It's November 2044, an election year, and the state of the Union is a farce. The government is broke, the cities are privately owned, and the military is shaking down citizens in the streets. Washington has become a circus and no one knows that better than Oscar Valparaiso. A political spin doctor, Oscar has always made things look good. Now he wants to make a difference.
But Oscar has a skeleton in his closet. His only ally: Dr. Greta Penninger, a gifted neurologist at the bleeding edge of the neural revolution. Together they're out to spread a very dangerous idea whose time has come. And so have their enemies: every technofanatic, government goon, and laptop assassin in America. Oscar and Greta might not survive to change the world, but they'll put a new spin on it.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.17(w) x 6.89(h) x 1.15(d)|
About the Author
Bruce Sterling is the author of the nonfiction book The Hacker Crackdown, as well as the novels Holy Fire, Heavy Weather, Schismatrix, and Islands in the Net. With William Gibson he co-authored the acclaimed novel The Difference Engine. He also writes popular science and travel journalism. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Austin, Texas.
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 factOscar had concluded this only after repeated close study of the tapethey weren't even aware of one another's existence as members of the same group. He further suspected that many of themmaybe most of themdidn'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? Andmost amazing of allhow 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."
On Thursday, December 17th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Bruce Sterling to discuss DISTRACTION.
Moderator: Good evening, Bruce Sterling, and welcome to the auditorium! We're thrilled to have you with us to chat tonight. Before we begin, do you have any opening comments for your online audience?
Bruce Sterling: Life is good! Let's try and have some fun here!
Terry from Springfield, OH: Your work is so well regarded in the science fiction community and among real SF fans, but are you ever frustrated that your work doesn't reach a larger audience? Would you ever consider writing a more "mainstream" novel in the hopes of doing just that? As a serious science fiction reader, I find it so frustrating that so many people discount all SF as fluffy space opera. I commend you on your efforts to dissuade this tendency.
Bruce Sterling: I can't say I really dissuade that very hard. I'm very into science fiction as a subculture. I've met people in Prague, Moscow, São Paulo, Milan, Brighton, all over the world really, who will take me in, feed me, and put me on their couch just because I write science fiction. I want to encourage this activity. It's useful. I don't think many people who read my work could possibly regard it as more "fluffy" than most mainstream stuff.
George from Athens, GA: DISTRACTION seems to be a bit different in style from your past books.... Could you tell us a bit about where it came from? Is it somewhat of a departure for you?
Bruce Sterling: The book's different because I'm getting older. I've put a lot of words down in a row now. I'm getting to the point where I almost, practically, understand what I'm doing. This is probably something of a danger for a science fiction writer. I'm seeking out new areas of interest now so that I can keep doing new things, badly.
Andrea from Houston, TX: Hi, Bruce Sterling. I am a huge fan of your work, and I was wondering how you first came to be interested in writing science fiction.... How did you get your start? What were your first interests?
Bruce Sterling: I got interested in writing it because I was interested in reading it. In college I drifted into science fiction fandom circles and was soon introduced to other wannabe writers. It's not hard to start writing science fiction. It's not even hard to get an SF story accepted and published. Writing genuinely innovative and interesting science fiction is a very serious challenge, though. People who take the craft seriously end up with a major advantage over the weekend hobbyist.
John from East Village, NY: I read something about you in Wired a while back, discussing your ideas about creating a sort of "scientific community" on the Web. What do you think of the way web communities are structured and function today? What potential do you see there for the future?
Bruce Sterling: I see some very weird potentials there. DISTRACTION describes some of my more far-fetched notions of what might become of the Internet if the people who used it were really serious and really desperate. For some other musings on this subject you might want to join my Viridian Mailing List. It's a place where I'm thinking out loud about 21st century postindustrial design issues. Have a look at: http://www.bespoke.org/viridian
Maria T. from Indianapolis, Indiana: I haven't read DISTRACTION yet, but based on what I've heard, it seems to be well tied! Could you relate the events of your book taking place in Washington, 2044, to what is going on today in Washington, 1998?
Bruce Sterling: I've finally written a book as embarrassing as today's headlines. This really is a very topical book. It's all about a humiliating American political crisis and it's coming out right in the middle of a humiliating American political crisis. I'm used to being about five to ten years ahead of the curve. As a novelist, this is the first time I've ever hit a trend dead-on. It's probably why I have a two-page spread in this week's Time magazine with its sepulchral Clinton impeachment cover.
