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A Good Old-Fashioned Future

by Bruce Sterling

paperback edition

A Good Old-Fashioned Future collects seven of Bruce Sterling's recent stories, including the Hugo-nominated "Deep Eddy" and the Hugo-winning "Bicycle Repairman." Sterling is one of the foremost authors of cyberpunk, and it's worth wading through his occasional bouts of runaway exposition for the sardonic outlook and sheer richness of ideas.

"Maneki Neko" is an upbeat, funny story that portrays a logical extension of the late, lamented "gift economy" upon which the Internet was built. The central principle was that if people contributed what they could to the system for free, everyone would wind up better off.

In Sterling's near-future Japan, Tsuyoshi Shimizu is one of many people who follow the prompts of the ubiquitous network. When the net tells Tsuyoshi to give a weary stranger a coffee, or buy a bottle of aftershave, he does it without worrying about the reason; in return, anonymous packages arrive with useful gifts such as baby clothes and pickles for his pregnant wife. Strangers on network business identify themselves to one another via hand-signals, but different regions of the net have different signal dialects.

"Maneki Neko" runs counter to every paranoid story ever written about computers taking over our lives. Computers have made people anonymous, but not impersonal. Even those who try to fight the system benefit from it. Trust the computer; the computer really is your friend.

In "Big Jelly," written with Rudy Rucker, Tug Mesoglea is a computer programmer obsessed with simulating jellyfish. He uses artificial life techniques to force his algorithms to evolve, going so far as to implement those algorithms in artificial jellyfish made of piezoelectric plastic. ("Mesoglea" is jellyfish connective tissue. It's hard to tell whether Tug is supposed to have picked the name himself, or if the authors were just being cute.)

Tug's efforts have been funded by Revel Pullen, a Texas oil billionaire who desperately wants to be part of the Silicon Valley startup culture. Revel is determined to come up with a "killer app" for the jellies, but his approach to mass- producing jellies out of subterranean ooze could be the end of fossil fuel as we know it.

If you're not already familiar with the concepts and cliches upon which the story is based, your eyes may glaze over when the jargon gets thick. But when "Big Jelly" isn't being abstruse, it's a wickedly funny satire of Silicon Valley startups. Rucker and Sterling score bonus geek points for having a cameo appearance by a thinly-disguised Esther Dyson.

In "The Littlest Jackal," Sterling's extrapolation is sociopolitical rather than technological. Finnish extremists, the Russian mafia, and Japanese toy marketing interests join forces to fight for sovereignty for a Finnish island chain that doesn't particularly want it in the first place. Each faction has its own angle, of course, but the central goal is to turn the islands into an online money-laundering system.

The story is full of genial terrorist camaraderie and lots of free-floating cynicism in search of a less tangled plotline. Unfortunately, Sterling is so busy trying to hit that perfect note of jaded economic satire that he fails to keep the plot coherent.

In "Sacred Cow," the world is ruled by Asian interests, and Britain is a broken country dependent upon tourism and investments from India. Sterling depicts this via a condescending Indian film producer who drags his company from London to Glasgow to Bolton, making B-movies on the cheap. Sterling gets very cute with details that fill in how the Western economic sphere was felled by its fondness for hamburger. It's a one-liner of a story, interesting but inconsequential.

The final three stories are set in the same twenty-first century future, linked by shared characters. In "Deep Eddy," subcultural ambassador Eddy Dertouzas travels to Dusseldorf, in Germany, to meet a cultural guru. His trip is made considerably more adventuresome by the convergence upon Dusseldorf of fringe elements from all over Europe for a Wende. Sterling's Wende is a spontaneous weekend of good-natured violent anarchy; the name probably comes from the tumbling of the Berlin Wall.

Eddy spends most of the story being dragged along, wide-eyed but willing, by the bodyguard assigned to escort him to his meeting. "Deep Eddy" turns out be much less profound than it shapes up to be, but it's full of wonderful tech, subculture satire, and a great deal of enthusiastic violence.

"Bicycle Repairman," which won the 1997 Hugo for Best Novelette, has somewhat calmer fun with anarchy. The protagonist is Lyle Schweik, a bicycle repairman who lives in the "zone," a no-man's-land in the burnt-out upper levels of a cavernous Chattanooga high-rise. Lyle's shop is a mobile home strung up on elevator cables by his buddy Spider Pete and the City Spiders, urban climbers for whom high-rise breaking-and-entering is a passion and an artform.

Eddy Dertouzas used to be Lyle's roommate, and he still uses Lyle's shop as a mail drop. When the latest mysterious package among many seems to be an old-fashioned set-top cable box, Lyle hooks it up and turns it on. Suddenly he's receiving all kinds of unwelcome attention, because this is a cyberpunk story, and there are always ruthless strangers looking for the mysterious secret technology. Nothing turns out the way you'd expect, however. Sterling does a wonderful job of turning all the cyberpunk cliches inside out within the framework of a standard paranoid cyberpunk story.

"Taklamakan" is set a few decades after "Bicycle Repairman". Spider Pete has turned pro; he's now a NAFTA spook, with all sorts of diabolical federally-funded climbing toys. Pete and his partner Katrinko have been dropped into the central Taklamakan, a bitter desert in central Asia, to investigate rumors of a secret facility that could contain nuclear waste, or secret starships, or something even weirder and more dangerous.

Ultimately, "Taklamakan" reaches a bit too far; as things grow stranger and stranger, it loses momentum. The tech is fascinating, however, particularly the tools Pete carries. He stores images in a biotechnological storage device that was grown to mimic the visual cortex of an American bald eagle. Medicines and stimulants are applied to the bloodstream via bioengineered ticks that Pete and his partner carry snug in their armpits. (Ecch.) Sterling eventually presents us with a rather surreal look at artificial life, but frankly none of his seething self-assembled creepies can compete for sheer niftiness with the choice spookware that Pete carries safe in his warmer bodily crevices.

A Good Old-Fashioned Future certainly has its high points and low points -- often within the same story -- but it's a hard book to beat for cool ideas per cubic inch.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
June 1999

paperback edition
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Date: June 1999
ISBN: 0-553-57642-9
Binding: paperback
Pages: 279
Price: US $6.99

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Sep 2001 / CMS