branches of government. The military can no longer pay its bills. Cities have become privately owned entities. The unemployed underclass has evolved into competing nomadic hordes that are often better organized than the government itself. The country, as one character puts it, "is up on blocks," desperately seeking its lost center; in need of a miracle capable of making "laws out of chaos, justice out of noise, and meaning out of total distraction."
No one is better than Sterling at conveying the feel of day-to-day life in a complex, heavily networked, rapidly unraveling society. In Oscar Valparaiso, genetically suspect master of a bizarre 21st-century realpolitik, he has found the perfect vehicle for interpreting and illuminating that society. Distraction is a funny, frenetic, beautifully ornamented portrait of a world in crisis, the clear product of a distinctive talent working at the top of his very considerable form.
Read an Excerpt
For the fifty-first time (according to his laptop), Oscar studied the riot video from Worcester. This eight-minute chunk of jerky footage was Oscar's current favorite object of professional meditation. It was a set of grainy photos, taken by a security camera in Massachusetts.
The press called this event "the Worcester riot of May Day '42." This May Day event did not deserve the term "riot" in Oscar's professional opinion, because although it was extremely destructive, there was nothing riotous about it.
The first security shots showed a typical Massachusetts street crowd, people walking the street. Worcester was traditionally a rather tough and ugly town, but like many areas in the old industrial Northeast, Worcester had been rather picking up lately. Nobody in the crowd showed any signs of aggression or rage. Certainly nothing was going on that would provoke the attention of the authorities and their various forms of machine surveillance. Just normal people shopping, strolling. A line of bank customers doing business with a debit-card machine. A bus taking on and disgorging its passengers.
Then, bit by bit, the street crowd became denser. There were more people in motion. And, although it was by no means easy to notice, more and more of these people were carrying valises, or knapsacks, or big jumbo-sized purses.
Oscar knew very well that these very normal-looking people were linked in conspiracy. The thing that truly roused his admiration was the absolute brilliance of the way they were dressed, the utter dullness and nonchalance of their comportment. They were definitely not natives of Worcester, Massachusetts, but each and every one was a cunning distillation of the public image of Worcester. They were all deliberate plants and ringers, but they were uncannily brilliant forgeries, strangers bent on destruction who were almost impossible to notice.
They didn't fit any known demographic profile of a troublemaker, or a criminal, or a violent radical. Any security measure that would have excluded them would have excluded everyone in town.
Oscar assumed that they were all radical proles. Dissidents, autonomen, gypsies, leisure-union people. This was a reasonable assumption, since a quarter of the American population no longer had jobs. More than half of the people in modern America had given up on formal employment. The modern economy no longer generated many commercial roles that could occupy the time of people.
With millions of people structurally uprooted, there wasn't any lack of recruiting material for cults, prole gangs, and street mobs. Big mobs were common enough nowadays, but this May Day organization was not a mob. They weren't a standard street gang or militia either. Because they weren't saluting one another. There were no visible orders given or taken, no colors or hand signs, no visible hierarchy. They showed no signs of mutual recognition at all.
In fact--Oscar had concluded this only after repeated close study of the tape--they weren't even aware of one another's existence as members of the same group. He further suspected that many of them--maybe most of them--didn't know what they were about to do.
Then, they all exploded into action. It was startling, even at the fifty-first viewing.
Smoke bombs went off, veiling the street in mist. Purses and valises and backpacks yawned open, and their owners removed and deployed a previously invisible arsenal of drills, and bolt cutters, and pneumatic jacks. They marched through the puffing smoke and set to their work as if they demolished banks every day.
A brown van ambled by, a van that bore no license plates. As it drove down the street every other vehicle stopped dead. None of those vehicles would ever move again, because their circuits had just been stripped by a high-frequency magnetic pulse, which, not coincidentally, had ruined all the financial hardware within the bank.
