by Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra


432pp/$23.95/December 1998


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Bruce Sterling’s latest novel, Distraction, is a near future dystopia which looks at the inter-relationship between science and politics.  Sterling's entrance to this world is the character of Oscar Valparaiso, a cynical political consultant who has just helped his candidate, Alcott Bambakias, win a Senate seat from Massachusetts.  After winning the election, Valparaiso has been sent on a working vacation to the Texas-Louisiana border to look into the Collaboratory, a biolab whose funding may be cut.

This novel provides Sterling with an opportunity to extrapolate the future rather than actually write a plot. In this world, unemployment is rampant with gangs of unemployed moving around the country like gypsies.  A constant state of emergency exists which has radically altered the manner in which the government functions.  Sterling's politicians and their hangers-on seem to be a good extrapolation from what is currently in Washington.  Even the politicians with the best of intentions resort to publicity schemes at best and treason to gain their objectives.

It is difficult to see how Sterling's future can work when the social structure has deteriorated so greatly, yet the infrastructure is still intact.  What he seems to have done is taken a look at trends in modern society and trends in technological research and continued both further.  Unfortunately, the two are connected and Sterling seems to have treated them as if there is little, if any connection between them.

Valparaiso's character, for all his cynicism, views himself as an optimist, although he is in fact extremely manipulative.  The women he dates are all in positions to further his own goals, and he puts a spin on what he wants to convince them to go along with him, even when it is clear that they do not share his desires.   Greta Penninger, the biologist who Valparaiso forces to accept the position of director of the Collaboratory appears to enjoy her position after Valparaiso gives it to her, almost implying that Valparaiso (and, by extension, men) knows what is best for Penninger (and, by extension, women).

Although unrealistic, Sterling has described an evocative future which is extremely disturbing on several levels.  His world of 2044 is harsh, cycnical, and chaotic.  The semblences of law and order remain in place, but they do not seem to have any real standing and can be torn away with ease by anyone who desires to skirt them.

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