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. Continue reading

Heavy Weather

The Bruce Sterling series continues.

Raw Feed (1994): Heavy Weather, Bruce Sterling, 1994.Heavy Weather

The contrasts and similarities between this and Sterling’s 1988 novel Islands in the Net are interesting.

The earlier novel was set in 2022. This novel is set nine years later in 2031.

Both novels feature a contemporary social concern hovering over their worlds. In Islands in the Net, it was the “Abolition” of nuclear weapons as befitting a novel of the nuclear-obsessed Eighties. In Heavy Weather, the effects of the much touted Greenhouse Effect loom over the novel’s milieu. (The title refers to not only the disturbed, violent weather of the Greenhouse world but also its political/social turmoil.)

Both novels heavily feature the economic effects of the information age. Data pirates featured heavily in Islands in the Net. Here, Sterling postulates other adverse effects of the information age. The U.S. “State of Emergency” in 2015 nationalized all data, and software in general has little value since it can be copied so easily. (Sterling also postulates that software and computer circuits so complicated that computers design them and no human really understands them.). “Unbreakable encryption, digital authentication, anonymous remailing, and network untraceability” have destroyed any governmental – indeed any human – control over the economy with “all workable standards of wealth … vaporized, digitized, and vanished”. Taxation becomes impossible. Vast amounts of black-market money (from untaxed work and crime) comes to the surface, and market forces set up private currencies (of course, historically they have existed). Continue reading

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). Continue reading

Pirate Utopia; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Purely by accident, I seem to be caught in the 1920s for the next few reviews.

I’m still working on my review of Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance (with 1914 being the most recent story in the anthology), but that’s going to take a while to make notes and write up.

By I already know what I’m going to say for some books I’ve finished since then.

So, today, we go to the island of Fiume in 1920 and the short-lived Regency of Carnaro, the so-called Pirate Utopia.

I’d heard of that short-lived “country” before on the Roads to the Great War blog. It was the brainchild of Gabriele D’Annunzio, poet, playwright, fighter pilot, war hero, and inventor, in the Regency, of a lot of the symbols later used by the Italian Fascists.

When I again pick up work on my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series, I’ll look more closely at the novella’s elements related to the war, but most of the story takes place post-war. The Regency of Carnaro is one of those European convulsions in the period between the world wars most Americans, including me, are ignorant of since we tend to think only of the Spanish Civil War in that regard.

I’ll probably also read Michael A. Ledeen’s D’Annunzio: The First Duce to see how closely D’Annunzio’s ideas matched Fascism. My sense is not all that closely apart from the political stagecraft Mussolini picked up from D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio seems, at least in this story, way too obsessed with a vision of a new world to be a true fascist. Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Concept only mentions D’Annunzio once.

Speculiction ways in with a more detailed review.

[Update: Fiume, now called Rijecka, wants to be a country again.]

Review: Pirate Utopia, Bruce Sterling, 2016.pirate-utopia

On September 12, 1919, acclaimed Italian war hero and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio stormed the city of Fiume, in what is now with Croatia, with 2,600 veterans of the Italian Army. He was angry that the Treaty of Versailles did not acknowledge Italian claims to the city. Thus the pirate utopia of scavenging weapons depots, more traditional piracy, extortion, free love, syndicalism, women’s suffrage, and casual drug use was born. To say nothing of the daily poetry readings D’Annunzio gave from a balcony, nightly fireworks, and uniforms that inspired many a European political extremist to come. It was a country where music was declared the fundamental principle of the state.

In our world, the fun ended on December 24, 1920 when the Italian navy bombarded D’Annunzio’s palace and declared the existence of the Republic of Fiume, an event known in fascist circles as the “Christmas of Blood”.

Sterling’s book is an alternate history of a sort and a work of “dieselpunk”. The departure from our timeline is the poisoning of Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. And, while it doesn’t really play into the onstage drama, Hitler fatally catches a bullet during a “beer-hall brawl”. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 4

The alternate history series continues though there are only two stories in this book that fits that description.