The brown van departed, never to return. It was shortly replaced by a large, official-looking, hook-wielding tow truck. The tow truck bumped daintily over the pavement, hooked itself to the automatic teller machine, and yanked the entire armored machine from the wall in a cascade of broken bricks. Two random passersby deftly lashed the teller machine down with bungee cords. The tow truck then thoughtfully picked up a parked limousine belonging to a bank officer, and departed with that as well.
At this point, the arm of a young man appeared in close-up. A strong brown hand depressed a button, and a can sprayed the lens of the security camera with paint. That was the end of the recorded surveillance footage.
But it hadn't been the end of the attack. The attackers hadn't simply robbed the bank. They had carried off everything portable, including the security cameras, the carpets, the chairs, and the light and plumbing fixtures. The conspirators had deliberately punished the bank, for reasons best known to themselves, or to their unknown controllers. They had superglued doors and shattered windows, severed power and communications cables, poured stinking toxins into the wallspaces, concreted all the sinks and drains. In eight minutes, sixty people had ruined the building so thoroughly that it had to be condemned and later demolished.
The ensuing criminal investigation had not managed to apprehend, convict, or even identify a single one of the "rioters." Once fuller attention had been paid to the Worcester bank, a number of grave financial irregularities had surfaced. The scandal eventually led to the resignation of three Massachusetts state representatives and the jailing of four bank executives and the mayor of Worcester. The Worcester banking scandal had become a major issue in the ensuing U.S. Senate campaign.
This event was clearly significant. It had required organization, observation, decision, execution. It was a gesture of brutal authority from some very novel locus of power. Someone had done all this with meticulous purpose and intent, but how? How did they compel the loyalty of those agents? How did they recruit them, train them, dress them, pay them, transport them? And--most amazing of all--how did they compel their silence, afterward?
Oscar Valparaiso had once imagined politics as a chess game. His kind of chess game. Pawns, knights, and queens, powers and strategies, ranks and files, black squares and white squares. Studying this tape had cured him of that metaphor. Because this phenomenon on the tape was not a chess piece. It was there on the public chessboard all right, but it wasn't a rook or a bishop. It was a wet squid, a swarm of bees. It was a new entity that pursued its own orthogonal agenda, and vanished into the silent interstices of a deeply networked and increasingly nonlinear society.
Oscar sighed, shut his laptop, and looked down the length of the bus. His campaign staffers had been living inside a bus for thirteen weeks, in a slowly rising tide of road garbage. They were victorious now, decompressing from the heroic campaign struggle. Alcott Bambakias, their former patron, was the new U.S. Senator-elect from Massachusetts. Oscar had won his victory. The Bambakias campaign had been folded up, and sent away.
And yet, twelve staffers still dwelled inside the Senator's bus. They were snoring in their fold-down bunks, playing poker on the flip-out tables, trampling big promiscuous heaps of road laundry. On occasion, they numbly rifled the cabinets for snacks.
Oscar's sleeve rang. He reached inside it, retrieved a fabric telephone, and absently flopped his phone back into shape. He spoke into the mouthpiece. "Okay, Fontenot."
"You wanna make it to the science lab tonight?" said Fontenot.
"That would be good."
"How much is it worth to you? We've got a roadblock problem."
"They're shaking us down, is that it?" said Oscar, his brow creasing beneath his immaculate hair. "They want a bribe, straight across? Is it really that simple?"
"Nothing is ever simple anymore," said Fontenot. The campaign's security man wasn't attempting world-weary sarcasm. He was relating a modern fact of life. "This isn't like our other little roadblock hassles. This is the United States Air Force."
Oscar considered this novel piece of information. It didn't sound at all promising. "Why, exactly, is the Air Force blockading a federal highway?"
"Folks have always done things differently here in Louisiana," Fontenot offered. Through the phone's flimsy earpiece, a distant background of car honks rose to a crescendo. "Oscar, I think you need to come see this. I know Louisiana, I was born and raised here, but I just don't have the words to describe all this."
From the Paperback edition.