Distraction by Bruce Sterling (Orion Millennium, £9.99, 439 pages, trade paperback, published 24 June 1999. Mass market paperback, £6.99, 489 pages, published 8 September 2000.)
This new novel, Bruce Sterling's experiment in full-dress political satire, gives rise to an unexpected notion: Sterling is the natural successor to Jack Vance. It might at first glance seem that a resolutely contemporary journalistic neo-cyberpunk gadfly has little in common with an orotund libertarian exoticist, but the similarity is technical: it resides in style, and in characteristic angles of vision. Like Vance, Sterling maintains a cool ironic distance from his protagonists and their experiences; like Vance, he leads his readers through baroquely reimagined landscapes, on guided tours of bizarre, satirically organized alternative human societies; like Vance, he lends all his characters, however different in background, a standard, stylized, blustering diction; and like Vance, he constantly casts dialogue as a combative transaction, as a duel for verbal and commercial advantage. Which is to say that, like Vance, Sterling has all the qualities of wit and invention required of a major speculative satirist; and that, accordingly, Distraction is a very accomplished book indeed.
What the above paragraph also (with any luck) illustrates is a major theme of Distraction: the nature of "Distraction" itself, as something that, by calling attention from something central to something peripheral, can allow new understandings, new and fruitful combinations of concepts, to form. Throughout Sterling's text, one is reminded of different nuances of "Distraction": irrelevance; the deliberate red herring; a pleasant interlude; madness. All of these meanings jostle, in a restless, talkative, easily sidetracked novel, combining to deconstruct that ultimate exercise in cunning distraction and misdirection, the American political process. From its ruins, novel possibilities arise.
America in the 2040s is a mixture of the USA of the 1930s and the Russia of the 1990s. Its status as a superpower has been undermined by economic breakdown; social and political fragmentation have followed. In the consequent atmosphere of permanent crisis, the country's Constitutional order faces various threats, from extra structures foisted on the Federal Government in the name of Emergency, from huge networked communities of nomadic lumpenproletarians or "proles", from sinister conspiracies by fringe politicians. Order has to be restored, the time is ripe for a Franklin Roosevelt; but how can national rescue be achieved? Naturally there are varying answers to this question: America's two-party system has given way to ramshackle alliances among sixteen partisan factions. Wild experimentation and lunatic extremes of political discourse flourish in this situation, and Sterling, a brilliant commentator on faddish postmodern ideologies, renders them with deeply infectious, wisecracking gusto.
In a direct allusion to the 1930s, Sterling's future Louisiana, menaced by rising waters and proliferating plant vermin in the wake of global warming, has fallen under the spell of a despotic, visionary Governor, known as "Green Huey" to mark his resemblance to Huey Long. He is an hilariously hyped-up version of the traditional corrupt and risible good-old-boy Southern politician, with the added dimension of his access to biotechnological secrets that could revolutionize human consciousness, either expanding the mind's compass or allowing mass brainwashing. An ambitious posthuman Senate staffer from the liberal Northeast, Oscar Valparaiso, becomes Huey's nemesis, orchestrating national resistance to his schemes and seeking in particular to keep from Huey's clutches the Collaboratory, a major Federal biological research complex in east Texas. Oscar's efforts to create a new and useful political culture in the Collaboratory, and his accompanying battles with Huey's corrupt functionaries and paramilitary goons, form the substance of the plot and the satirical humour of Distraction.
Distractions abound. Oscar's activity in Texas is a sideshow operated in order to distract Huey and create certain convenient perceptions in Washington. Oscar is in love with a Nobel-winning female scientist on the Collaboratory staff, Greta Penninger, in what is both a political ploy aimed at others and a constant emotional distraction for himself. Huey has the means to drive whole populations to distraction; and as this danger becomes clearer, the struggle at the Collaboratory attracts the attention of the very powerful, who must generate ever more formidable distractions to conceal the countermeasures they are taking.... Along the way, Sterling proffers numerous distractions of his own, acting as a facetious future-historian chronicling countless manifestations of socio-political craziness: the politics of squatting; amateur builders guided in their work by talking construction equipment; subcultures whose only currency is prestige; military fundraising by means of shakedowns at roadblocks. The detail is always divertingly rich, narrated with a fast, slangy wit well matched to the frenetic farce of the plot.
Sterling's diction is, as mentioned above, very consistent. Memorable one-liners abound: it's remarked of the disappointing first tryst between Oscar and Greta that "All the simple, liberating pleasure of the act was somehow discounted in advance, while postcoital remorse and regret loomed by their bedside like a pair of drooling voyeurs." And as part of an ongoing critique of the reactionary mindlessness of the Pentagon military, Sterling depicts an NSC colonel in these terms: "He was young, zealous, and as dumb as a bag of hammers; he was an atavistic creature from the blood-soaked depths of the twentieth century." Elsewhere, an old Secret Service man disparages the current generation, in an immemorial ritual revolutionized by its replacement of cultural terms with scientific ones: "They buffalo way too easy, they lost their starch somehow. It has something to do with that sperm-count crash, all those pesticide hormone poisonings. You get these combinations of pollutants, all these yuppie flus and allergies...." This style, while at times self-indulgent, is a potent satirical weapon.
The weapon strikes many targets. Central is obviously the U.S. system of government, its absurdly complex divisions of power between countless administrative levels, its opportunities for pork-barrel corruption, its reliance on appearances rather than substance, the inordinately complex games of Distraction and misinformation that that reliance generates. But there is also the incomprehension separating North and South, the introversion of scientists, the excesses of postmodern subculturalism, ethnic prejudice (in the 2040s, Anglos are a despised stereotyped minority), and even, in a self-directed jab, the information economy, which in Distraction has collapsed, leaving the technophilic hackers unemployed. Sterling has a Swiftian range to go with his Swiftian touch.
But Distraction is also a love story, the sustained telling of which raises a deeper question, that of the competing levels of the human mind. Oscar and Greta are very different sorts, the political manipulator and the obsessive researcher; their focuses of concern can engage only temporarily; and the final question that this book poses is whether the forces of animal and emotional magnetism can distract the intellect long enough for a true romance to bloom. Can distraction achieve this fundamental power? This is left uncertain, a distracting fact in itself....
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 2 October 1999