The Bruce Sterling series continues.
Raw Feed (1994): Heavy Weather, Bruce Sterling, 1994.
The contrasts and similarities between this and Sterling’s 1988 novel Islands in the Net are interesting.
The earlier novel was set in 2022. This novel is set nine years later in 2031.
Both novels feature a contemporary social concern hovering over their worlds. In Islands in the Net, it was the “Abolition” of nuclear weapons as befitting a novel of the nuclear-obsessed Eighties. In Heavy Weather, the effects of the much touted Greenhouse Effect loom over the novel’s milieu. (The title refers to not only the disturbed, violent weather of the Greenhouse world but also its political/social turmoil.)
Both novels heavily feature the economic effects of the information age. Data pirates featured heavily in Islands in the Net. Here, Sterling postulates other adverse effects of the information age. The U.S. “State of Emergency” in 2015 nationalized all data, and software in general has little value since it can be copied so easily. (Sterling also postulates that software and computer circuits so complicated that computers design them and no human really understands them.). “Unbreakable encryption, digital authentication, anonymous remailing, and network untraceability” have destroyed any governmental – indeed any human – control over the economy with “all workable standards of wealth … vaporized, digitized, and vanished”. Taxation becomes impossible. Vast amounts of black-market money (from untaxed work and crime) comes to the surface, and market forces set up private currencies (of course, historically they have existed).
I would dearly like to know what research sources Sterling used in forming this vision and how they think governments will be unable to tax wealth. The cybersphere, after all, is not the whole world, just a virtual depiction of it. Wealth also exists in physical objects which a government can take as taxes.
For that matter, I’d like to know Sterling’s politics. He has taken enough swipes at Reagan and Republicans, so it’s clear he’s not a conservative. Yet, he also takes a lot of swipes at Marxism’s failure. I suspect, especially given what little I’ve read of his non-fiction about computer crime, that he’s something of an anarchist with muddled ideas of economics.
Islands in the Net has a much more hopeful air about it. Essentially, it’s a tale of taming the wilder uses of tech. This novel posits a much darker, more anarchic world. Essentially this is a novel of people finding purpose and surviving in a bleak, devastated world where sexual intimacy is deadly. Several new strains of diseases are sexually transmitted or spread through casual contact, severe storms frequently devastate the Midwest, the economy of America and the world is in ruin, disease and famine and environmental ruin stalk the planet.
It’s no mistake that the two protagonists of this novel – Jane and Alex Unger – are essentially fearless individuals because they have little to live for. This is particularly true of sickly Alex who doesn’t expect to live to see his 22nd birthday. (We first meet him in a quack black market Mexican clinic getting a “lung enema”.) He just wants a more meaningful death (like by gunshot or plane accident) than illness. His sister Jane is fearless in her quest, shared by her fellow Storm Troupers, for the apocalyptic F-6 storm (a storm so severe it is only theoretical – at one point it is theorized it will be a massive permanent storm like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot). The passionate love of her life, Troupe leader and charismatic Jerry Mulcahey, is willing to risk death to give witness to the F-6’s destruction. Other members of the group find purpose in being crypto-Luddite terrorists.
In a bleak aside to the more optimistic, computer heavy Sterling novels of Schismatrix and Islands in the Net, computer technology here offers little in the way of salvation and much in the way of social dislocation. Not only has the cybersphere brought economic chaos, but Alex Unger satirically notes that bums with cheap laptop computers full of the Library of Congress spend their time coming up with “pathetic, shattered, crank, paranoid” theories for their personal failures. He quips that it “almost beat drugs for turning smart people into human wreckage.” The situation is nicely summed up with the Troup possessing a supercomputer with more power than all the planet’s computers in the 1990’s. It’s a loan but no one wants it back. It seems that not only is not much help in modeling the chaos of an F-6 but also not much good solving the world’s problems.
Leo Mulcahey, Jerry’s brother, finds purpose as part of a shadow cabal existing in – but not of – the government. In a nice bit showing how a small, powerful conspiracy could be organized piecemeal in the Information Age, Sterling gives us a cabal of semi-Luddites dedicated to doing what no one else is willing to do – solve the world’s social and environmental problems by any means necessary. (This cabal is an interesting contrast to the formal, strictly multi-national, high level group in George Turner’s recent The Destiny Makers. They meet to secretly plan a population cull.) They accomplish this by fostering plagues, covert sterilization programs, increasing death tolls by delaying aid and/or diverting public attention. (This sudden plot twist is only in the last quarter of the novel.) This purpose exacts such a toll on the soul though that several conspirators, including Leo, plan to use the communication black out caused by the F-6 to escape their governmental masters. Ultimately – in a plot development that will no doubt please Orson Scott Card and Nancy Kress who have criticized sf for ignoring family and children in future stories – the Ungers find value and purpose in life in the oldest place of all – the family. They genuinely acknowledge and become aware of their love for each other. For Jane’s part, fear enters her life with her and Jerry’s child – a “hostage to fortune”. Alex becomes reconciled with his father, is cured, and begins on planning what to do with his life, and he falls in love. (Leo’s story is less happy. Alex kills him.)
The story ends on no happy note – just that the Ungers will survive the future, plan for it, and get by through their love for each other.
As always, this novel exhibits Sterling’s impressively plausible blend of future tech, politics, and economics, but it’s the best novel of his I’ve read because it’s very funny in parts. Here Sterling exhibits in his fiction the wit I’ve seen in his reviews and articles. I particularly liked the character of Alex – a bright young man who longs for a good death, refuses to feel guilty about the pain of others, and who has a young man’s passion for things like rare paper comic books.