28 November, 2004
I just finished reading A Good Old-Fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling. It’s a collection of short stories set in the near future. I thought I’d give a little book review. Warning: this will be a little long. ;)
The book, published in 1999, is a collection of seven short stories focusing on different aspects of the near-future. The stories were originally published between 1993 and 1998.
The first story, [i]Maneki Neko[/i] is a story about a gift-based society in Japan. In the story there’s an amorphous network which gives directions to people, allocating resources to people based on need and from people based on ability. For example, the protagonist orders a double iced mocha cappuccino and is told by his “pokkecon” (PDA) to order another. He is then instructed to give it to a distraught looking businessman who does not even appear to be part of the network. The businessman is suprised and happy to get his favorite kind of coffee.
This is an interesting tale, showing how the efficiency of a computer network could compensate for natural inefficiencies and provide a global commune. The story becomes especially interesting when it shows an American government official interacting with this network in a negative way. The network instructs people to do specific tasks, which they do unquesstioningly, which end up being a defense against the intruding government official. The people doing these activities are unaware of any harmful intent, since the instructions the receive often result in the benefit of someone else. Near the end of the story, the American government official accuses the protagonist of being a tax evader for not declaring the income from all the “free goods and services” he receives. An interesting look at how a traditional capitalist society might look at a new economic society such as this one based on gifts.
The second story, [i]Big Jelly[/i] is probably the weakest of the stories. It focuses on a Silicon Valley programmer-type that hooks up with an investor from a Texas oil family. The programmer is fascinated by jellyfish and has developed a way to create artificial jellyfish. The Texas oil man has some strange slime coming from a dead well that he wants to investigate. These two elements combine together to make an unlikely jellyfish product made from the slime. After a bunch of odd events involving airborne giant jellyfish (they create helium, of course), the programmer and the investor strike a deal and the story ends. The characters seemed a bit overly stereotypical (the programmer type is homosexual, of course, being so close to San Francisco I guess), and the story seems a bit aimless. But, a story based on creating jellyfish for profit is an interesting premise, at least.
The next story is [i]The Littlest Jackal[/i] which deals with a strange combination of terrorists and criminals working together to liberate the Ã…land Islands from Finland. The main character has ties to the Russian mafia and wants to contact an old woman that lives in the islands to sign an agreement and have exclusive rights to a series of children’s books she wrote; it turns out that the imaginary characters from these books are hugely popular in Japan and by getting this agreement his company can sue other infringers for a profit. The other main character is a female student interested in liberating the Islands in order to make Finland truly free, since the islands speak a variation of Swedish. These two are joined by an aging Russian hitman who seems a bit past his prime. The whole farce goes awry as the children’s book author isn’t even home when they go to visit her. The student stays behind to fight against the police that arrive to investigate the incident. Overall, this story feels the least futuristic, perhaps due to the nature of the story. Beyond the rather unlikely reason for everyone getting together, it feels like a fairly typical espionage story. The insight into terrorists’ plots is interesting, if a bit quaint given our current world situation.
[i]Sacred Cow[/i] is an interesting exercise in speculative fiction. What would have happened if “Mad Cow”disease had been as deadly as everyone feared? The populations of large beef-eating countries, notably England and the United States, would have been decimated. Areas where beef consumption is lower, such as the Hindu areas of India, would be relatively unaffected. In this story, the Indian film-making industry (“Bollywood”) rises to replace Hollywood. The same rapid film creation principles remain, where a crew makes a large number of films, hoping to find a hit. In this story, the crew is in England, which is cheap to film in due to the ruined economies from the mass deaths caused by mad cow. The protagonist is a script writer and film director running from his overdue taxes. He disparately needs a hit film, and is dragging his rag-tag crew around trying to make that one big, blockbuster film. He finally finds out one of his previous films has hit the big time, so he has made enough money to wipe out his tax debt and pay the crew.
The story is interesting in that it shows how things might go if a large segment of the population were wiped out suddenly. If the economic superpowers of England and the United States were wiped out, what would happen? It stands to reason that things would “be the same, yet different” as it is often said. It stands to reason that another entertainment industry would rise to replace the lost Hollywood, but it would incorporate it’s own traditions and methods.