Hartwell’s series is the only one I followed fairly consistently apart from Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Best SF series which was started me reading science fiction regularly.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 4, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1999.years-best-sf-4

Market Report”, Alexander Jablokov — I like Jablokov, but I didn’t think this story was good enough to be included in this anthology (of course, I didn’t read all the sf short fiction published in 1998). Still, on skimming the story again after reading it, I appreciated it more. It has a wry humor about it with its portrayal of retired suburbanites hanging out in a planned community which they’re planning to restock with Pleistocene flora and fauna and the women have primitive rites in its jungles, and the narrator’s parents, members of that community, try to comprehend his job as a spotter of self-defined groups that need to be marketed to. At first glance, the story doesn’t seem to be about much apart from its near-future extrapolation of sociological-based marketing and Pleistocene hobbyists. But, with its plot of a man finding a home amongst parents he’s spent a lifetime trying to understand, to “catch” the meaning of their conversation and the same narrator getting over a failed marriage, I suspect Jablokov was trying to do a sf imitation of John Cheever or John Irving, writers, I believe, Jablokov has expressed an admiration for. However, not being sf writers, my exposure to them has been minimum.

A Dance to Strange Musics”, Gregory Benford — This is a brilliant, austere, unsentimental, humbling, Stapledonian, classic sf tale. Its classicism is that it’s pure hard sf, a detailed working out of a surprising ecosystem in our galactic backyard — the Alpha Centauri star system — and little emphasis on individual characters (though Benford does put in some wry bits about how scientists relate to one another). The plot progresses from one hard sf wonder to another. A vast, elevated lake is found on a planet in the star system. It seems to be formed in the remnants of a crater and literally floats kilometers above the surface, the power to do so coming from the piezoelectric forces generated by tidal stresses from the three suns in the system. The planetary system is covered by tile-like creatures who constantly move about, dancing to “strange music”. Eventually, it’s speculated that their movements (they, and the whole ecology of the planet, feed off electrical energy rather than chemical energy) represent some giant, planetary computer at work. A manned probe into the atmosphere finds, before the pilot dies, surprising levels of electrical power and a sort of memory in the system. The giant, floating lake turns out to be a giant laser system which periodically sends messages to other star systems. More die exploring the planet, learning that the tiles feed on electricity and exchange, in sophisticated protocols, data with each other, and that planet fires off messages into space not intended for man. The first expedition descends to the planet but not before they realize that the lifeforms on the planet are engineered, that the intelligent life there has either left for space or engineered themselves into the tiles. Another expedition is sent from an Earth where people live in the “disposable realities” of computer created environments. They meet odd, disconcerting facsimiles of the first expedition. The facsimiles are a disturbing group mind with facial expressions that flicker at precise intervals and who each speak separate words in their sentences while inviting man to join their Being Suite, their bodies precisely spaced in a hexagon. The humans are appalled by what they see and, out of fear, do not go to the surface. They don’t know if the first expedition was seduced or raped into becoming part of the Being Suite. The second to last paragraph has a classic passage about the unknowability of the universe, its forever closed community of sentience: “It is one thing to speak of embracing the new, the fresh, the strange. It is another to feel that one is an insect, crawling across a page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, knowing only that something vast is passing by beneath, all without your sensing more than a yawning vacancy. Worse, the lack was clearly in oneself, and was irredeemable.” A classic sf statement, a classic sf tale. Continue reading

Queen of Angels

Continuing with the Greg Bear Raw Feed series.

I bought this one in hardcover when in came out even though I didn’t have a lot of money. That’s how enthusiastic I was about reading it.

And, yes, I know my reactions sound a bit like a Dhalgren fan — and they annoy me.

Raw Feed (1990): Queen of Angels, Greg Bear, 1990.Queen of Angels 2

This book was a grueling read not because it wasn’t well-written or enjoyable — it was — but because it was very complex, and I’m not sure as to what its answers were to the thematic questions it raised — if there are any final answers.

This is an extremely literary book. It has, at times, a James Joyce like run on prose with its lack of punctuation which causes words to be juxtaposed with either of two phrases or words. In effect, each sentence can have a variety of meanings depending on what you think a modifier should modify. There are four parallel plots (I liked the plot with Richard Fettle, failed writer, best.) which are all different reflections on the themes of self-awareness and punishment and crime. This is also one of those novels of character where much of the plot is concerned with why a character did what he did. In this case, we know immediately that poet Immanuel Goldsmith killed eight of his friends and admirers. Like Ben Reich in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, we don’t know the motive for the murder.

The influence of other sf works seem to be present. The questions of crime, punishment, and therapy as reform are reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The exploration of a mind as symbolized by archetypal symbols is like Roger Zelazny’s “He Who Shapes”. The vodoun references follow those of William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive and Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. Bear has sometimes been lumped with these cyberpunks. There use of voodoo in the future may have inspired Bear.

