Islands in the Net

While I take forever to get some more new stuff out, I’ll post some old stuff.

Since I reviewed his recent Pirate Utopia, I thought I’d do a Bruce Sterling series.

Raw Feed (1990): Islands in the Net, Bruce Sterling, 1988.Islands in the Net

For all his hyperbole, posturing, and preaching as to what sf should and shouldn’t be and his wild proclamations on the evils of Reagan, Sterling is a first rate writer. He knows his science and technology (that you can terrorize — quite literally — someone’s brain with carboline, what you can do with an abandoned supertanker, the possibilities of a VCR as a revolutionary broadcast system) and he knows the workings of society (down to the rumors of Pope John Paul I’s death being connected to a Vatican banking scandal); he extrapolates in depth with a detailed style that thoroughly convinces; he creates plausible, complex characters; and he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions in this sometimes ambiguous political novel.

Sterling, chief theoretician of the cybperpunk/Neuromantic movement, creates a novel with a middleclass character, Laura Webster, not the low-life criminals or rich, sinister tycoons of, say, early William Gibson novels. Sterling uses the new sf device of the data Net, but it is a realistic portrayal, wide in scope including more than just the fringes of the global society (though, with the data pirates and mercenaries he does that too).

The central spiritual feature of this new world, new Millennium, is the abolition of all nuclear weapons. It is a credit to the overwhelming creditability, plausibility, and verisimilitude of the novel that I have trouble accepting this premise. Its flaw as a conceit is due to the near perfection of the structure it’s embedded in. I would have accepted such a conceit readily from a lesser writer. It would be just another wild conceit in a nest of them. Perhaps this reaction of mine dogs most writers who try to do a plausible near-future sf story.

Larua Webster, circa 2022, the year the story begins, is a child of the Post-Abolition. She seems, to me, smug. To her its only obvious that nukes would have abolished. It’s the only logical course. She finds it puzzling that my contemporaries would pat themselves on the back for doing the obvious. (She is naïve and somewhat complacent. Yet her character seems plausible, realistic, well-drawn even if I didn’t warm to her.)

I thought one of the most brilliant metaphors Sterling used was when Webster views the video games of Missile Command, Space Invaders, and Pacman as symbols of the pre-Millennium — games where one’s foe is an inhuman, implacable, joyless computer and that no matter how long you play the game always ends in apocalypse. A very memorable bit.

I find Webster’s employer, Rizome Industries Group, insufferable, smug, self-righteous. (It’s significant that I react to the story’s characters and plot in terms of emotions, emotions sparked by the novel’s plausibility rather than as impersonal plot conceits). Rizome pretends to be egalitarian but is really hierarchical and too much like a zaibatsu: the kind of company that wants to be your buddy as well as your employer, that thrusts itself into your personal life. However, I think its “economic democracy is a workable setup and social order some — not me — might find desirable. It was also, in it’s own way, rather alien.

The central ambivalence of this novel is the great ambivalence of society: the double edged sword of technology literally, strikingly embodied by Sterling in a ceramic machete. Simple, deadly, devastating tech. The modern superpowers and industrial countries have become technologically conservative, their cutting edge dulled, buried under (as a Grenadian says) “lawyers and bureaucrats and social impact statements’”. The islands in the net are Grenada, Singapore, and Luxembourg, nations who are outlaws in refusing to play along with the cautious globalism of the rest of the world. To Grenada the technological castoffs of the rest of the world and the forbidden tech of extensive genetic engineering are methods to a higher standard of living, self-reliance, and revenge against American and Europe. They may stifle their people in a Marxist closed-economy, but they are vibrant. Scientists and technicians flock there to do researching in areas no one else is interested in or will permit. And they’re paid well.

It is a strange world of supertankers turned into habitations and voodoo with a high-tech patina. Singapore is ambitious, hustling, views the rest of the world as decadent, cynical, lazy, and conspiring to keep them from their rightful place in the sun. They are pushing space utilization forward. Into this world of data piracy, Sterling throws in terrorists who specifically strike against the pirates and set one against the other. Sterling deftly punctures some silly cyberpunk notions of the future — no all-powerful corporations for him. His corporations have no armed forces. They covertly pay the F.A.C.T terrorists for action against the pirates. Eventually, some corporations talk of a global coup against the Vienna forces so they can take on F.A.C.T. when they turn on them. Sterling, unlike many authors, seems to realize nationalism is a powerful force and will not readily disappear from human affairs.

I think Sterling’s plot unravels though in the vague machinations of F.A.C.T in Mali. Do they intend to establish an African empire? There’s talk of genocide, but nothing is adequately explained. F.A.C.T blackmailing Vienna by threatening to use nukes seems a bit contrived. The novel ends when F.A.C.T. tries to nuke Hiroshima and fails. Vienna and the world comes down hard on it. It seems Vienna wouldn’t have just let F.A.C.T. alone just so no one would know nukes were still around. Even if the revulsion against nukes is that great — and people are oddly, plausibly, very predictably fascinated when the sordid, terrifying scandal breaks — Vienna would still have clamped down. The novel’s one failing is vagueness in the final thirds politics including the Lawrence of Arabia-like Colonel Gresham who seems to want to help the basket case Africans shrug off Western, Net culture with the technological trappings of that culture. Paradoxical, yes, but like the real Colonel Lawrence.

Sterling seems to wander between siding with the conservative, safe, sane forces of the Net and the radical, innovative, vibrant culture of the islands. However, at novel’s end, those islands are absorbed. Perhaps Sterling’s novel on the ethical and political uses of technology is best characterized when a renegade scientists says “All tech is dangerous — even with no moving parts.” Tech creates its own problems, solves problems, is a tool of liberation and suppression, sanity and irrationality. The islands are absorbed into a global social order. Tech can be used by either side in any struggle be it with nature or other men. What ethic prevails depends on morals, the social structure. An unoriginal point but one seldom realized.


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