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Bruce Sterling

Author of The Difference Engine

123+ Works 19,592 Members 337 Reviews 71 Favorited

About the Author

Bruce Sterling is a recent winner of the Nebula Award and the author of the nonfiction book "The Hacker Crackdown" as well as novels and short story collections. He co-authored, with William Gibson, the critically acclaimed novel "The Difference Engine." He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and show more daughter. (Publisher Provided) show less
Image credit: Photographed at BookPeople in Austin, Texas by Frank Arnold

Series

Works by Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine (1990) 5,931 copies
Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986) — Editor; Preface; Contributor — 1,621 copies
Islands in the Net (1988) 1,477 copies
Heavy Weather (1994) 1,198 copies
Holy Fire (1996) 1,095 copies
Distraction (1998) 1,075 copies
Schismatrix Plus (1982) 1,039 copies
Globalhead (1992) 746 copies
Crystal Express (1989) 621 copies
Schismatrix (1985) 609 copies
Zeitgeist (2000) 584 copies
A Good Old-Fashioned Future (1999) 560 copies
The Artificial Kid (1980) 532 copies
The Zenith Angle (2004) 513 copies
The Caryatids (2009) 352 copies
Involution Ocean (1977) 344 copies
Pirate Utopia (2016) — Author — 184 copies
Black Swan (0221) 56 copies
Gothic High-Tech (2011) 48 copies
Kiosk (2008) 24 copies
Swarm (novelette) (1982) 14 copies
Red Star, Winter Orbit (1995) 13 copies
Good Night, Moon (2010) 12 copies
Dori Bangs [short fiction] (1989) 12 copies
The Parthenopean Scalpel (2010) 10 copies
Parco giochi con pena di morte (2001) — Author — 10 copies
The Blemmye's Strategem (2005) 9 copies
Taklamakan (2001) 9 copies
Les mailles du réseau 1 (1990) 8 copies
Sunken Gardens (1984) 8 copies
Les mailles du réseau 2 (1990) 8 copies
Cicada Queen (1983) 8 copies
The Denial 7 copies
Totem Poles (2016) 6 copies
In Paradise 5 copies
CAZA DE HACKERS, LA (2017) 5 copies
Twenty Evocations (1984) 4 copies
Spider Rose (short story) (1982) 4 copies
The Lustration 4 copies
The Peak of Eternal Light (2012) 3 copies
White Fungus 3 copies
Ivory Tower 3 copies
Uvejr (1996) 3 copies
Hormiga Canyon [short fiction] — Author — 2 copies
Esoteric City 2 copies
Spook 2 copies
Hollywood Kremlin (1998) 2 copies
Deep Eddy 2 copies
My Rihla 1 copy
Tall Tower 1 copy
Telliamed 1 copy
Loco 1 copy