The last three stories are all connected by the characters that show up in the story. In [i]Deep Eddy[/i], the protagonist Deep Eddy is a tech fanatic, knowing a lot about the specialized computer glasses called “spex”. Spex are essentially high-powered computers that can affect the wearer’s field of vision. So, it can provide translated subtitles to a sign, store images, and many other useful things. Deep Eddy has been selected by his local spexware user’s group to return a book to a mysterious figure named the “Cultural Critic” in Germany during a celebration/riot called a “Wende” which the Cultural Critic is partially responsible for; it is tolerated by city officials due to the tourist income and jobs created by repairing the damage. He’s met at the airport by a bodyguard that goes by the name Sardelle. In an interesting negotiation, Sardelle bribes Deep Eddy to leave his possessions behind at the airport to make her job easier. She is outfitted with spex and specialized bodyguard gear to help him, and uses her equipment and training to protect Deep Eddy from the Wende until his appointment. When he finally does meet The Critic, he finds that the data haven they are at is under attack by a rival called “The Moral Referee”. Under cover of the Wende, The Referee and his followers attack with the intent of brining down the illicit data stored at the data haven. In the seriously and potentially deadly melee that ensues, Deep Eddy fights the attackers and eventually saves Sardelle’s life; he has become a bit infatuated with her and now she owes him her life. The Critic manages to get away alive, but the data haven is destroyed by The Referee.
The story is interesting for four reasons. First, it shows what practical wearable computing could be like. A computer that helps you by altering your field of vision is quite useful. Identifying people you’ve never met, translating signs in a language you do not understand, and other functions are very useful. Second, it shows an interesting extension of capitalism where a paid employee (in this case a bodyguard) might use some of his or her income to pay others to make the job easier. In this case, Sardelle pays Deep Eddy to leave behind potentially dangerous possessions. If he does not bring them, she does not have to waste her time searching his items. Third, the story shows how an otherwise civilized society might tolerate some violence. The story does specifically mention that soccer hooligans show up at the Wende to duke it out, showing an element of violence we already accept in our society. Finally, it talks about how economics could force countries into large trading zones like the current European Union. The U.S. is not part of a trading area called “NAFTA”, the Asian continent has joined into a group called “The Sphere”, and there’s an area called “The South” which I assume is South America. This seems a bit simplistic, since even the EU is hardly a unified bloc these days. Overall, the story is fairly entertaining in addition to having these interesting points.
In the next story, [i]Bicycle Repairman[/i], is connected to [i]Deep Eddy[/i] by presenting a character that Deep Eddy shared a room with in his hometown of Chattanooga. Lyle is a bicycle repairman living in a community in the ruins of several floors of a highrise “archiplat”. These floors are an autonomous zone, a place full of anarchists where law enforcement rarely treads. Lyle spends his time learning about bikes and helping people while working on his own projects. His home/business is secured by cables to a tall ceiling, and he can lift it up off the ground by a system of cables and winches for protection at night. This cable system was set up by a group of people called the “City Spiders”, which are a group of fanatical climbers which delight in doing the impossible when it comes to feats of scaling hights and hauling items. The interesting part is that this autonomous zone is right in the middle of civilization. Floors above and below are inhabited by normal people living under goverment rule. However, the autonomous zone is not completely primitive. Lyle has a video phone “wallscreen” which is connected to his computer system. Instead of answering machines, people use agents called “mooks” for communication. As soon as Lyle turns on his wallscreen one time, his mother’s mook appears to tell him that his mother is about to call; the mook is actually contacting his mother (on her orders), essentially placing a call as soon as Lyle comes online. While his mother is answering the phone, the mook engages him in a bit of small talk about the latest stats of a bike tour. Anyway, Lylegets a strange package for Eddy which contains an ancient set-top box. His life is disrupted when this box proves to be more than just an ancient piece of technology, but a very unusual mook. A federal agent is caught in the process of trying to steal the box away from him, and he has to decide what to do with it all.
