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Bruce Sterling's Distraction

By rusty in News
Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 11:08:22 AM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

Ostensibly, Bruce Sterling's novel, Distraction, is about the political and technological adventures of Oscar Valparaiso, a US Senate campaign manager, circa 2044. Like all good futurist novels, however, deep down, it is really an examination of where we are right now, viewed from the perspective of where current trends are likely to get us in fifty years or so. And a remarkably thorough examination, at that, in both breadth and depth. Sterling digs deep into the present and future ramifications of politics, media, computers (including the potential evolution of online communities like this), biotech, race, and the organization of society, and comes up with a book that manages to simultaneously be a hopeful paean to, and a brutal indictment of, the world they have collectively wrought.

It is characteristic of Distraction that the most coherent statement of the book's main thesis comes from a US Senator-elect who is, at that moment, going insane.
"We're so intelligent now that we're too smart to survive. We're so well-informed that we've lost all sense of meaning. We know the price of everything but we've lost all sense of value. We have everyone under surveillance but we've lost all sense of shame... So you might as well just grab whatever you can."
The plot is, well, too tangled for me to accurately describe here. It involves the successful end of a Senate campaign, a federal laboratory under a glass dome in East Texas, a war with Holland, several geniuses, a group of neurally engineered Haitian refugees who can think two things at the same time, and the governor of Louisiana. But in the tradition of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the plot is really an excuse to explore the social landscape of the future. Mind you, it's a great plot; this book moves right along, and the hooks sink deep and fast. But most interesting to me was the vision of what the world might be like in fifty years.

The communications revolution has come and gone. Everything is networked, and computer networks have become what people keep saying they'll become: omnipresent and invisible, like electricity. The major effect of cheap global digital communications has been that the Chinese gave away the entire stock of Western intellectual property on the internet, which pretty much crashed the US economy.

The government is in a shambles. There's no budget, and all the real power in Washington lies in the "Emergency Committees" who really run things. There's no funding for the military, and whole military bases are left to sink or swim on their own. Sometimes they resort to blockading streets and holding "bake sales" where out-of-state cars are stopped and offered pastries and coffee by heavily armed soldiers, in exchange for "a voluntary donation."

Nearly half the population is out of work, but no one is starving. It's the depression of the future, where food is so cheap that it's basically free, and laptops can be made out of grass. Great roving bands of nomads travel the country, having voluntarily disconnected themselves from the rest of American society. They operate primarily on trust ratings (c.f. Advogato), held and tallied in computers somewhere, and list their primary address as a network node. Everyone has a laptop. Everyone has a mobile phone. Surprisingly few people have permanent houses. Nearly everyone is bored.

The environment is wrecked. So many species have been wiped out that even the clone animals they produce in that Texas lab are basically just toys for the rich, because there's no habitat for them. And pretty much no one cares.

And into this mix, throw Oscar Valparaiso: an experiment in cheap South American baby-manufacturing gone awry. The protagonist of the novel is, in fact, not really human. His DNA shares little resemblance with ours, due to attempts by Columbian cloners to make the process a little "less complicated." Oscar runs a permanent fever, and sleeps barely three hours a night. Oscar is perhaps the exemplar of what someone in this world needs to be to survive. He is a master of hiding in plain sight. It's foolish to try to keep secrets, in a world where surveillance is so cheap and plentiful it's literally easier to spy on someone than not to. So either you fight it, and inevitably lose, or you learn to spin the information that will always come out anyway.

Oscar keeps his secrets simply by spinning them until they aren't recognizable as secrets anymore. He is the end product of Realpolitik, and a most ardent practitioner. It would be very easy to cast Oscar as a shady, two-faced, backroom political operative. Except it wouldn't be true.

Oscar has his principles, and keeps them in the front of his mind at all times, even while making his deals with the devil. While everyone around him burns themselves up making futile stands against irresistable forces, Oscar bides his time and does what he has to do to accomplish his goals. And his goals are not bad ones. He just wants the American dream to mean something again. He wants democracy back, and rule of law. He wants to bring American society up to speed with the times, instead of watching it splinter and break down under the pressure of change. Does he succeed? Well, you'll have to read it for yourself. :-)

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 532 pages
Published by Bantam Books, first hardcover Dec. 1998.
ISBN #: 0-553-57639-9
It can be ordered online at fatbrain.


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Bruce Sterling's Distraction | 15 comments (15 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Sterling's more hit-or-miss than Ne... (none / 0) (#1)
by Demona on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 09:55:20 AM EST

Demona voted 1 on this story.

Sterling's more hit-or-miss than Neal Stephenson, but since Neal just had a partial dud with Cryptonomicon (I'm sure it'll get more interesting as the series progresses :), Sterling's on schedule for another home run (after Idoru?). Heavy Weather wasn't the best "book" book overall, but its component parts were alternately funny, engrossing, and sickly compelling (like the protagonist's lung treatment...sounds like something I needed as a child).

