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Bruce Sterling - DistractionBruce Sterling came to prominence as one of the superstars of Cyberpunk, a genre he helped to create and shape. But he has not rested on his laurels, and has continues to release novels, novellas, and collections - a lot of which explore societal themes, extrapolated from where we are today. These settings are frequently highly believable, both from the point of feeling like true possible futures, but also because they are vivid, with substantial amounts of incidental detail to bring them to live and give them depth.

Distraction, an Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, is one such novel, centering on a US which has declined, turned inwards, lost its power on the international stage, and has politically fallen apart internally, too. The story follows Oscar Valparaiso, the former/outgoing campaign manager for Alcott Bambakias, the new Senator-elect for Massachusetts. Oscar is nominally taking a paid vacation with his Krewe, but is picking up a new project to occupy his attention in the shape of the Buna National Collaboratory, a Federal Laboratory and Genome Preservation Centre in Louisiana - including Dr Greta Penninger, a research-focused, non-political (in stark contrast to Oscar) neurologist who, to her own despair, serves as a Board Member. The relationship between theses two is as unusual as it is interesting in its development.

The story plays out in a world where the US is not the world power it used to be - its economy went bust due to East Asia being faster, better, cheaper, and its military cannot pay its own power bills without setting up roadblocks to shake down travellers… American cash is no longer convertible to stable currencies outside the US borders (and larger bills are bugged, apparently).
The cold war is now with the Dutch, over global warming and its consequences (yes the weather/climate has rather changed) - they literally are “with their backs against the dikes”, as Oscar’s former journalist girlfriend puts it as she sets off to cover this conflict from the Dutch side. Some of the other claims in the background are less likely or believable, like the changes to nutritions - fat and heavy cuisine has been made healthy as a reaction to the pesticide disasters which put an end to the diet and exercise movement, we are told.

And the US has large groups, hordes, swarms, of Nomads traveling through it, living off the land, as highly mobile and non-sessile as they are high-tech and fluently structured. The demographic landscape has changed much - white anglo-saxon is now a racial minority (the year is 2044, btw).
The altered, and semi-broken-down societal structure this presents is, of course, a staple of Sterling stories.

“we went straight from wilderness to decadence, without ever creating an authentic American civilization…”

Whilst large parts of this book, this story, are hugely entertaining it somehow did not amount to a page turner for me. Maybe it satisfies even in small chunks?
I found especially Oscar, our central protagonist, hard to like - not because of his ‘background problem’ (he is the genetically engineered result of an illegal lab - he does not sleep, and thinks faster than normal humans, besides a lot of other things), but because he’s an arrogant know-it-all, thinking he can wing everything, turn everything his way with his Krewe and his political nous. I spent a good amount of the book presuming, hoping, that he’d get his comeuppance at some point…

There was also ways too much politicking, too much overly clever verbal sparring and manipulation for my taste (and yes, the main thrust of the book might well not fully align with my tastes!). Then again, some of the interactions with Greta were loads of fun, exactly for the same reason, so maybe I should not complain too much!
If you enjoy Sterling’s output, and don’t mind politics too much then you won’t regret reading this - despite all my moaning I enjoyed the book, and can recommend it.

More Bruce Sterling

Title: Distraction
Author: Bruce Sterling
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher: Millennium Science Fiction
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 2000
Review Date: 171001
ISBN: 1857989287
Price: USD 6.99
Pages: 489
Format: Paperback
Topic: Science Fiction
Topic: Politics


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