Associated Works

Neuromancer (1984) — Afterword, some editions — 23,123 copies
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1870) — Introduction, some editions — 18,511 copies
We (1921) — Foreword, some editions — 8,496 copies
Burning Chrome (1986) — Preface, some editions — 5,599 copies
The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century (2001) — Contributor — 568 copies
The Science Fiction Century (1997) — Contributor — 536 copies
Cthulhu 2000 (1995) — Contributor — 468 copies
The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories (1992) — Contributor — 446 copies
The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) — Contributor — 424 copies
The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (1994) — Contributor — 395 copies
Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology (2007) — Contributor — 388 copies
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Eighth Annual Collection (1991) — Contributor — 378 copies
The Hard SF Renaissance (2003) — Contributor — 347 copies
Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006) — Contributor — 310 copies
The Book of Cthulhu (2011) — Contributor — 304 copies
Happily Ever After (2011) — Contributor — 300 copies
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection (1990) — Contributor — 282 copies
Year's Best SF 4 (1999) — Contributor — 264 copies
Year's Best SF 2 (1997) — Contributor — 264 copies
Year's Best SF 8 (2003) — Contributor — 259 copies
Semiotext(e) SF (1989) — Contributor — 248 copies
Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014) — Contributor — 243 copies
Year's Best SF 11 (2006) — Contributor — 236 copies
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection (1986) — Contributor — 229 copies
Edge of Infinity (2012) — Contributor — 225 copies
Patterns (1982) — Introduction, some editions — 213 copies
Modern Classics of Fantasy (1939) — Contributor — 209 copies
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection (1987) — Contributor — 202 copies
Modern Classics of Science Fiction (1991) — Contributor — 202 copies
Year's Best SF 15 (2010) — Contributor — 201 copies
The 1983 Annual World's Best SF (1983) — Contributor — 199 copies
Year's Best SF 13 (2008) — Contributor — 192 copies
Tales of Old Earth (2000) — Foreword — 189 copies
Future on Fire (1991) — Contributor — 188 copies
Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse (2013) — Contributor — 187 copies
The Future is Japanese (2012) — Contributor — 168 copies
Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution (2012) — Contributor — 153 copies
The Ultimate Cyberpunk (2002) — Contributor — 151 copies
Eclipse 1: New Science Fiction and Fantasy (2007) — Contributor — 150 copies
A Science Fiction Omnibus (1973) — Contributor — 149 copies
Lightspeed: Year One (2011) — Contributor — 139 copies
The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010) — Contributor — 134 copies
The Year's Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection (1984) — Contributor — 132 copies
Year's Best SF 17 (2012) — Contributor — 129 copies
Alien Contact [ebook] (2011) — Contributor; Contributor — 129 copies
Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present (2003) — Contributor — 121 copies
Hackers (1984) — Contributor — 116 copies
The Good New Stuff: Adventure in SF in the Grand Tradition (1999) — Contributor — 114 copies
Universe 1 (1990) — Contributor — 114 copies
Futures from Nature (2007) — Contributor — 113 copies
The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New SF (2008) — Contributor — 104 copies
Cyberpunk handbook : the real cyberpunk fakebook (1995) — Foreword — 103 copies
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Second Annual Collection (1985) — Contributor — 101 copies
Year's Best SF 18 (2013) — Contributor — 94 copies
The Nebula Awards Eighteen (1983) — Contributor — 89 copies
After the End: Recent Apocalypses (2013) — Contributor; Contributor — 88 copies
The Best Science Fiction of the Year #12 (1983) — Contributor — 88 copies
Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future (2002) — Contributor — 87 copies
Meeting Infinity (2015) — Contributor — 82 copies
Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 (2005) — Contributor — 82 copies
Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations (2003) — Author — 78 copies
Year's Best Fantasy 6 (2006) — Contributor — 71 copies
Isaac Asimov's Utopias (2000) — Contributor — 69 copies
Nebula Awards 23 (1989) — Contributor — 67 copies
After Yesterday's Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology (1995) — Contributor — 66 copies
Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology (1995) — Contributor — 65 copies
When the Music's Over (1991) — Contributor — 63 copies
Worldmakers: SF Adventures in Terraforming (2001) — Contributor — 63 copies
Interzone: The 2nd Anthology (1987) — Contributor — 62 copies
Collected Stories (2009) — Contributor — 61 copies
Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 (2011) — Contributor — 55 copies
Futures Past (Flights) (2006) — Contributor — 53 copies
Under African Skies (1993) — Contributor — 52 copies
The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 14 (1988) — Contributor — 50 copies
The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 12 (1986) — Contributor — 49 copies
The Third Omni Book of Science Fiction (1985) — Contributor — 49 copies
Genometry (2001) — Contributor — 47 copies
Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction & Fantasy (2012) — Contributor — 39 copies
The Seventh Omni Book of Science Fiction (1989) — Contributor — 38 copies
Universe 13 (1983) — Contributor — 37 copies
Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World (2017) — Contributor — 35 copies
Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2008 Edition (2008) — Contributor — 34 copies
Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction (2011) — Contributor — 32 copies
The Orbit Science Fiction Yearbook: No. 3 (1990) — Contributor — 32 copies
The Big Book of Cyberpunk (2023) — Contributor — 28 copies
Drabble II: Double Century (1990) — Contributor — 25 copies
We, Robots (2010) — Contributor — 23 copies
Rayguns Over Texas (2013) — Introduction, some editions — 22 copies
Reading Science Fiction (2008) — Contributor — 18 copies
Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins (2012) — Contributor — 15 copies
Polder: A Festschrift for John Clute and Judith Clute (2006) — Contributor — 13 copies
Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 11 • April 2011 (2011) — Contributor — 12 copies
The Unquiet Dreamer: A Tribute to Harlan Ellison (2019) — Contributor — 12 copies
Pwning Tomorrow (2015) — Contributor — 12 copies
Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, No. 6 [June 2009] (1909) — Contributor — 12 copies
Love, Death + Robots: The Official Anthology, Volume 2+3 (2022) — Contributor — 11 copies
Ikarus 2002 (2002) — Contributor — 8 copies
Ikarus 2001. Best of Science Fiction. (2001) — Contributor — 7 copies
Arc 1.4: Forever alone drone (2012) — Contributor — 7 copies
Subterranean Magazine Winter 2014 — Contributor — 6 copies
Into The Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction (2017) — Contributor — 5 copies
The New Ecology of Things (2007) — Contributor — 4 copies
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazin 36. Folge (1992) — Contributor — 4 copies
Lot : det bedste fra Fantasy & science fiction (1988) — Author, some editions — 3 copies
Supernovæ (1993) — Contributor — 2 copies
Science Fiction Eye #12, Summer 1993 (1993) — Contributor — 2 copies
Science Fiction Eye #10, June 1992 — Contributor — 1 copy
Science Fiction Eye #07, August 1990 — Contributor — 1 copy
Science Fiction Eye #08, Winter 1991 — Contributor — 1 copy

