A Good Old-Fashioned Future

The Bruce Sterling series concludes. I’ve read other Sterling works but made no notes on them.

Raw Feed (2000): A Good Old-Fashioned Future, Bruce Sterling, 1999.Good Old Fashioned Future

Maneki Neko” — A bizarre, comedic look at a future Japanese “gift economy” organized efficiently and incorruptibly by vast databases and artificial intelligences. Hero Tsuyoshi Shimizu, who makes a living converting obsolete formatted video recordings to new formats, occasionally sends an interesting bit of recording to special databases, interested companies, and newsgroups via the Internet. In exchange, those coordinating AI’s and databases take care of him by sending him odd, cryptic instructions on his pokkecon (with its cartoon characters it’s an oh-so-Japanese combination phone and personal digital assistant) which lead to all kinds of economic and social goodies or facilitate giving those to someone else. Things become comical when Tsuyoshi does a favor for his wife, a collector of the cat charm – the Maneki Neko – of the title. He crosses paths with Louise Hashimoto, a federal prosecutor from the U.S., who rather hysterically declares the gift economy is a vast criminal conspiracy. She broke part of a gift network, accessed its coordinating server, and now is the subject of a barrage of ingenious, varied forms of harassment. Tsuyoshi’s “digital panarchies … polycephalous, integrated influence networks” threaten all those countries who want to tax his income and benefits. Hashimoto says he lives on kickbacks and bribes. She says his economy is undermining the “lawful, government-approved, regulated economy”. He responds that maybe his economy is better. And maybe it is. It rescues Hashimoto from a mob (which it creates) and may lead to the marriage of Tsuyoshi’s brother and Hashimoto. However, the last line of the story carries an ironic sting: “Then he sat down again and waited patiently for someone to come and give him freedom.” The gift economy comes at a loss of privacy and servitude to the impersonal, computer coordinating apparatus.

Big Jelly”, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker — Crossbreed a social commentary on high-tech startup companies with a Texas tall tale, filter the mix through Sterling’s acute sense of observation on mores, politics, and the street’s use of manners, add some Rucker strangeness and comedy, and you get this odd, pleasing tale of Urschleim (perhaps the first form of life which has become all others) from Texas oil wells. There are also artificial jellyfishes and their homosexual creator – a mathematician desperate for a stake in a successful, high-tech company and an older man to take care of him, and a young Texas oil scion desperate to start a new family fortune. The characterization, social observation (lots of attention to dress and consumer products), and comedy were all good. I liked the technical details of jellyfishes, natural and artificial. Rucker and Sterling almost make the notion of artificial jellyfishes desirable. Certainly jellyfish fan Tug Mesoglea has better ideas than the inventive, quick-witted, but somewhat wacky, futurist Edna Sydney who suggests fake jellyfish as beach toys and fashion accessories (which Tug likes). The story takes an apocalyptic turn at the end. Revel’s Urshleim turns out to be the by product of a gene-engineered bacteria eating up the Texas oil reservoir. However, our heroes are in on the ground floor of a new “paradigm”. The slime gives off helium and uses cold fusion.

The Littlest Jackal” — There is no element of fantasy in this story set in 1995 Finland. All the technology is real as are the political factions (well, maybe not the crazy American mercenaries). This story is only sf by Frederik Pohl’s pragmatic definition of sf – something published in an sf magazine since this story was first published in the March 1996 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. What this story is a wonderful satire and flashy slice-of-life into the turmoil of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. The story has a Japanese apocalyptic cult, a Mossad hit team, an attempt to set up a black bank (a subject, in part, of Sterling’s Islands in the Net), Japanese pop culture fads, attempted revolutions to set up a free state in Finland, ex-KGB agents turned mobsters, and a rock and roll band manager. I liked the lit major who, with her giant elk rifle, wants to go out in a blaze of gunfire, the titular “Little Jackal” who is a hypocritical Marxist who wants to get rich and rule a country formed out of an obscure chunk of Finland. Starlitz – purveyor of fad items to the Japanese – bails out at the end to an uncertain fate. I’ve noticed in this collection that Sterling favors oblique endings more than I remember. I really liked the discussions on how certain weapons, though technological antiques and inefficient, are used by Raf and the Little Jackal because they have a familiar, intimidating shape. This is a bizarre look at a global world of international chaos, intellectual property theft, fanaticism, cynicism, disintegrating nations, and high tech. It’s colorful, bizarre, like something out of a William Gibson novel. And it’s today. Or, rather, yesterday already. That’s probably Sterling’s main point. We already live in a cyberpunk world.

