Smarter, funnier, and more “meta” than the overhyped David Foster Wallace novel, Infinite Jest, Bruce Sterling’s Distraction doesn’t suffer the genre-inferiority complex Wallace labored under when he and his publishers used the marketing term metafiction for what was clearly a routine bit of science fictional extrapolation. Sterling is proud to work within the literary genre that dare not speak its name. While SF writers like William Gibson, Orson Scott Card, and Octavia Butler have made their reputations on trilogies or serial novels that stay inside the same imagined universe, Sterling has always preferred to invent new settings and new protagonists for each successive book. Yet Distraction is the third Sterling book in a row to share a carefully calculated sensibility— an attitudinal link that may even constitute a new definition of the term trilogy.
You can sum up this unifying attitude in one sentence: “Abandon all pretense to normalcy because what is considered normal today will be non-sustainable infrastructure tomorrow.” This is a purposeful departure from Sterling’s stance as the gadfly-potentate of the cyberpunk movement. Indeed, he’s kept only two of the central conceits of the ’80s cyberpunk lexicon: the idea of the outlaw/outcast as hero, and the notion that scientific breakthroughs in every discipline are jump-starting a process of posthuman evolution. To make these concepts palatable to a broader audience, Sterling draws comforting parallels to familiar people and events. But make no mistake, his vision is nothing less than a complete slash-and-burn of the biological as well as the social status quo. For years Sterling has been telegraphing these central preoccupations in his work— reporting on the chaos of postcommunist Russia, compiling an encyclopedia of “dead media,” and investigating the computer underground.
Bruce Sterling writes novels that help his readership tread the choppy waters of future shock. Although he may describe Heavy Weather as “the eco-disaster novel,” Holy Fire as “the art novel,” and this year’s Distraction as “the political novel,” each book is really about the same thing: how to cope with the way our world is changing. Sterling feels it’s only prudent to illustrate the drawbacks of seemingly positive innovations, and the resultant ethical conflicts really help move his plots along. But in that strategy he is no different from a long line of literary predecessors who were equally skeptical of social progress. Dark literary prophecies like 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, and The Time Machine described the implausibility of utopia when left to mere mortals, who are incapable of perfection. What Sterling adds to this formula is an even blacker sense of humor about humanity’s tendency to shoot itself in the foot.
In Distraction, Oscar Valparaiso, the central protagonist, is an optimist and a charismatic motivator. He is also— as a prenatal victim of unfortunate gene-splicing experiments— not altogether biologically human. He has chosen to work as campaign manager for an architect-ideologue (oddly reminiscent of rad-pop designer Philippe Starck) who wants to be senator of Massachusetts. Oscar lives in a United States whose political system is so bogged down in partisan bullshit and bureaucratic constipation that federal authority is virtually nonexistent. Bizarre barter economies and private systems of patronage have replaced traditional wage slavery as the way most things get done. Biotech and information warfare are dangerously unregulated. Huge tribes of homeless nomads roam the nation. The technomilitary-industrial complex is falling to pieces because there is no longer enough federal money available to support it. Oscar’s life becomes a picaresque struggle to convince an unlikely alliance of disparate special-interest groups to help him fight this creeping entropy and make American government viable again. Ultimately, there is an important political role for all kinds of typically apolitical types in this book. The underlying message is that politics is no longer something for “the other guy” to do. That’s because the other guy has done a very bad job, and now someone’s gotta fix it.
What prevents this story from turning into a long tiresome civics lesson is its embrace of operational anarchy as a necessary step on the road to reform. There is nothing orthodox or predictable about the way Oscar works or the world he operates in. He recruits a guerrilla army of teenage girls and grannies to stage a minor paramilitary coup. He turns a high-tech federal research lab into an ad hoc homeless shelter cum revolutionary encampment. And like many a political hack, he makes snap decisions about earth-shaking developments in nanotechnology and genetic engineering that he barely understands. But to his credit, Oscar Valparaiso understands how people tick. He sees human nature the way only an unwilling outsider can see it, with compassionate lucidity. We never actually find out what kind of animal genes adulterate Oscar’s cloned DNA, but his painful awareness that his very existence violates an illusory human “norm” has made him a visionary.
Distraction is more than a futuristic political thriller; it is Sterling’s persuasive vision of a social revolution that is as much biotechnological as philosophical in scope. When as a final plot twist he introduces a biotech weapon that forcibly alters brain chemistry and hence cognition itself, he draws one final parallel between the limitations of politics and the limitations of biology. What if to improve the functionality of the one, you must expand the functionality of the other? Sterling lets this premise sneak up on you, while you are lulled by his more familiar narrative scenery. But he reserves a killer blow for the most familiar thing of all: the way we think.