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Reviews

It seems that no one much seems to care about this novel anymore. It may evoke the “spirit of an age” or, with a moral literal translation of the German, be a “time ghost”, but either way no one much seems to care about it anymore. In my quick perusal of the Web of a Million Lies, I find not much in the way of reviews since 2018.

That’s understandable. This is not only a goodbye to international trickster Leggy Startlitz, smuggler and entrepreneur of questionable goods and services, but, as the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s “Bruce Sterling” entry says “a mocking homage to the forever-disappeared twentieth century”.

With guest cameo references to George Soros, Osama Bin Laden, and Slobodan Milošević, this isn’t even a science fiction novel though it has interludes of magical realism. It’s a vivid and often funny look at the gaps in the global order’s wainscoting that a man like Starlitz thrives in, or, as he puts it, the places where the global order is fraying and he shapes a counternarrative. And the world it describes is one I mostly remember: Russia and the other former countries of the USSR coping with economic and often demographic devastation, Turkey trying to become the leader of the Islamic countries of central Asia, its more secular Islam a counterpoint to Iran, and the bombing of Kosovo in 1999. I didn’t remembered the self-immolation of Kurds to embarrass their old enemy Turkey.

Y2K is a major concern of Starlitz all throughout out this book, and it wasn’t published until October 2000. This is not a book about millennial anxiety that wasn’t published timely like James Gunn’s The Millennium Blues nor was it blindsided by events like Norman Spinrad’s Russian Spring. It starts toward the end of the millennium and in Istanbul. Leggy Starlitz, as part of a bet with genius music producer Makoto — essentially that they can make money out of a girl band – the G-7 – that has interchangeable members and whose music is crap.

Starlitz teams up with a rich Turk, Ozbey, to take the G-7 on a tour of Islamic countries including some that were formerly in the USSR. But, eventually, Starlitz finds out that Ozbey is tied up with the Turkish Deep State that is going to use the band to culturally destabilize those countries and make them more secular and less fundamentalist Islamic countries like Turkey. Not only will Turkey be sort of a leader of a new Caliphate, but Ozby will make some money heroin smuggling too.

Starlitz doesn’t want any of the girls dying before Y2K which is the absolute shutdown of the whole project. When he finds out what Ozbey is up to, Starlitz leaves the group, has some odd experiences in Mexico and America and Hawaii, and returns to confront Ozbey in Turkish Cyprus.

Characters from all the previous Starlitz adventures show up: Khoklov and Tamara (now residing in Hollywood) from “Hollywood Kremlin”, Vanna and ex federal prosecutor Jane O’Houlihan and Leggy’s daugther Zeta from “Are You for 86?”, and, maybe, characters from the “The Littlest Jackal” (no, my blogger due diligence didn’t cover re-reading that story).

The fantastical content enters in the weird interlude when Starlitz and Zeta leave Cyprus for Mexico. There he tosses their passports and ID papers and money. They slip across the border and end up squatting in some abandoned buildings in New Mexico.