The story has some really interesting parts to it. First, the presence of the autonomous zone in the middle of a highrise sounds interesting, a place where people can slip away and find themselves beyond the scrutiny of an otherwise overprotective society. The government agent expresses a definite capitalist bent, giving scorn to the anarchists living in the zone living by barter and gifting. She obviously feels that the government should be allowed to govern people and that good old-fashioned capitalism is the best of all economies. Obviously the autonomous zone isn’t exactly a paradise; Lyle tells how his items get stolen all the time, and he eats interesting things such as “Dr. Breasaire’s Bioactive Bowel Putty” and “mineral-rich… iodized sponge”. Second, this story talks about an injected drug therapy, called antilibidinals, which eradicate sexual desire. This is an interesting issue to look at given the reality of overpopulation in the world. What if people voluntarily, temporarily eradicated the libido so that they could focus on other aspects of their life? The reactions of other characters, notably Lyle’s mother, is interesting to see; most see the treatments as unnatural or at least unhealthy. Finally, the issues of the mooks seem interesting. Even though it was framed in terms of phones, one can easily see this applied to online. What if you tried to email or IM someone and an intelligent agent responded instead? People have talked about personalized agents for a long time, how would society react? Would we initially react with annoyance or avoidance like people originally treated answering machines when they first arrived? An interesting way to look at things.
The final story was [i]Taklamakan[/i], which featured Spider Pete, one of the City Spiders mentioned in the previous story. He had went to help Lyle deal with the intruder, suggesting his unusual punishments for the infraction. In this story set years later he’s gone legit and working for the government as a spy. His climbing facination coupled with the government’s high-tech gear allow him to break into the most unforgiving of spots. In this story, he’s breaking into a secluded base in the Sphere zone investigating rumors of a starship program with a neuter named Katrinko (“Trink”) and a Lieutenant Colonel arriving separately. Unfortunately, the Lieutenant Colonel crashed on the way in, spotted by automated defenses. Unable to quench the desire that got them into climbing in the first place, both Pete and Trink do the mission anyway. After only finding signs of automation and no signs of life, they are about to leave when they notice a hole with some corpses nearby. Upon further investigation, they find the “starship” programs are in the hollowed out spaces left from nuclear weapon testing. The program isn’t about constructing spaceships, rather about seeing how “generation ships” would work. In the first ship, they find a rather refined and pastoral community of primarily agricultural citizens. In the second ship, they find a wild and primitive urban setting where people are packed in together and life is a lot more rough-and tumble. This ship is a bit more savvy, and have developed battering rams to break down the walls of the ship, and a giant ballista to fire a bolt across the way to snag into another ship. In this third ship, a very highly artisan society lays in ruins as everyone committed mass suicide inside the tomb of a “ship”. The citizens from the second ship were mostly interested in looting the rich items from this third ship. In addition to the ships, a whole society of robots were tasked with maintaining the outside of the ship, repairing holes, etc. These robots largely defy human explanation, likely the work of an illegal Artificial Intelligence designing the robots based on suitability for various tasks. The two lose a lot of gear to the robots when a giant flying robot harasses them trying to get into one of the spaceship colonies. After finding themselves unable to leave, a giant attack against the surface finally allows them a way to escape and tell the outside world.
Again, this story shows some interesting issues. The high-tech climbing gear and will-do attitude of the City Spiders makes one think that in the future it might be hard to hide things anywhere in the world. Spy satellites will see movement and strange terrain shapes, and spies like Pete and Trink will be able to go wherever they want to go. Second, Trink is a neuter without sexual organs. The story mentions that a neuter gets an 8% boost in metabolism, but also mentions that the military will not allow neuters to join the service. This seems to be a continuation of the antilibidinal idea in the previous story. Finally, the story poses the question of “How do you test really large, huge, important issues?” The Sphere thought nothing of taking some minorities and putting them into these generational ship experiments. This seems harsh and very unethical, but how else are you going to test to make sure the idea is feasible? Building real starships to colonize a far star system would cost a lot of money, and if the program is guaranteed to fail that money would be better spent in other ways. But, how do you know it will fail if you don’t run a test? A very interesting paradox.
Overall, I liked the book. There were interesting stories and issues in each story, and I enjoyed reading them. I especially liked the links between the last three stories. I recommend the book for anyone that likes near future science fiction.