Jerry from New York City: If you'd been on the East Coast several weeks ago, you would have been blown away by the weather. We actually hit 70 one day when our normal high is 45 or 50. What d'ya think -- is this the beginning of the end? How real is the threat of the so-called greenhouse effect? I know you deal with it some in DISTRACTION.
Bruce Sterling: In a word, yes, this is the greenhouse effect. This summer I was out on my porch smelling Mexico on fire. The plume went up as high as Chicago. This thing is as real as dirt. But the damage we've done already is nothing compared to the damage we're getting ready to do. I wrote a greenhouse effect novel four years ago. I was a little ahead of the curve on that one. It's called HEAVY WEATHER. You can have a look; it looks a lot more convincing now than it did when it first came out.
Gordon from Louisiana: Science fiction can take a look at society in ways that other fiction can't. Some of our most controversial books of this century -- 1984, FAHRENHEIT 451 -- have been able to rock people's boats, and yet they are describing a hyperreality that in subtle ways mirrors our own society. Do you think this is science fiction's role?
Bruce Sterling: I think science fiction has a lot of roles. Allegory and satire are certainly two of its major modes. Personally, I dote on the kind of sheer "spearhead of cognition" science fiction that doesn't try to teach you any political or moral lessons, but just grabs you by the lapels and slams you into the wall.
B. J. from Chicago, IL: I keep reading the term "cyberpunk" in association with your name, and I'm not familiar with the term. What is your definition of "cyberpunk"?
Bruce Sterling: People of course always ask me that. It's a natural question, but it's like asking Allen Ginsberg what a "beatnik" was in, say, 1975. "Well see, it was me and my friends, and we had some neat ideas about some cool stuff to write, and it seemed to catch on somehow, so we wrote a lot more of it, and, uh, well, I seem to be rich and famous now." He was a very interesting guy, Ginsberg. If you ever go to Prague you'll find some people who took this weird ole beatnik poet totally seriously.
Neil Newton from New Orleans: Don't get me wrong. I love your work. But why do so many science fiction writers paint such a gloom-and-doom picture of the future. Is that simply because that's where we're headed?
Bruce Sterling: Can you imagine describing 1998 to someone in 1958 and being way cheerful and upbeat about it? Just as a mental exercise. There would have been guys around in 1958 who were totally thrilled to hear that communism was over and we didn't have a nuclear holocaust, but most of them would just keel over dead if you described why our president's being impeached right now.
Jonathan from Seattle: How do you write? Do you have rituals, times that you write, etc.? What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Bruce Sterling: My advice to an aspiring author would be to figure out real quick whether you are really up for it and into it or whether you are just wasting your time when you could be doing something vastly more fun and useful than sitting in an office moving your fingers up and down for most of your life. So my first advice is: Keep a journal. Try and write something in it every day. Not a narrative, just descriptions, ideas, turns of phrase, things that might be useful -- kind of a storage disk for your head. See if you can do it for a year. If you're so bored with the inside of your own head that you can't write a journal for a year, then really, literature is not your field. Try something else. Anything. (Anything except playing folk acoustic guitar and expecting us to listen to it.)
Jake from Montana: I love your "spearhead of cognition" idea of SF -- could you name some of your favorite books?
Bruce Sterling: I like J. G. Ballard. There's a RE/Search J. G. Ballard book that is probably the single best SF artifact produced in the 20th century. I like Wells, Verne, and Stapledon. I also read a lot of Lovecraft and Dunsany. After you've read SF in truly industrial quality, you tend to gravitate toward the classics.
Brenda from West Palm Beach: I read somewhere that your inspiration for DISTRACTION came about after you visited Russia and saw firsthand how messed up their society has become. If that's true, tell us about that experience.
Bruce Sterling: Well, I wrote two articles for Wired magazine about my two visits to Russia. The first piece was called "Compost of Empire" back in '93, and the second was "Art and Corruption" in '96. They are two of my best travel pieces; I always feel very inspired when I go there. The ambience is really very, very close to a William Gibson Cyberspace Trilogy novel from the mid-1980s, except that none of the gadgets work. It's truly one of the great postmodern spectacles. The thing that is shocking about them now is that they have become their own worst enemy. They are doing themselves far, far more damage than we ever managed to do to them. And given today's political climate, I think we Americans can say exactly the same thing about ourselves. They really are our "dark brother" as a country -- the Other Superpower, the alternate 20th century, the version that failed. And they failed big time. They failed so utterly and totally that it's almost impossible to describe. I don't think any journalist has ever gotten it quite right. It would take supreme literary genius to describe how screwed-up the Russians are.
