Visionary in residence Review and Opinion

Visionary in residence Review and Opinion

Visionary In Residence
Bruce Sterling
Thunder's Mouth paperback $15.95

review by Patrick Hudson

Bruce Sterling is described on the back of his new short story collection Visionary In Residence as "the leather-jacketed high druid of cyberpunk," but with a critically acclaimed three-decade career behind him it's a little hard to think of him as a renegade any more. Even the title undermines his rebellious cred, as it alludes to Sterling's role on the staff at the Art Centre College of Design in California. The journey from firebrand to establishment figure is a fairly well-trod path, and one Sterling has used in his fiction taking since Abelard Lindsey in Schismatrix, and so he seems to have fallen quite naturally into the expansive, avuncular role of elder statesman.

His elevated status is reflected here in commissions from the science journal Nature (under the heading 'Fiction For Scientists'), architecture magazine Metropolis and Unesco, enjoyable snatches of Sterling-esque world building and often barbed commentary. Particularly enjoyable is Message Found In A Bottle, a ferocious tirade at the scientific community in response to their inaction on climate change that Nature elected not to use. User Friendly ('Design Fiction') was written as part of his academic duties at the Art Centre College of Design, and Sterling examines the process of product design from concept to end user by way of a daring formal twist that finishes up addressing the reader directly. It's a fascinating formal experiment, fitting each stage of the story to a different mode depending on what he is trying to say, like a designer 'thinking outside the box' to do an old job in new ways.

Sterling loves a lover. He has used love stories - usually star-crossed lovers who reach across cultural barriers to be together - as a backbone for his fiction since at least Green Days In Brunei in Crystal Express. There's almost something cheesy about his sentimental attachment to romance, but it's saved by his warm-hearted eye for character and slangy, low-key delivery. The stories in Visionary In Residence are no exception. In Paradise, (the only story in the 'Science Fiction' section) is the love of the love of an American plumber for an Iranian Princess conducted via a translation software installed on their mobiles phones. It has a lot of fun with the language of love and a winning way with poetic metaphor, but is a pure love story at heart. Code is a slice of life illuminating a love affair among the geeky people that inhabit the higher echelons of the software industry. As well as computer code, the title refers to the programming language of love, as iterated in books like The Rules and The Code which the corporate hacker hero studies to woo the receptionist. Billed as 'Mainstream Fiction', it's hyper modernism - one-click purchases through Amazon, web-cams and metrosexuality - make it read like the kind of story Sterling might have published 20 years ago as science fiction.

Under the heading 'Fiction About Science', Luciferase is almost a parody of the typical Sterling love story, centred in this case around the genetically coded mating calls of male and female fireflies. The cast includes a love-lorn spider, an aggressive rival for the female firefly's attentions, and a sharp tongued predatory mimic femme fatale, and it's very like a screwball comedy or one of those computer generated movies about wisecracking insects.

The two best stories here are both collaborations. Scabs Progress was written with Paul di Filippo, who published a collection Ribofunk in 1996 that explored a similar futuristic biotechnological milieu. In this story two bio-hackers, Fearon and Malvern, go searching for the big score, the Panspecific Mycoblastula - "a maguffin" according to the glossary that accompanies the story - travelling to darkest Africa in an effort to beat superstar hacker Ribo Zombie to the prize. The story is packed with delicious details, and it has a lot of fun with genre and narrative, from the edited-for-TV antics of Ribo Zombie, to the deliberately grotesque parody of colonial adventure fiction.

The second collaboration is Junk DNA with Rudy Rucker, is the third story in a series that began with Storming The Cosmos in Globalhead and Big Jelly in A Good Old-Fashioned Future. Janna Gutierrez, wasting away in the corporate biotech Silicon Valley, meets Veruschka Zipkninova, a bio-technician fleeing the crime ridden Russia and dead lover bringing with her a technique to create creatures from junk DNA in the human genome. She has dubbed the result - a grotesque, primitive form of life, like a fleshy pumpkin or huge, detached wart 'Pumpti'. She and Janna plan to sell it as a brand new fad pet, like a tamagotchi or - for that matter - a pet rock, and when Janna grows her own she finds it strangely compelling, like biting your finger nails or picking at a scab. This is the story of low-level opportunism and viral marketing, and Sterling takes a probing look at the world of pop culture and manufactured fads, as he did in his novel Zeitgeist.

While it has some wonderful highlights, Visionary In Residence is a bit of a bit of a mixed bag compared to his previous volumes, noticeably shorter and a long time coming since A Good Old Fashioned Future in 1999. Some of the pieces are a little underwhelming (particularly the fantasies that round this volume out), and the magazine pieces are fictionalised op-ed journalism rather than stories. However, the best stories mine the familiar Sterling areas - love, technology, the bohemian fringes of society and emergent contemporary subcultures, and Sterling has retained his assured manner and keen eye for technological detail. Fans will be delighted and new readers will get a glimpse at the licks that have contributed to Sterling's considerable mana.

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