It’s all part of a weird ritual to bring Starlitz’s father into existence, so Zeta can meet him before he vanishes for good at the end of the century. Starlitz’s father has a strange, obscure past, but the relevant point is that, when trying to steal some valuable metal around America’s first atomic bomb, he was in the device when it was detonated turning him into a sort of ghost haunting the twentieth century whose central narrative event was that first detonation. He can be evoked by use of old objects and music and dance. And, since the century is coming to an end, Starlitz’s father won’t be showing up again.

There is plenty of humor in the book and bizarre characters and a surprising number of bodies that need disposing of.

Upon finishing it about three weeks ago, it seemed fresh and delightful.

But thinking about it gradually generated annoyance. And that comes from Sterling’s seemingly sincere buy-in of post-modern notions of reality merely being a narrative. As Starlitz tells Zeta, when expressing his respect for French semioticians and structuralists and post-structuralists. It’s impossible to escape the world of language, that “social discourses” creates our reality. Granted, as he tells Zeta, there is a physical reality but then he goes to talk about how only French deconstructionists understood reality and it did them no good. Starlitz sees himself as existing in the places where the master narratives of the world are fraying and coming up against new, counter narratives.

This motif of politics and society as a narrative shows up elsewhere. Ozbey, when he confronts Starlitz towards novels’ end, says his destiny, his narrative, won’t allow him to be killed. Likewise, he has decided not to kill Starlitz since that seems an incongruous part of Starlitz’s narrative. It will be better if Leggy just disappears on New Year’s Day. The whole G-7 affair is an attempt to impose a narrative on Islamic countries.

Turkey is astounded that NATO has let it bomb Christian Serbia. Tim from ECHELON seems to be trying to impose some order, part of the US government’s new concern with international terrorism and the drug traffic. If Sterling was using this version of “narrative” as just a metaphor for making plans or using propaganda or lies we tell ourselves and others, that would be one thing. But the story seems to embrace the idea that things like rock bands can shape reality. “Controlling the narrative” and its variant phrases may have been the stated goal of many a would be politician and bureaucrat throughout the world, but it turns out that mere narratives don’t determine the amount of munitions someone can produce or even the desire to use them.

At novel’s end, Zeta tells her father’s he’s bad,

"totally provisional and completely without morality. You can personify the trends of your day, but you never get ahead of those trends. You never make the world any better."

People aren’t happy to him show up. However, when she grows up (she’s only 11), people are going to be happy to see her since she’ll make sure they get fed, watered, and bathed. (Zeta has been exposed to much squalor and poverty in the trip with her dad in Mexico, and he makes sure to tell that this is how most of the world lives. Her education is complete when she helps her dad bury some bodies in Cyprus.) The twentieth century’s problems, she says, are “crude and lousy”. The new century will have “serious, sophisticated problems”

Nor is she going to emulate her lesbian parents and their friends: “lame hippie crap” and petty criminals high on drugs.

The book seems to imply that hope of the world is NGOs or even a blatantly corrupt UN as Khoklov’s nephew thinks. Perhaps, Sterling foresaw the possibility of a do-good grifter like Chelsea Clinton or a Greta Thunberg. However, you can’t be absolutely sure with Sterling. Starlitz’s new idea, at novel’s end, is helping people with bad consciences spend their money. It sounds a lot like many a NGO scam today with a hardy skimoff for the people managing the NGO. Perhaps Sterling is once again ironically undercutting his seeming moral point.

Of course, few trend lines of the novel continued. Or, shall we say, those narratives couldn’t be imposed on reality. Russia revived. Turkey did not dominate Central Asian Moslems as it hoped. Turns out bombing Serbian Christians didn’t make Moslems any less tractable in their dealings with Europe, and Osama bin Laden introduced a new phase in the (failed) War on Terror. Still, it was an enjoyable book and is genuinely full of humor.
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Bruce Sterling’s second collection is very much of its time. The stories range in publication date from 1985 to 1992 and frequently deal with topics of the time: nuclear war and arms negotiation, the decaying Soviet Union, an Islam resurgent after the Iranian Revolution, and even Somalia warlords. In his prime, no other science fiction writer was as keyed into the strangeness of the world, especially outside of America and thought about the present and near future permutations of how technology, politics, and popular culture mix.

