If the novel of ideas has found a refuge within the 20th century, it’s within science fiction. Sci-fi lends itself perfectly to complex speculation about the future and what’s in store for the human race. The only problem is, sci-fi novels tend to function on such galactic-spanning levels that characters get reduced to mere cyphers being pushed about to prove a point. Not so in Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, where the catastrophes that have befallen the US in 2044 are a mere backdrop to the struggles of spin doctor Oscar Valparaiso.
It becomes quickly apparent that information – the manipulation of which is Oscar’s metier – is everything: the Net is omnipresent and surveillance microchips are everywhere. In stark relief to the advancement of technology is the near-collapse of US central government, leaving Oscar trying to defend the crumbling scientific haven of the Collaboratory against a barrage of unscrupulous politicians. His only weapons are disinformation and doubletalk.
Distraction is a clever twist on the classic future calamity formula – instead of beginning with a portentous narrative that explains what has befallen the world in 50 years time, Sterling tantalisingly reveals the details through Oscar’s point of view as the book progresses. This has the effect of making the various momentous historical events and technological leaps all the more understandable because they’re seen in terms of their effect on a particular individual.
It would be giving away too many of Sterling’s elegant ideas about where the post-information age may lead us to reveal more of the plot, but suffice to say that the causal logic he draws on to depict this future scenario is eerie in its plausibility.
What sets Distraction apart though is that it’s a fundamentally warm novel, due to the depth of its characters. Rather than being the usual hi-tech updates of hard-boiled fiction, Distraction’s characters are essentially white collar information workers who’ve never fired a phaser in their lives. Similarly, while Distraction develops an increasingly labyrinthine plot line, Sterling treats it with a compelling lightness of touch.
This results in the novel being a peculiar mix of the apocalyptic and the optimistic. Distraction’s world is at once comforting and chilling – there’s the peculiar normalcy of relatively ordinary people adapting to the human-induced catastrophe which has befallen the earth, but there’s also little sign of any attempt to prevent further calamities down the line.
Bruce Sterling has managed to depict a future world that hints at the dire possibilities of where our information-driven societies may be headed. Yet he’s done so without coming across as some paranoid doomsayer. Distraction is ultimately a thoughtful black comedy of which it would be wise to take heed.
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