Book Review: ‘Visionary in Residence’ by Bruce Sterling

Sterling's 'Visionary in Residence'

‘Visionary in Residence’ by Bruce Sterling (UK PBK 1560258411, Thunder’s Mouth Press, March 2006)

Bruce Sterling wears a great number of hats: blogger, futurist, design visionary, eco-advocate and keen photographer of manholes. The science fiction community can lay some claim to having ‘discovered’ him first – as an active member and proponent of the cyberpunk movement he edited anthologies as well as writing his own books and stories. And he still does, when his packed schedule permits it. Visionary in Residence collects some of the more recent short works that he has published in a wide range of markets.

As might be expected from a man with his finger in so many cultural and technological pies, Sterling’s stories are very much fictions of ideas. He examines the consequences of a mobile phone with a built-in real-time translation function (‘In Paradise’), of viable enterprise-level biotech (‘Junk DNA’, with Rudy Rucker), and organic architecture (‘The Growthing’). There are futurist retrospectives originally published in science magazines (‘Human Race Declared Extinct’, ‘Message Found in a Bottle’), a piece of ‘mainstream’ fiction (‘Code’, a story whose mainstream credentials are only a function of historical perspective), and a few historically-based fantasies (‘The Blemmye’s Stratagem’, ‘The Denial’). ‘The Scab’s Progress’, in collaboration with Paul Di Filippo, is an example of the genre that Sterling claims should (and will) replace cyberpunk – ‘ribofunk’, a sub-genre which is to biotech as cyberpunk is to ubiquitous computing.

So, there’s some fairly heavy subject matter scattered through the selection. However, the seriousness of the themes and topics is balanced by Sterling’s playful and iconoclastic writing style. His characters are obviously avatars and hence can seem somewhat cartoonish, and his speculations are biased more for humour than plausibility, which may well be somewhat off-putting for a reader who demands high literary values from their science fiction.

Despite Sterling’s Texan roots, there’s a very Californian feel to his stories – a light-hearted smash-and-grab approach to narrative that gives his work the atmosphere of parables or fables, with metaphor and allegory playing lead roles. This could well be a result of the very varied markets he sells to, as well as the panoply of disciplines that inspire and inform his tales. He seems utterly unconcerned with bowing to science fictional traditions of style. The ribofunk stories in particular, while both collaborations, demonstrate this approach perfectly – humorous on the surface, almost to the point of slapstick animation or sit-com, but concealing serious speculation at the core. The lens of the stories is focussed carefully to distract the reader – while you’re busy watching the characters, Sterling is rebuilding the world around them with subtle sleight-of-hand.

Visionary in Residence, if considered on the variety of themes and tropes it contains, could almost be an anthology of work by many authors. This diverse spread is held together by Sterling’s unique style, an almost child-like glee in taking an idea and running with it, regardless of the consequences. Visionary… may not be the high-brow futurist tome that its title suggests, and might well be a disappointment to those coming to it expecting a cluster of dark and gritty techno-dystopias. But it is recommended for the reader who enjoys being fed new ideas without being bludgeoned to death with them, and may perhaps be the ideal book to lend to the sort of person who loves science and fiction, but who dreads the thought of the two combined.

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