These stories, sometimes written with collaborators, take us back to a mostly vanished world, and are visions made obsolete by technology and political developments. But that’s the price you pay for using a journalist eye to describe the weird now and even weirder near future. As Sterling himself has remarked, his pure fantasy works are the ones most likely to endure, not his science fiction. And some of those fantasies are here along with one story that may have no fantastic elements at all. And, since Sterling seems to love his literary theories, there’s a fair amount of literary experimentation here, mostly successful.

And there’s almost always fun. Sterling is usually a funny writer. A mentally impoverished science fiction reader might not get past the staleness of intricately imagined futures that we already know will never be, but I have no problem with them.

“Our Neural Chernobyl” (1988) is one of those things I like, a presentation of the future told not through a conventional story but through a future history, news story, or piece of art criticism. Here’s it’s a review of Dr. Hotton’s eponymous book from 2056. Hotton takes up back to the days before scientists were main stream celebrities and were white-coated sociopaths with chips on their shoulders and not much in the way of social support. We hear how one such scientist, Bugs Berenbaum, employed by an illicit narcotics manufacturer, embarked on a genetic engineering project to get the human body itself to produce various street drugs. And, while he’s at it, why not make it an infectious modificationed. But his attentions soon turn to increasing the number of dendrites in the human brain.

He succeeds. Granted, he and the other suddenly appearing geniuses of the world go poetically mad and off themselves, but his work lives on in a plague that has mentally modified various animal species. America’s ranchers now have to contend with shakedowns by coyote packs. Raccoons have made parts of the country into no-go zones, and cats . . . Well, the reviewer argues with Hotton’s contention that cats have developed a new intelligence. One gets the impression, from Hotton’s description of the current situation, that perhaps the age of the sociopathic scientist is not over.

“Storming the Cosmos” (1985), written with Rudy Rucker, is a genuinely laugh out loud story, a secret/alternate history which gives us the real reason that the Soviets, initially ahead of America in the Space Race, lost. Set in 1957, it gives us mysticism, the Tunguska Event, the theory of Kazantsev (a real Soviet sf writer and ufologist) that Tunguska was the result of a crashed spaceship, and the role of the stukach (informer) in Soviet society. Our narrator, Nikita Iosifoch Globov, is such an informer,. He became one when he failed his test to be a metallurgist and ended up being assigned to a unit of real metallurgists involved in the Soviet space program. After informing on one Vlad Zipkin, Nikita draws the ire of Vlad’s boss and would-be lover Colonel Nina Bogulyubova. After Vlad gets out of treatment for his “antisocial tendencies”, the Colonel – who outranks Nikita in the KGB pecking order – orders Nikita to keep on Vlad since the Soviet space program needs his brilliance. Soon, Nikita finds himself and Vlad on an expedition to Tunguska to get that alien spaceship engine. It’s staffed almost entirely with informers because the real scientists don’t want them interfering with their work.

Weirdness will ensue in Siberia, and Lakia, the famous cosmonaut dog, will put in an appearance.

“The Compassionate, the Digital” (1985) is not, however, fun. It is, even though only eight pages long, remarkably tedious and a complete waste of space. I suppose it’s something of a joke story with the joke being that the world’s first true artificial intellience is created in the purported backwater of the Union of Islamic Republics in 2113. The story is the press announcement of the event.

Sterling didn’t invent the term “slipstream”, defined as a “category of non-genre fantasy books”, but midwifed through an interview with Richard Dorsett. “Jim and Irene” (1991) is such a story, and I liked it a lot. Jim is a wandering figure, an ex-Vietnam vet who repaired helicopters, who likes his gadgets and lives by robbing payphones. Irene is a Russian emigre who came to America with her Jewish physicist husband who is now dead. They encounter each other, by chance, in a Los Alamos laundromat. Their clothes are stolen, and the two pursue the robbers with Irene unexpectedly taking some shots at them with a .357 Magnum revolver. Fearing the cops will show up, Jim takes Irene out of town and a strange relationship ensues. Both are loners. Both are distrustful of their native countires, best epitomized in their discussion over SDI. Both sense, in their own way, that the days of centralized control in their countries is slipping away.

Irene rather likes meeting an American “gangster” even though she constantly thinks Jim is out to sleep with her and probably has AIDS, and Jim is glad for the change of pace. There will be high strangeness on their road trip before the ending in which the two have an epiphany about human connections and their place in the world.

