For many Americans the definition of the future lies sixty years in the past, exemplified by the 1939 World's Fair in a way that the 1951 Festival of Britain failed to define it for the British in spite of the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery. Frederick Pohl was there and he made it clear that the future changes, not at as we enter it but as it was perceived to be, when he entitled his autobiography The Way the Future Was. So, what defines "a good old-fashioned future"? Definitely change, probably optimism. George Orwell, looking back on the revolutionary influence of H. G. Wells, wrote that it was because Wells knew that "the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined".
How unimaginable is the future of Bruce Sterling, at least in terms of this latest short story collection? Increasingly less so, and increasingly homogenised. Perhaps the future imagined by Sterling and William Gibson threaten to become indistinguishable - Gibson's Idoru, about the Nipponification of the world was published in 1995, Sterling's Hugo-nominated "Meneki Neko" in 1998. "Meniki Neko" is one of the seven collected here, all from the 1990s.
When is Sterling's future? Very near. "Sacred Cow" is set in 2050, while "Bicycle Repairman" (a Hugo winner), one of three linked stories, is set in 2037. On the other hand, the futures of "Sacred Cow", and possibly all the other non-series stories, are not compatible with the developments predicated for the series. "Sacred Cow" is a semi-humourous take on a Britain used as a cheap shooting stage for Bollywood, now decimated and filled with the graves of the B.S.E. plague victims, a place of Hindu reverence for the lost cattle. On the other hand "Deep Eddy" is set in Germany days before an international football match at which the psychopathically rival England and Ireland fans will fight in huge numbers - something a continuing plague would make impossible.
What is Sterling's geography? Wide-ranging - stories are placed in German cities, Baltic islands, Britain, the USA, Japan and the deserts of Asia. And what of geo-politics? Sterling sees increasing political mergers, while at the same time there will be demands for independence. "The Littlest Jackal" tells the story of international terrorists and gangsters merging on the islands of the Baltic to found a new off-shore banking and money laundering centre, only to find themselves out-thought - as the Russian government decides to make Kaliningrad its own Gibralter or Isle of Man, while the island on which the gangsters have their eye declines their offers, receiving too much from the reclusive author who has her home there. (Author of ... think Finn Family Moomintroll or Pippi Longstocking). In this story the gangsters are striving to escape the geographical boundaries of NATO - it is spoken of as a country. However, the political divisions common to the series of "Deep Eddy", "Bicycle Repairman" and "Taklamakan" are threefold, similar to those of Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four: EU, NAFTA and Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (one story is set in each area in that order). No matter in which of the three areas his protagonists find themselves, the characters discover that the government's rule, concerns and areas of non-concern are all very similar. And every government is constantly manoeuvring its trading rules and economy.
What of the individuals? Many individuals will strive to lose their individuality in active or violent groups (such as the armies of football fans in "Deep Eddy"), while others will demand more self control, taking anti-libidinal drugs or even abandoning gender altogether (one character in each series story has made this choice) to concentrate on their chosen speciality. However, this sacrifice of human features, such as sexuality, does not lead to a monastic spirituality - Katrinko, the neuter of "Taklamakan", is happy to eat her commander's remains, after he has died on his way to their rendezvous, and so supplement her reserves.
On a wider screen, Sterling sees two contradictory strains in human life developing. The first, given the most explicit treatment, is the "gift economy" typified by "Maneki Neko" where the World Wide Web allows information to be given away, but for which the giver may well be rewarded with physical objects either ordered or sent via the WWW as well. Louise Hashimoto, a US Federal agent, who is chasing those in the economy is broken by the gifts she receives (feline statuettes) because she treats their reception as acts of harassment, while Tsuyoshi Shimizu a web-developer who happens to be about when she has her breakdown cannot understand her concerns. Similarly, the nameless author's gifts to her Baltic home help to protect her in "The Littlest Jackal", while in the drop-out hang-outs of the series's worlds there is a swapping of services as well (they call it anarchy).
On the other hand, people - even the world they live in - don't matter. This is the attitude of American millionaires at one level (in "Big Jelly", co-written with Rudi Rucker), and of massive governments on the other. Through oil pollution and thoughtlessly released genetically modified objects (both in "Big Jelly"), this reaches its nadir in the final story, "Taklamakan". In the eponymous cold desert to the north-west of the Karakorams, two NAFTA agents discover signs of enormous subterranean nuclear experiments, but they then discover that the voids of the blast holes have craft in them - generation starships left over from abandoned experiments. The craft still have inhabitants, some aware of their condition (think of J. G. Ballard's "Thirteen to Centaurus" but worse). The Co-Prosperity Sphere government, though, has had other plans as well, and one of them has been maximum industrialisation, which has lead to increasing numbers of devices which can make and re-make themselves. They do not remake themselves in their own image, but in the light of improvements they meet. Now mutating in the slime at the bottom of the waste pits, the next generation of machines are struggling to emerge as the story ends, boosted by what they have unwittingly been taught from the equipment carried by the NAFTA agents.
With new monsters possible from so many systems, the Old-Fashioned
Future might need a horror story to describe it, but horror is almost completely
missing from Sterling's portrayals. There is little moralism or moral condemnation,
either, but with so many systems today working without moral constraints Orwell's
description may be true, the future will not be what respectable people imagine.
That, though, will be because we are no longer governed by respectable people,
and things will develop as Sterling portrays them: the future will be like this, without
even the few constraints we have left. Whether it will be so exciting, though, is more
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