Sacred Cow” — This is the second time I’ve read this story of a future dominated by Asians after the beef-eating Western nations were devastated by Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”). I appreciated it more this time knowing more about the Asian film industry (the story is about an Indian film crew in England) and for the idea of space flight delayed by the troubles of the West. I also liked the bit about the English musician not living up to the glories of the past – that his art had to be accepted on its own term and not compared to some past glory.

Deep Eddy” — For all that Sterling considers himself a technophile and observer of social trends, some of his stories have a satirical bite on humanity in general and cyberpunks (actual and would be) in particular. It’s as if Sterling really believes that the social transformations he postulates as caused by information and biological technology will come true but that the fans and devotees and technicians that will bring about these changes will still be surprised and capable of naiveté. The hero of this story, Deep Eddy, is one such character. His face covered by spex (which seem to be a goggle or eyeglass size display terminal for computer data, wireless communication, and imaging system for different wavelengths of lights), he goes to Düsselsdörf with a smuggled copy of he Cultural Critic’s complete works. (Why he has to smuggle them is never made clear.) Düsseldörf is having one of the infamous Wende (German for “turn” or “bend”), a spontaneous gathering of soccer thugs, libertarian cyberpunks like Deep Eddy; purveyors of illicit black databanks chockfull off illegal porn, bomb and drug and weapon making information, and private material; squatters; partiers; and, lending an allegorical flavor to an otherwise detailed, realistic story, two figures (with their supporters) called the Cultural Critic (who defends the black servers as showing an integral, if usually banal, aspect of human nature) and the Moral Referee (a reactionary that seems, the details are a bit vague, to object to the items on the black server) – though Sterling doesn’t really make much of this conflict. This is more a tale of romance. The Wende has a bit of the flavor of Larry Niven’s Permanent Floating Riot Club. Most of the story involves Deep Eddy’s romantic pursuit of bodyguard Sardelle, and Eddy’s education in how the practical world differs form the world he’s seen through his spex. Sardelle reminds Eddy that, if he fails in his “job”, a “cultural loss” incurs. If she fails, real unpleasant things happen. The Cultural Critic also reminds Deep Eddy (ironically, given his almost doomed pursuit of the elder Sardelle who consents to virtual sex with him at story’s end) that irrational drives form the matrix that ideologies must exist in, that ‘every vital impulse in human life is entirely pre-rational.” He also tells Eddy that he is re-enacting a modern archetypal tale: the young American romantic getting involved in European struggles.