Sterling seems to have an interest in literary theory and “The Sword of Damocles” (1990) is an amusing and clever story. Ostensibly, it’s about a writer (suspiciously like Sterling) who wants to tell us the classic story of the Sword of Damocles. Supposedly, he hates post-modernism but goes on to give us a very postmodern story with ironic undercuttings of his stated effort to tell a straight story. There’s even a guest appearance by Tim Powers and his wife Serena. At the end, Sterling ties the whole thing up with an observation about why we all live with a Sword of Damocles over our heads.

I suppose you could call “The Gulf Wars” (1988) either an historical fantasy or a slipstream tale. Sterling plays a clever trick by opening the story with two combat engineers, Halli and Bel-Heshti, in camp in the Middle East where they’re fighting on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War. Then the scene smoothly changes to another pair of men, identically named, who are pioneers in the Assyrian army of Ashurbanipal which is besieging a city of Elamites. They are not the best of soldiers given they are illegally making beer in their tent. However, it’s their big day. Ashur is pleased that they were the ones who beheaded a noted rebel leader. As a reward, they are to be given Names. But, warns the priestly Baru from Ninevah, they are in magical peril before the ceremony is completed. And then the firebrand priest launches a human wave attack on the city at noon. This seems to be Sterling’s rumination on the timelessness of religious strife in this part of the world.

The “Shores of Bohemia” (1990) anticipates some of the themes of Sterling’s later Holy Fire in that it involves a world that is, it turns out, secretly run by a high-tech society, an “oppressive gerontocracy”. The city of Paysage turns out to be something like a small reservation of the 19th century in a world of genetic engineering and massive projects. Its inhabitants are quite long-lived and maintained by nanobots. Their sort of secular cathedral, the Enantiodrome, that the city has been working on is nearing completion. But its head architect, Rodolphe, is plagued by strange building materials showing up and the stranger return of Charles, his one-time friend and the old chief architect. But Charles left for the Conventions, the post-human society that really runs the world. And the Conventions aren’t going to leave Paysage alone in living their human centered lives. Perhaps the city serves some purpose for the high-tech Conventions.

It’s an interesting story but not one of the better ones in the book.

There aren’t actually any Somalia warlords in this book, but, in “The Moral Bullet” (1991 and co-written with John Kessel), America has turned into Somalia. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the warring groups have names like the Chamber of Commerce, the Library Defense League, the Brown Berets, the Raleigh Police Department, the Christian Faith Militia, Bellevue Terrace Watch Community, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Robeson County.

Things are like this all over the country though there are now 95 million fewer Americans. What brought this state of affairs on? In a tradition going back to at least Edmond Haracourt’s “Doctor Augérand’s Discovery”, cheap immortality brought chaos. Here it ws the invention by Dr. Havercamp of Free Radical Endocrine Enhancer – FREE. No one trusted the government not to be corrupt and favor the wealthy and connected in distributing FREE fairly. When there’s a possibility the elite will steal your future life, you have to make your own connections. Civil trust and institutions collapsed. FREE became a currency.

Now the helicopters of Swiss peacekeepers fly overhead dropping leaflets looking for Dr. Havercamp. We follow an ostensible teenager (but then, with FREE, everyone looks younger than their true age), Sniffy, as he prowls Raleigh. We never are actually told Sniffy is Havercamp, but we get clues. And, when he hears a Swiss peacekeeper say that Havercamp is going to get the “moral bullet” when they find him, Sniffy is not about to turn himself over. While Kessel and Sterling reveal what the moral bullet is, the question of its desirability and morality is somewhat unresolved at the end, an ending which has the sociopathic Sniffy acting quite in character. The story probably would have been better at a longer length, but it’s still memorable.

Sterling puts in a strong and quite memorable entry into the Cthulhu Mythos with “The Unthinkable” (1991). In Geneva, a Soviet and American arms negotiator meet, old acquaintances over several decades of talk. But, as the conversation goes on, we learn this world has moved far beyond mere nuclear weapons. The two countries have weaponized the entities of the Mythos. The American negotiator is calling it quits to spend time with his new wife and child. But can you really escape the taint of such a life? It’s Lovecraftian horror as a metaphor for nuclear weapons.