Alan from Boston, MA: This might seem like a simple question, but why 2044?
Bruce Sterling: No particular reason; it was an election year, and the book involves electoral politics.
C. S. M. from Washington: What sort of research did you do for THE HACKER CRACKDOWN? What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Bruce Sterling: When I started HACKER CRACKDOWN I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the big issues but didn't know enough about the details. Once I'd learned the details I realized that I had no idea about the true big picture. That's why I wrote the book from four different points of view.
Greg from Toronto: What do you think shows the Internet being put to its best use? What do you think is the Internet at its worst?
Bruce Sterling: That's an excellent question. I applaud that question, but I think you should make it a matter of principle to always ask the "worst aspect" question first. "Look at the underside first." Why? Because there are tens of thousands of guys trying to sell you the upside, that's why. Hardly anyone is around who is honest about the downside. So in today's environment, take the downside first and get it squared away well before you let anybody touch your wallet. The great thing about the Internet is that it's unpoliced and all over the place, but the scary thing about the Internet is that it's all over the place and unpoliced.
ziggy from Bennington, VT: Did you catch the last chat here with Charles Goldfarb for THE XML HANDBOOK? What did you think?
Bruce Sterling: Yeah I was watching that, actually. Not that I'm an HTML guy or anything, but I take a genuine interest. I'm thinking seriously of buying a GNOME box. Just to annoy Gates and Jobs, mostly. I'm tired of paying anything for an operating system. I don't want to pay for apps either. I just want to get a box, click on Linux sites, fill it up with perfectly adequate free software and get on with my life. Welcome to the 21st century. Ha ha hah!
Henley from San Francisco, CA: Could you tell us a bit about your work with MIRRORSHADES? How did you become editor?
Bruce Sterling: Well, it was clear to me 12 years ago during the glory days of cyberpunk that it was time to do a rabble-rousing anthology. Something in the vein of DANGEROUS VISIONS by my literary mentor Harlan Ellison. Nobody else had the time or the inclination, so I did it myself. No one expected it to make any money. It's still making money 12 years later and has been in languages all over the world. It was one of the smartest things I ever did. We named it "Mirrorshades" because Lewis Shiner and I had realized that the characters in stories by friends of ours seemed to be wearing this accoutrement. Nowadays we need bifocals, but at least we can afford designer frames.
Yvonne from Waltham, MA: I simply loved THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE. Do you and William Gibson have any plans to work together again? How was it to work with such an unbelievable man?
Bruce Sterling: Oh, you don't know Dr. Gibson like I do; I find the guy only too believable. I collaborate with a lot of people. I'm very interesting in other people's creative process. Bill is a left-handed guy; people who are left-handed tend to have remarkable thought processes. After working on a book with him for three years, really right down there with him at the coal face, I learned many interesting and useful things. Book is still in print, too. Even gets taught in universities. It was hard work but worth it. I often think it's the one book I've worked on that might be of real interest in fifty or a hundred years.
E. V. from Lighthouse Point, FL: Have you read David Brin's THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY? In light of the issues you address in THE HACKER CRACKDOWN, what do you think about his idea of mutual transparency, where everyone can see and access all information?
Bruce Sterling: I frankly think that Brin's ideas are wacky. He doesn't think like a cop or a criminal; he thinks about legal and criminal problems the way that a physicist does. The real future will be wackier than either he or I can imagine.
Frederick from @yahoo.com: I love your fiction, but do you have any plans to write any more books of nonfiction soon? What topics do you think you might want to tackle?
Bruce Sterling: I'm working on a new novel now called ZEITGEIST. But yes, I have ideas for two nonfiction books. I want to write one about media studies and one about environmental design. I think the first years of a new century are a good time to sit down and write some ambitious tracts and manifestos. People will want them. They'll have plenty of time to get all disappointed and disenchanted later.
Jorge from Kalamazoo: Are you still doing any work for the government?
Bruce Sterling: I could tell you that, but then I'd have to kill you.
Chris from Bradenton, Florida: You tend to get brought on board for a lot of conferences and discussions about the Web. How does it feel to be considered an authority on the Internet?
Bruce Sterling: I enjoy being a pundit. The hours are good, the pay's not bad. I especially like other pundits. Stewart Brand, for instance; this guy is the king -- hell, stud duck -- of all punditdom. I could listen to him for years. I think I have, actually. The public pundit thing is kind of boring because they always have a well-rehearsed spiel of some kind, and a spin and a pitch and all that, but a drunk, angry pundit is a really cool and useful thing to witness. You can learn incredible things.