Re: Sterling's more hit-or-miss than Ne... (none / 0) (#4)
by rusty on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 11:29:07 AM EST

You thought Cryptonomicon was a dud? I loved that book. And Idoru was Gibson IIRC.

P.S.: Posting in mozilla. Nightly build is working more or less perefectly. :-)

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Re: Sterling's more hit-or-miss than Ne... (none / 0) (#7)
by Demona on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 11:49:46 AM EST

(Posting in Lynx because I'm too lazy to export the downstairs display wherein Mozilla resides)

Idoru is Gibson. Yes. Yes, you're right. Sorry about that.


Cryptonomicon was alternately snoozing and riveting for me; math has unfortunately always been one of my weakest areas, so a great deal of subtle detail was no doubt lost on me. More importantly, I didn't become emotionally involved with any of the characters as I did with Diamond Age -- except the section from the protagonist's arrest to his release from prison. (rueful, cynical half-smile) I'm not sure what to attribute this to, since I haven't yet found time or patience for a second read through it. But NS has indicated this will be a series of sorts, so I'll see how it looks when more pieces of the puzzle are in place.

[ Parent ]

Y'know, the part about the governme... (none / 0) (#3)
by locutus074 on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 10:26:50 AM EST

locutus074 voted 1 on this story.

Y'know, the part about the government collapsing doesn't sound so bad at all.... ;)
"If you haven't gotten where you're going,
you aren't there yet." --George Carlin

Re: Y'know, the part about the governme... (none / 0) (#11)
by rusty on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 12:44:06 PM EST

Yeah, but the government doesn't go away. It just gets replaced by something more arbitrary, less accountable, and (believe it or not) less efficient. It's a "curing the flu with a bullet" situation. The fix is worse than the problem.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#2)
by analog on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 11:08:22 AM EST

analog voted 1 on this story.

Excellent review. I don't have much time for reading lately (bleah; used to go through several books a month), but I might just pick this one up.

I have to say, though, I'm kind of surprised to see a science fiction writer falling back on the "yellow menace" theme again. I honestly don't think that releasing the whole of Western IP would have that big an effect; the vast majority of it is already available if you know where to look. Now, if someone can find a way for anybody who wants to make free and easy use of it without being thrown in the clink, then we might have something.

I have to say at this point in time that it's far more likely (to me, anyway) that the corporate world will be done in by itself; there will be mergers, buyouts, and crushings until there are only one or two really huge players left. I read a book a while back (can't for the life of me remember what it was) that had that scenario; the one mega-corporation that owned everything was Disney. I look at some of Disney's moves over the last couple of years, and wonder if the author knows something the rest of us don't. ;)

Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#6)
by rusty on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 11:35:51 AM EST

Hm. It didn't come off as a "yellow peril" thing, really, so much as a "It was just a matter of time." And to be fair, if yearbook superlatives were being voted on today, the Chinese would win "most likely to not give a damn about other countries' patent and trademark laws." I think he just went for the country that would be most likely to do such a thing.

And that would be a crushing blow-- this isn't just the windows source code we're talking about. He meant *everything*. The formula for Coke. Detailed plans for all American automobiles. Think of any business, and deep down, it probably relies on a trade secret of one kind or another. Free software's all well and good, but most of our economy still relies on secrets.

Now, that said, I don't think anything like that is likely to happen either. You're probably right: The corporate world will eat itself.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#9)
by analog on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 12:06:22 PM EST

Okay, points taken. Let's just play with this a while, and see where it leads us (I enjoy this sort of 'thought experiment' and can keep them going for hours; fair warning ;).

You mentioned the formula for Coke, which is arguably the most famous trade secret of all. Given the available technology, and how exact a science chemistry can be, is it really feasible that none of Coca-Cola's competitors have reverse engineered that formula? Now, let's say for instance that Pepsi released The Recipe tomorrow. Unless Coca-Cola immediately called a press conference and said "those rat finks; they got us!", I think most people would think "it's not really the formula" and go right on drinking their Coke.

As well, Coca-Cola might also decide to sue Pepsi into the ground, and given the state of the American legal system, I think the fact that Pepsi would be completely within the bounds of the law would probably be irrelevant. On the third hand, Coke vs. Pepsi has a lot of the same hallmarks as Emacs vs. Vi, and I think they could be identical and people would still wage a holy war over which was better. There's a reason all the stock market money is going into companies that establish strong brands almost regardless of their current profit picture.

I don't know how many people here are really old enough to remember New Coke, but while everyone was cognizant of the fact that New Coke bombed and was discontinued, not many people seemed to notice that the recipe for Classic Coke was also changed (it's sweeter now). As far as most are concerned, it's Coke and that's all that matters.

I know this is a really specific example, but I really do think that for the vast majority of IP, you might have different ways of getting there but the end result would be the same. You would have some sound, some fury, and people would continue to go about their business.

Another direction you could take this is to look at it historically; and a good case could be made that opening up all the IP, while it would make fewer ultra rich individuals/corporations, would result in much stronger economies as a whole.