“We See Things Differently” (1989) might be termed an exercise in what diplomats call “strategic empathy”, understanding why our foes look at the world the way they do. Its narrator is a journalist from the newly formed Arab Caliphate that defeated Iran, The USSR collapsed when Afghan rebels took out Moscow with a smuggled nuke, and America is on the ropes. It has deindustrialized, and, like a colony, mostly exports raw materials now. The exception is still its pop culture with a global market. Americans resent that the world they so generously aided is now exploiting it.

The journalist has come to America to interview Tom Boston, holder of a doctorate in political science and one-time unsuccessful candidate for public office. Now he leads a populist movement through his rock band. Its logo is the 13 Stars, its songs about the Founding Fathers and American Revolution, and its concerts promote voter registration. To the journalist, America is a land of lewd women, no sense of history, and ignorance about the outside world. But, in the fiery Boston, he sees an ascetic visionary that reminds him of Khomeni, a force that could revitalize America. It’s not exactly a surprise that the journalist isn’t what he seems.

We’ve come across the “hero” of “Hollywood Kremlin” (1990) before though later in its career. It’s Leggy Starlitz who we saw hanging around Finland in “The Littlest Jackal”. Starlitz is Sterling’s global gadabout, a scammer and smuggler. This story finds him in Azerbaijan at some unspecified time during the last days of the Soviet Union. Leggy is running a smuggling operation with a Russian military pilot stationed in Afghanistan. But, when they find out the locals have purloined the gas needed for the pilot’s return, a plot ensues that will take us through Communist Party corruption, the black market, and ethnic tensions between Moslems and Christian Armenians. Leggy is given to occasional larcenous obsession with objects, and here it’s the locally modified Levi jacket of the beautiful wife of the local Party head. (She runs the local black market to provide him with plausible deniability.)

While it was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, it may be neither. On the other hand, maybe it’s an alternate history. While the USSR did leave Afghanistan in 1988, the story gives no date. I certainly don’t know much about Azerbaijan at the time except the mentions of KGB-led anti-corruption and anti-alcohol campaigns in The World Was Going Our Way.

I do know the story was a lot of fun.

Leggy is back in “Are You for 86” (1992). Here he finds himself helping some pagan feminists to smuggle the RU-486 abortion drug throughout America. Maybe, if he’s helpful, the two lesbian phone phreak feminist in tow, will let him see the daughter he begot on one. Sterling once, in some review of his I read, said that liberals and progressives shouldn’t be smug about their supposed technological sophistication compared to their political opponents. This story takes up that idea as Leggy and the women find themselves tangling with a sophisticated group of anti-abortion advocates. Here, Leggy casts his larcenous eye on a famous car in the Utah State Capitol grounds,

And we do get a bit of fantastic content when Leggy claims he can’t be filmed. And events back that up.

I was not looking forward to reading “Dori Bangs” (1992). It involves the famous rock critic Lester Bangs. I regard music criticism as a pointless literary exercise which has to fall back, unless it’s very technical, on colorful and inaccurate metaphors and variations of “sounds like”. I’ve certainly never read any Bangs and and a person I know, who is into rock journalism, regards Bangs as a colorful writer who really didn’t have much of value to say about music.

But I ended up liking this story. It’s a flat out, self-conscious piece that doesn’t even try to suspend our disbelief in the usual way. It is “a paper dream to cover the holes they left”. Those holes are not only the death of Bangs in 1982 but the death of underground cartoonist Doris Sedia in 1986.

This story is their future fantasy life together. Like their fellow Baby Boomers, they dropped out of the counter culture, made some money, and sort of become respectable here. They may not be happy together, but they do help each other

And, lest you thought in “We See Things Differently”, Sterling was exhibiting the Baby Boomer belief that rock music can change the world, a notion that shows up in strongly in Norman Spinrad works and John Shirely’s A Song Called Youth trilogy, that ain’t so here.

Doris has a realization that

"Art can’t Change the World. Art can’t even heal your soul. All it can do is maybe ease the pain a bit or make you feel more awake."

Some would say that’s cynical. I say it’s just Sterling characteristically avoiding platitudes.

And I say Globalhead is still very much worth reading more than 30 years later.
… (more)
 
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RandyStafford | 7 other reviews | Mar 15, 2024 |

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