Hank from New Jersey: What's your vision of the future of the Internet? Where do see it taking us in the next 100 years?
Bruce Sterling: I see it dropping right off the vision chart, actually. I think the digital revolution is basically over, visibly running out of steam. Computation used to be a genuine freak scene; now it's all about Gates kicking the stuffing out of the Justice Department. How exciting is that? Not very. However, technologies don't become truly influential until they are invisible. When the Internet is your wristwatch, when it's in your underwear drawer -- when you aren't excited by it, can't be bothered, and don't notice it anymore -- that is when it really and seriously changes you. As long as you can see it and go "wow," you've still got it safely at arm's length. Once it's invisible to you -- well, it's all over.
Pat from Michigan: Where and how do you conduct your research for your novels?
Bruce Sterling: Basically that's all I do. Everything becomes "research." I'm a research black hole. I do try to make it a personal principle not to touch a computer on Sundays. I go out with the kids, I do physical things, I try to avoid print, I try to be just a physical being. It's hard. But it's why I'm still alive and not some shriveled victim of online fever. I was trained as a journalist in college; I wouldn't call myself a world-class researcher, but for an artist I've got a pretty good skill set. I think my best advantage is that I know when I've found something interesting. I've learned how to smell it, somehow.
Santiago from Brooklyn, NY: What can we expect next from you? What are you thinking about and writing about lately?
Bruce Sterling: Well, as I said earlier, I run lists; I do a lot of free writing on the Internet. "Fanzine work," basically, but I think it's vitally important for writers and artists to do at least some of their work gratis. Information Wants to Be Free, you see.... So if you'd like to track down some of my many, many multifaceted and multifarious rants without having to whip out your credit card, try: http://www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades and just go on clicking from there.
Moderator: Thanks for joining us tonight, Bruce Sterling! This has been a truly fascinating and entertaining chat, and we wish you all the best of luck with DISTRACTION. Before you go, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?
Bruce Sterling: Well, whatever you're doing in life, if it isn't fun and doesn't pay, stop it and go take a nap.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Near future science fiction and political satire. Hilarious. Great for people who think they hate SF.
Bruce sterlings books are always interesting and original. I find the ideas aren't familiar so you need to process what's going on a bit. Perhaps he's just not a very good writer but I find that I have to keep switching gears in order to keep up. He's not very descriptive of some things so you have to use your imagination a bit more. He does describe in detail certain elements of the story but other scenes are left for you to picture for yourself. Kind of like having tunnel vision.In distraction, we meet a wierd junior politician of the future (Oscar) who is making a place for himself in the almost failed nation of america. He takes on an assignment to clean up a research centre that has suffered from years of corruption. It seems like a pretty boring story but things gradually heat up as Oscar makes friends and enemies with a rampaging psycho governer, various security spooks, a genius nuero-researcher, the president, a bunch of nomadic tech warlords and a talking brick. The book is not so much about the action but about the psychology, ideas and values of the characters. It's about the inventions and things that might happen if we look at what's happening today and extrapolate in the extreme. The effect of todays ideas, trends and discoveries on the future as seen (and exagerated to make a story) by Sterling. I guess Sterling's appeal is a futurist and scifi trend setter rather than a smooth writer.A few snippets: In the future, the internet is remembered as the tool that the chinese used to break into all of america's software companies and break the economy.In the future, anglos are a repressed minority.In the future, scientists are bored with software, computers and genes. They are into hacking neurology.
21st century politics, it's much like 20th century politics. If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS. It's just there are more/new ways to get everyone off topic. But, can someone who's spent his life spinning everything one way turn around and get the country back on track?
As with Sterling's other novels this dances around a series of social and, in this case, political issues that could work on a number of levels if only a bit of anticipation had been created. Unfortunately, at every step that excitement could have developed it was stopped before it could leave the gate ... this mainly is a result of the author inexpertly simply telling the reader action is taking place rather than writing it and letting us discover it for ourselves. The ideas, as always, are tantalizing and unique but are not devloped fully enough to be enjoyed as completely as they could be had the author let them reveal themselves as they unfolded. Sterling is much more at home with the format of the short story -- it is there that his true talent shines as we are given glimpses of what the near and not so near future may have in store for us.
I have three favourite books, and they're all by the same author. This one is the latest. Incredibly mind-altering story with more twists than a woven wicker basket. Characters are not cardboard, cookie-cutter heroes and villains. Definitely humorous and serious at the same time. A must.