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May 8, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»sterling

Book Review: Distraction, by Bruce Sterling

Lately I've been reading a lot. When I cleaned out my car, I dumped all the books I'd finished on the Metro into the trunk, which resulted in a view of nothing but books. More are on the way. If anything good has come of my recent raise, it's clearly that I can now afford to buy books on a regular basis. And that means that I can try out new authors.

Sterling is not a new author, but he's one of those people that you're supposed to have read in SF, and I never got around to it. I read his Victorian steampunk effort with William Gibson, The Difference Engine, and liked it a lot, but I think the covers on his paperbacks just always looked way too self-consciously trashy for me to read them. I won't be making that mistake again--I've already started picking up more Sterling just on the strength of this book.

Distraction is a dystopian political thriller, if that makes any sense at all. It's set in the US after China and India, among other factors, caused a serious economic crash. Intellectual property is essentially devalued, leaving science stranded and the country struggling between a wealthy political upper class, and roving, networked mobs. The main character, Oscar Valpraiso, is a political consultant just off a campaign to elect asenator he thinks could bring the country back together. When the senator suffers a breakdown, Oscar is stranded at a science lab in Texas, where he tries to put the lab and Big Science back together while fending off violent takeover attempts by the crazed governor of Louisiana.

Looking back on it, I guess it's obvious that Distraction is a pretty messy novel, but the story is gripping while you read it, and there aren't any real loose ends to be tied up. The book is also filled with clever little moments that fuse sci-fi and politics, like the flash mob called in to storm a bank at the novel's beginning, and the mob respect network lifted and improved from Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. There's also Oscar's Personal Background Problem, a scandalous secret from his past. Every character in the book, at one point or another, reassures him that it'll remain a secret between just those two, eventually becoming a running gag worth a smile every chapter or so.

Despite the wit and the craft that went into it, I can single out one gaping flaw in Distraction: like many political novels, it has problems of scale. The plot zooms from close-ups of the main characters, most of whom are interesting and active, out to general descriptions of the larger political decisions and impacts. When it takes the long view, it's harder for Sterling to Show and not Tell, so the novel reads more like a plot outline and less like a book, until it dives back into the muck of Oscar's life.

All in all, this is a book that should appeal to a wide group of people as the new wave of SF. Like Doctorow and Gibson, Sterling's writing here is undoubtably futurism, but it's character- and society-centered, making it much more accessible (and, it hurts me a little to say, smarter) than Larry Niven-style gadgetism. Distraction walks a fine line between commentary, satire, and fiction, but ultimately it's a successful balancing act that's great fun to read.

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