Part of my reaction to this novel stems from what I expected of it. Given an interview with Bear I read, it seemed the novel would be a police procedural set in a Haiti fifty years in the future. The police procedural part of the plot actually takes up very little of the novel’s beginning. Bear does some interesting extrapolation of forensic techniques involving biology (I found tracing people using the mitochondrial DNA of their symbiotes quite interesting) and nanotechnology (Bear’s use of the technology is interesting: nanoven, food, self-cleaning carpets, human “transforms”, nano build buildings, and weapons that assembles themselves from goo. It at first seems quite conservative but, on second thought, it is just a naturalistic treatment of a future technology.) Goldsmith’s guilt is quickly established.

Bear plays off the “conservative” view of punishment as deterrent and social vengeance against willful criminality against the “liberal” view that criminality springs from an unconscious malfunction of the mind that would respond to therapy. In Bear’s future, which to me, sounds like an intrusive, manipulative hell of involuntary and coerced social conditioning, most people undergo therapy to conform to an accepted definition of well-adjusted. I agree with Richard Fettle and his literary circle in seeing this as intrusive and sticking to their natural weaknesses. They see therapy as a destruction of personality, which it is. However, I confess this is not a rational view. As Fettle realizes, weaknesses can be quite dangerous, and when we seek therapy for ourselves we are attempting to change our nature. Bear, however, does not dwell overlong on these opposing views of therapy).

The punishment is represented by the Selectors, self-appointed vigilantes who punish through hellcrowns — devices that enhance and extend in subjective time harrowing personal nightmares with devastating psychic effects. The government prefers therapy. Putting aside Bear’s apparent — if it is a personal view — optimism in arriving at a rational, complete model of the mind and assigning criminality to its involuntary, unconscious malfunctioning, that model seems very reliant on a computer paradigm with its talk of programs and subroutines.

The book’s main theme, though, is the nature, qualities, and origins of self-awareness. That is the theme all four subplots revolve around. Bear uses the two metaphors of possession (Richard Fettle in, to my mind, the best writing of the novel, feels possessed by the spirit of Goldsmith when, through writing, he explores Goldsmith’s motives for murder) and the mechanistic, computer like model of the mind to explore this question. The subplots are reflections and contrasts of each other.

Mary Choy, human transform, derives her identity from her sense of duty as a policeman. That identity causes her to temporarily fall out with her boyfriend. She also (though this is not emphasized much — I found, in many ways, the Choy subplot of the novel to be the least interesting one) seems to have trouble reconciling her outer, “transformed” body with her inner self vision. Here Bear seems to be dealing with the role the physical self plays (and Choy is particularly sensitive to other’s reactions — she’s wildly different but wants to be treated normally) in self-image and awareness. As if to emphasize the point, Choy is a “natural” — well-adjusted without therapy.

In contrast to this, space probes AXIS and Jill achieve self-awareness through, grief, mourning, depression, and a sense of betrayal. They are superior intellects who must be hurt enough to feel indignation which engenders (or perhaps the order is reversed) self-awareness. In the story of their psychological development, Bear emphasizes his computer inspired model of the mind.

The other view, the spiritual, emotional view of possession as criminality is played out in the book’s most interesting part: Richard Fettle’s attempt to understand Goldsmith’s behavior. (One can’t help but wonder if the power of this character and his description is due to a fear in the writer Bear of being a failed, burned out writer.) Fettle’s self-image is a function of his relation to his friend and idol Goldsmith. Fettle feels betrayed by Goldsmith. All of a sudden, breaking a writing block of years, he tries to understand Goldsmith by writing, in first person, his story. In the book’s best writing, a riveting psychological study, Fettle begins to feel possessed by Goldsmith. He contemplates emulating Goldsmith and murdering Nadine Preston, his occasional lover. Eventually, in a stunning scene of memory and self-awareness, he realizes his inner strength and exact relationship to Goldsmith — an old friend who is now gone but fondly remembered. He reconciles himself to life, is now peaceful and content. (Unlike the above artificial intelligences who are decidedly discontent.).

