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A Good Old-Fashioned Future
Gollancz Paperback £6.99
review by Duncan Lawie
This short story collection is a good opportunity to catch up with the Bruce Sterling of the late 1990s. Whilst none of these stories is more than eight years old, some of them have dated considerably - they have their roots in the same world as ours, but their timelines have already branched away. A fair enough reason for the title.
The first half of the book is taken up with apparently unconnected tales. 'The Littlest Jackal' has led to Sterling's Y2K novel, Zeitgeist. It's subject is the plight of terrorists in a post-communist world without causes. It is told in a light, distanced style and this approach is present in several other stories also, making it difficult to care much about several of the protagonists. The first story, 'Maneki Neko', is a rather clever piece, describing how a gift economy might work in a world of pervasive technology. It is a well thought out development of the borderless nature of the electronic community. The shortest story in the book - 'Sacred Cow' - posits a reverse colonisation of Britain by India after the decimation of the first world. Sterling gets the damp mood of a British winter down well but the rest feels too far fetched from the perspective of 2001. At the other extreme is 'Big Jelly' (written with Rudy Rucker), which is set in a shiny, happy future California. The protagonist and his big idea both come alive; he may not have the wiles to tackle the money men, but he still gets his man.
The second half of the book is taken up with three loosely linked tales which form a more concerted working out of how late 20th century capitalist society might (d)evolve into the world of early cyberpunk novels. The major missing link is the first of this mini trilogy - 'Deep Eddy' - recounting a weekend in Dusseldorf from the perspective of a Chattanooga data smuggler. As he is caught up in a Wende, his simple courier job becomes a life changing experience. The Wende is a concentrated breakdown of social order - a cup final combined with strikes, demonstrations, marches, fairs etc. Given recent coverage of anti-capitalist demonstrations and the chaos associated with major sporting fixtures, this vision of the near future seems almost too true. 'The Bicycle Repairman' shifts location, being one of only two stories in the book set in North America. It also has a far more human focus, detailing how a genuine community can overcome faceless bureaucracy. At the same time, it attacks the vast machine surrounding the American system of government. The final story is 'Taklamakan', taking both name and setting from the desert location of much of China's nuclear testing. This, again, visits the underbelly of government mechanisms, though from a variant angle. It also includes a clever evocation of Aldiss' Non-Stop, the closest Sterling has come to writing about Space in a long time.
Many of the stories in this collection seem to have their roots in the internet boom of the 1990s, filled with the enthusiasms of a world where ideas and community really matter. Some of the shorter stories form little more than an outline of directions which the author could have chosen, but almost all show a playfulness which is difficult to maintain at greater length. A Good Old-Fashioned Future makes varied, interesting reading and may yet mature as we head further into the times in which it is set.
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