[ Parent ]

Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#10)
by rusty on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 12:41:09 PM EST

Hmm. Did some research. Bruce addresses this question in the slashdot interview. Basically, he needed a reason for the american economy to fall over, and that seemed as good as any. In retrospect, you get the feeling he didn't really think it through all the way, and knows it.

Some more possible defenses of the idea:

  • Consumer confidence. Even though the *real* economic effect may be nil, with enough fanfare, it could rattle investors' enough that the economy would collapse anyway. Perception is just as important as reality, when you're dealing with economic systems that are predicated on trust. I.e. there's no "there" there in our economy; it's smoke and mirrors, and only works as long as we believe in it.
  • Consider if all media were digitally distributed, with some kind of security or copy-protection. Digital media is the only kind of media there is, really, and it's all just files. Then the Chinese release all western media (and software) for free on the net. Since all your media players are already sucking from the netowrk, getting the free stuff is just a matter of saying "Get my feed from here, for free" instead of paying. It's the nightmare situation that the RIAA and MPAA *think* is happening now (but isn't). I think a situation like that really could collapse the American media empire.
I'm not too sure that's a realistic scenario either, but at least it's plausible. Sort of. :-)

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#13)
by analog on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 07:47:36 PM EST

Okay, I like that. There's plenty of precedent for people's fears bringing about the very thing they're afraid of (the archetypal bank run, although I think the system's structured to prevent that specific one from happening now).

Your second point brings up a thought; suppose you could get all your information directly from the originating source, today, raw and uncut (not really practical, but the 'net has brought us a big step closer to it). If you were to compare that to the same information as presented by the standard media outlets, how different do you think they would be? Personal experience tells me they would be at least somewhat different, but I really wonder how much and in what direction; IOW, would there be any definitely discernible bias?

[ Parent ]

Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#14)
by julian on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 09:14:31 PM EST

Well, not to pick on slashdot or anything, but I don't remember them ever
posting a news piece about GNOME (In which I'm somewhat involved, but I hang
out the same places the major developers do, so I know what's up) which has
been 100% factually correct. In fact, their fairly recent post about nautilus
and eazel was absolutely horrid.

If that's anything to go on, I think there would be huge differences between
media re-chewed news and fresh from the source.

And I certainly would like to see the corporate world eat itself... but how
likely is it, really? And how soon?

-- Julian (x-virge)
[ Parent ]
Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#15)
by analog on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 09:58:10 PM EST

And I certainly would like to see the corporate world eat itself... but how likely is it, really? And how soon?

Well, to be honest I think it's inevitable. The kind of power structures they're building now almost always come down hard. I think when is the real question. I wouldn't begin to guess, although I wouldn't think it will be any time soon. Then again, I didn't think the Berlin wall would come down in my lifetime, so don't go by me. ;)

[ Parent ]

Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#8)
by hattig on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 11:56:08 AM EST

That wasn't the Disney-Coke corporation, was it? :-)

If it was, the book was Titan. Good book, although I remain dubious about coupling a decrepid Saturn 5 rocket with a space shuttle and some sellotape and getting to Titan...

Judging the last couple of years, I don't think that it would be Disney - remember Atari have to make a huge comeback pretty soon! I think that whoever controls the content will control the people - imagine if your average television content provider bought companies that made the following: cars, food, animal food, make up, sport, cleansing products and stores. I wonder if the TV station would show adverts for rivals, when it could advertise its own products mercilessly in its shows and advert breaks only (and then sell the shows to other countries and companies for very little money, because the gain in advertising is worth it).

There are quite a few years to go though, and to counter boredom we must all buy old computers :-)

[ Parent ]

Re: Excellent review. I don't have much... (none / 0) (#12)
by analog on Tue Mar 14, 2000 at 07:35:21 PM EST

Honestly, I don't remember, and although I have a copy of Titan I don't know that I've ever gotten around to reading it.

Right now, you've got Disney owning ABC, General Electric owns NBC, and Westinghouse owns CBS. Now you can call me cynical, but I have a hard time believing they don't take advantage of the fact that they own those networks from time to time. I am put in mind of the incident a while back wherein the Infoseek exec was busted for kiddie porn; it was the top story on sites like Yahoo and CNN, but there wasn't any mention of it on the Disney owned news sites...

[ Parent ]

Re: Bruce Sterling's Distraction (none / 0) (#16)
by farlane on Fri Mar 17, 2000 at 07:12:53 AM EST

Great book.

<U>Islands in the Net</U> by Sterling was the second cyberpunk genre book I read and is still one of the best. I just finished <U>Distraction</U> and it's as good as Islands. His extrapolation of our culture's two most powerful engines, media & technology, produces a wierdly plausible future. To anyone who plans on making the trip futureward, I would highly recommend this book as a survival manual.

PS: Thanks Rusty for the quick support!
farlane aka andrew l. mcfarlane
Bruce Sterling's Distraction | 15 comments (15 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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