My life in outer space

Distraction – Bruce Sterling (1998)


‘Sex, science and spin… it’s your future and welcome to it.

2044, and the US is coming apart at the seams. The people live nomadic lives fuelled by cheap transport and even cheaper communications. the new cold war is with the Dutch and mostly fought over the Net. The notion of central government is almost meaningless.

This is your future. Oscar Valparaiso’s too – or it would be if he wasn’t only half human and could sort our his love life…’

Blurb from the 2000 Millennium paperback edition

Bruce Sterling inhabits the same satirical and cynical universe as the likes of Sladek and Kurt Vonnegut and here uses his considerable literary powers to attack not only the American political system but posits an American dystopia in 2044 where independent bands of ‘travellers’ make a living making and selling – among other things – laptops made from grass. This is also an America where Anglos(i.e. white people) are now a persecuted minority group.
Oscar Valparaiso is a futuristic spin-doctor who has helped to get Alcott Bambakias elected as Senator, and though his current project is now over, Valparaiso, being a driven man, is unwilling to give up his campaign tour and decides to make an issue of a US Air Force base which – due to some political chicanery or incompetence – has been ‘forgotten’ and so is not receiving funding of any sort.
This minor debacle escalates into an ongoing battle between Green Huey, Governor of Louisiana, and Valparaiso.
There is a large cast of characters, most of whose lives revolve around Oscar in some way or other.
There is a reason why Oscar is so brilliant, the reason being his ‘little personal background problem’. Oscar is the result of a black market cloning programme set up to satisfy the public need for black market babies. Much of his DNA isn’t even human; his body temperature is constantly higher than normal and he has to take a cocktail of medication to treat the constant bodily ills caused by his twisted DNA.
It’s a clever and amusing novel which I’m sure I would have enjoyed even more had I understood US politics and history better, but that’s not a major issue.
In style it’s redolent of Robert Sheckley and John Sladek. The dialogue is slick, classy, witty and each character has their individual voice.
Oddly, there is no real mention of any issues surrounding religion which, in the US, seems a trifle odd.
The main theme of the book, which Sterling deals with on all sorts of levels, is Power. We learn, for instance, that a lot of political power now resides on the net. Corporate and National wars can be fought in cyberspace. There is also a random power on the net at work whereby programmes are set up which monitor whether one has been critical of a certain policy or politician. If one’s score rises above a certain level then one’s details are forwarded to newsgroups or forums which makes one a target for stalkers or would-be assassins.
Oscar becomes a victim of such a programme until a neighbour and software-expert clears his details from the net.
It’s a huge enjoyable romp with a cast of slightly caricatured characters.


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