It’s the mid-2040s, and America is in a mess. Environmental and economic collapse has produced a hyper-stratified society, with huge numbers of ‘proles’, people with no jobs and no chance of finding one, now living ‘off the grid’ and on the road. Congress has been replaced by an Emergency Committee, leaving the political landscape as scarred and rubble-strewn as the countryside itself. The armed forces are flat broke, reduced to blocking roads to collect ‘voluntary’ donations from the public. The rest of the world, cut off by raised borders, has left the US to stew in its own juices.
Oscar Valparaiso is a campaign manager for a newly elected member of the Senate. He’s a born political animal – or rather, a cloned one; he has an ’embarrassing personal background issue’, which is the fact that he was a product of a black-market Columbian baby-bank. His genetics are abnormal in the extreme: he runs a constant fever, rarely sleeps more than a few hours a night and has a kind of hyper-focus on matters political. This doesn’t do wonders for his personal life, but it makes him an ideal ‘fixer’.
With the campaign over, his candidate installed and waiting to be sworn in, Oscar is looking for something to get involved in until the next job comes up. When he hears about the Collaboratory, a huge dome-encased state-funded biology lab deep in Texas that’s riddled with corruption, the smell of political opportunity draws him in. However, he soon finds himself in far deeper than he ever expected – and unable to pull back from his high-speed trajectory.
Distraction is not like most science fiction novels. Indeed, one could argue it is more of a political-techno-thriller, but the future vision that Sterling has conjured here is pervasive, and the political content has the overwhelming tang of deep satire. This is more of a commentary about events at the time of writing than a true prolepsis, although the seven years since its publication have already thrown up alarming parallels with real events. The social decay and the environmental changes all have a ring of truth to them, a sense of potentiality.
Written by anyone else, this would probably be a deeply depressing story. In Sterling’s hands, it is an exceptionally humorous one. It must be mentioned that, from a ‘literary’ perspective, Distraction could leave the reader wanting. The characters are avatars, standing for concepts and stereotypes more than representing real people. The pacing comes in fits and starts, driven by large chunks of overview narrative interspersed with drama scenes that are thick with dialogue. But it is the dialogue that delivers most of the frequent chuckles the story provides; Sterling has a great grasp of the marketing double-speak and spin tactics used in the political world. Valparaiso especially, cast as politics incarnate at the same time as the ultimate outsider-looking-in, can’t say anything straight – the simplest statements are spun and canted to sound as positive as possible to his current audience. His catchphrase is “It’s doable”, which can mean anything from ‘we can achieve that in minutes’ to ‘it may involve the death or political ruin of everyone involved, but we have no choice but to give it a go’.
Politics is not the entire focus of the book, however. There is plenty of rumination about how a networked society might evolve in a country suffering from economic collapse, for example. But the other main theme is that of science, and what it means as an industry in the post-modern world. Both the proles and the scientists are cast as outsiders from what the rest of America considers to be ‘society’ – their goals and motivations are unclear, their hierarchies driven by reputation and the exchange of information more than material wealth or conventional power. The story is probably best viewed as an examination of the pros and cons of pure scientific research and its applications, with a generous serving of political snark thrown in. This might be to denigrate the book, however – one can easily believe that a reader with a greater knowledge of the US political system would get far more insight (and probably more laughs) from Distraction. Anyone expecting dark urban-decay cyberpunk will leave disappointed. As it stands, though, this is an enjoyable if slightly surreal trip into a near-future America – a piece of comedic theatre, certainly, but maybe more than a little bit of a prophetic warning, too. From a man like Sterling, whose stock-in-trade is visionary extrapolations into the next fifty years, one should probably expect no less.
Beyond The Beyond; Bruce Sterling’s blog.
Wikipedia; Bruce Sterling