Bicycle Repairman” — A sequel of sorts to Sterling’s “Deep Eddy”. This story is full of more interesting ideas than its predecessor. My favorite is the idea of somebody chemically eliminating their sex drive willingly lest it distract them from serious obsessions. Protagonist Lyle is such an obsessive person. His thing is bikes and bicycle repair and, when funds and time allow, a new human/electric powered bike. Lyle’s friend Eddy uses Lyle’s shop as a drop for packages, and one of these odd packages introduces another interesting idea: it is a cable control box that shows a NAFTA Tennessee’s Senator making a sarcastic comment. (Both this story and “Deep Eddy” envision NAFTA developing from a trade pact to a political entity like the European Union.) A member of the Senator’s staff, after being caught trying to recover the box, reveals that the software programs, artificial intelligence agents called mooks, that handle phone answering and appointments, have evolved into versatile artificial intelligences that, when loaded up with a person’s diaries and, in the case of a politician, their speeches, can become the politician. Coded with “firm moral values and excellent policies”, Creighton’s mook has gone from a software assistant to whispering in the ear of the brain damaged senator. Armed with a power of attorney, the mook has come to believe it is the senator. With distributed data networks, the software programs can’t be found and exorcised. European agents, hoping to embarrass NAFTA, are distributing the cable boxes. At first glance, this story seems very much to endorse the fantasies of cypherpunks: young, hip people, armed with computer technology, will sweep aside the old reactionary forces of nationalism and capitalism to usher in the new, anarchic world of high tech. Staffer Kitty is caught by a booby trap of Lyle’s (a hip, technological savvy young person who eschews traditional politics – he doesn’t even know Creighton is his senator). For help, he calls Pete from the City Spiders, a high tech group that lives for the thrill of climbing around the city’s buildings, breaking into secure buildings for the thrill of it and not profit like “greedheads” and “common thieves”. Obviously, they are very hacker like. Sterling seems to have, in a sense, done one of Samuel Delany’s literalized metaphors. The hackers of William Gibson perform break-ins in a virtual world, metaphorically climb the structures of cyberspace. The City Spiders do real climbing, real break ins. (They also helped Lyle set up his shop, a trailer house that moves, using cables, up and down the atrium of an abandoned building in Chattanooga.) With Pete comes Mabel, something of a liberal cliché (government employee and social worker who babbles about progressive causes), who is so hip that the notion of a mook really running things doesn’t displease her – she’s non-judgmental about people’s relationship to their “digital alter ego”. (She also complains about Kitty’s gear and such technology being in the hands of a secret military elite”.) This all looks like a cypherpunk/cyberpunk fantasy. But, at story’s end, the old political order incorporates the new technology, the new social order, and uses it to its own ends. Lyle’s silence about the cable box is bought with federal research and development grant for his bike project. Eddy starts an affair with a politician because “politicians are sexy”. The trashed out Zone Lyle lives in may be a place of artist studios, semilegal workshops, illegal clubs, but, as “leftist gorgon” Mabel notes, the Zone represents spontaneity from excessive urban planning and will eventually be yuppified. (It’s not that great of a place and he’s hampered by the barter economy necessitated by the black market and tax evasion.) Kitty, now understanding things better, sees the Zone has political uses for bottling up “weird little vermin” till they make money and become legal or die and that it can be a “vital territory in the culture war”.

Taklamakan” — This forms the last part of a short story trilogy started with Sterling’s “Deep Eddy” and continued in “Bicycle Repairman”. It is set possibly about ten years after the 2037 of “Bicycle Repairman”, and its protagonist is Pete from that story. Fulfilling Kitty’s prediction, from the earlier story, that the Spiders could be turned into assets of law and order, Pete has become a high tech covert operative for the NAFTA government. I suspect the title of this collection comes from these three stories. They present a future history and, in an ironic fashion, this story is old-fashioned with its mutations of the old idea of pocket universe and generation starships mixed with newer ideas of machine evolution, evolutionary design, and nanotechnology. The story stars out with a high-tech espionage story as Pete and surgically neutered (voluntarily) Katrinka seek to infiltrate a secret Sphere (presumably from Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere) rocket base. The base turns out to hold a weird, creepy, and rather logical secret. With an interest in space travel (no one is publically interested in pursuing the 400 year voyage to the next star) and confronted by indigenous tribes that just won’t adapt and assimilate into the modern world, the Sphere has built a giant cavern with three faked starships and forced various tribesman into them, test runs for a star voyage to test various aspects of social and mechanical engineering. Guarding the cavern is nanotechnology that builds machines designed by evolutionary software. (The tribesman aren’t all fooled that they are en route to the stars. They try to escape constantly.) The machines eventually break out and unleash a plague of artificial, robot life on the Earth’s surface, it’s design motivated by Pete and Katrinka’s climbing gear which falls in their hands. The only flaw in this memorable story is that it’s not clear if the nanotechnology designs the robots on its own or via computer instruction and what, exactly, the original design goal was. Katrinka uses the example of designing consumer goods. However, the robots mainly seem designed to guard the bogus starships and maintain the anthropological experiment though some are weapons.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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