Straddling the two sides of the possession and computer metaphors of mind is Martin Burke. He seems to draw his identity from his work. He is an expert in the computer model of the mind but finds, in Goldsmith’s mind, a desolation unexpected and evidence of a possession which eventually takes root in him. The question of criminality and its causes is suborned to this theme of identity and self-awareness. Bad self-modeling is the mechanist’s view of the mind’s answer to crime’s causes. The vigilantes see willful behavior (or maybe possession, Bear doesn’t make this clear) as the cause. In effect, the therapists see un-self-awareness, bad internal models of personality, as the beginning of crime. The Selectors seem to think crime involves full self-awareness that can be deterred by the hellcrown.

My problem and uneasiness with the novel lies in my inability to see Bear’s answer to the question of crime, its relation to self-awareness and the latter’s nature. I’ll be egotistical and view the failure as Bear’s inability to quite achieve the grand scheme he set himself rather than my failure as a reader. It may be Bear intended only to provoke thought and not give answers. Yet, the novel seems incomplete in its thematic exploration though that exploration is sophisticated and diverse. The last chapter throws out the possibility of guilt and sin being part of awareness. (Earlier Bear brings up insult as being a sign of self-awareness.) Guilt, Bear suggests springs from self-awareness; Yet, guilt hurts; self-analysis is necessary but injures.

My view of Bear’s ultimate failure is, I think, supported by others instances of incompleteness. We never get a clear explanation of the society of the shades and combs (or even a clear physical description of the latter’s architecture). We are not told the economics of a society with nanotech. (There also seems to be not much point to meeting Colonel Sir John Yardley’s or even to the constant references to him. His main function is as an icon in Goldsmith wasted mind.). We are not even told what IPR was or its scandal with President Raphkind. Nor do we ultimately see why Goldsmith murders. Was it an attempt to remake himself (self-awareness as a prelude to destruction) by irrevocably cutting off his past? Was it a strangely twisted mind devoid of a “prominent personality” as Burke suspects? Or was his act the outcome of a long process that began with an abusive father?

I enjoyed this book immensely, it was well worth reading, very well-written. But I find it a puzzle without an answer. I just don’t know if I can’t find the answer or if Bear didn’t provide one.


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

Three Messages and a Warning

From time to time, I like to read collections of foreign language science fiction. I just am curious as to what people coming from a different history and geography will do with the genre. By the way, in this regard, James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 6: Around the World is worth a look since he attempted an overview of foreign language science fiction as of 1999.

When it first showed up on Amazon back on December 18, 2011, this retro review got some reactions.

Most were from people who thought the book, based on my description, sounded like something they would be interested in even if I didn’t like it.

I also got a nice email from one of the included authors.

Review: Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Stories of the Fantastic, eds. Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, 2012.Three Messages and a Warning

If you like your stories to have a dramatic arc with a conflict and a resolution, this is not the anthology for you.

If you like your stories to read like completed projects and not story fragments or philosophical speculation inadequately fictionalized, this is not the anthology for you.

If you think that, when you buy a book, you’re paying for a writer to tell the story – not present you with a literary version of “choose your adventure”, this is not the anthology for you.

If you think studied vagueness and elliptical endings are usually an abrogation of authorial responsibility, this is not the anthology for you.

If you think maybe Bruce Sterling’s name and the word “fantastic” in the title means you will get significant Mexican science fiction, this is not the anthology for you.

If you think “microfiction” and “flash fiction” are sometimes excuses for presenting incompletely worked out ideas, this is not the anthology for you.

If you don’t want to sigh in exasperation at the end of nearly every one of these 33 stories (and one poem), this is not the anthology for you.

Because there are so many stories here with so few that are satisfying, I’ll mention the ones I did like. Continue reading

After the End


The well-done post-apocalypse story is a literary post-mortem on civilization. At its best, it looks at the wreckage of society to examine not only the workings of its physical infrastructure but the architecture of the human mind and soul.

Once upon a time, I read a fair number of these, but I sort of drifted away from it. In the last couple of years, by accident, I’ve read more than usual in the sub-genre.

Oh there’s still a lot of these stories published. But zombies have taken over the genre. Many self-published works seem to be survivalist manuals — not that anything is wrong with that.  Some of Dean Ing’s works fit in that category as does, to some extant, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. However, who knows how many of these are badly written political screeds or how to manuals?

And I have little interest in YA novels. Even when I was the target age, I usually didn’t care for teenaged protagonists.

So, hoping to see what had been going on with the theme recently, I requested Paula Guran’s After the End: Recent Apocalypses. Continue reading