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Gothic High-Tech by Bruce Sterling

One of the most pleasing aspects of Subterranean Press is its willingness to publish collections and generally support the shorter forms of fiction. Too often, publishing houses are fixated by novels, many of excessive length. Yet part of the joy in reading the shorter forms is watching elegance emerge when authors capture sometimes complicated ideas in the fewest possible words. The self-discipline to exclude redundancy in the writing process forces clarity of mind. So it is we come to Gothic High-Tech by Bruce Sterling, a set of polished diamonds, each story cut to perfection to catch the light of imagination.

“I Saw All the Best Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Google” wonderfully captures the unquenchable desire of the young to be allowed to live life on their own terms. Damn parents and officious authority figures are always trying to tell them what to do and, more importantly, not to do. Just imagine what it would be like if they were RFI-chipped and monitored 24/7. Peace in our time, but not in theirs. “Kiosk” (Nebula Nomination for Best Novella 2007 and anthologised in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection) invites us to see an economic order for the world from a smaller point of view. It’s the macrocosm from the microcosm. If we invented machines that could scan and replicate whatever was put in front of them, commerce as an organised activity would become unnecessary. So long as you have a sample, you can get as many copies as you want with access to a machine. Except for food, of course. That would still have to grow in a natural way. But there’s an alternative possibility. Suppose you could somehow put your finger on the pulse of what the people actually wanted, apart from food, that is, you could still make money out of your own creativity. You would profit from the difference between the product of your imagination and a world tied to yesterday’s fashions endlessly replicated by machines. So we have a man sitting in a humble kiosk and, simply by being there and reacting to what his customers tell him, he becomes subversive. He’s the new version of the baker in “Spondulix” by Paul Di Filippo or a different version of the aesthetic in “The Cambist and Lord Iron” (Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham) in which intelligent debate is presented as entertainment. “The Hypersurface of this Decade” gives us the ultimate way in which to rationalise a divorce. When the virtual and the material are indivisible, the past ceases to be a dead weight. Everything coexists in raw potential for present enlightenment and functional practicality. Now all we need do is make a bed and lie on it.

Bruce Sterling bravely looks up at the looming future

“White Fungus” is about a guerrilla urbanist who rejects the normal reward system and redesigns junkspace into places for living and doing stuff for the future. Talk not about interventionism! Just get it done! “The Exterminator’s Want Ad” continues with a discussion of what might be necessary when your virtual reputation is zero. As someone looking for rehabilitation after leaving prison (where, I might say, prisoners did a fine job keeping their walls in repair and growing their own food) the problem is how an unreconstructed capitalist can fit into a socialist world where the economy has tanked and reverted to preindustrial poverty. Obviously killing bugs is socially useful, but life would be improved if there was a good-looking woman interested in learning the service ethic required to keep the worker (and any customers) satisfied with outcomes. “Esoteric City” gets down to the nitty gritty of what a modern version of Hell might look like to an Italian — after all, Dante was an Italian so they are the go-to people to ask about infernal affairs. Except, if that same Italian was actually an executive of the car industry and so committed to using up all the Earth’s resources, messing up the climate and so producing a Hell on Earth, perhaps he would be the Devil. As all good environmentalists know, you can’t beat the Devil for the Earth’s salvation unless you join battle with him.

“The Parthenopean Scalpel” is a fascinating story of how an assassin becomes a terrorist. Obviously, we must all move with the times or perish as an unremarked historical footnote. In this case, a man prepared to sacrifice himself in a noble cause is reprieved and finds a new life. When this later forces a confrontation of honour, he shows what he’s prepared to give up before exploding on to the European scene. “The Lustration” challenges a world to decide on the scale of their people’s responsibility. Exactly what do we mean when we attribute intelligence to anyone or anything? Would we, for example, want to believe a natural phenomenon was also intelligent and, if we were so minded, would we seek to support it or control it? I suppose all this might seem quite hypothetical unless it was also possible this “thing” might be signalling to the stars.

“Windsor Executive Solutions” takes us into a rather whimsical alternate reality where the British Royal Family continue in their titular role albeit in somewhat changed circumstances. Perhaps elimination would be the kindest option. “A Plain Tale From Our Hills” wonders about the future of the race. What would happen to relationships if the population was falling dramatically and we needed to produce more children? “The Interoperation” continues the theme of a different future. This time, all the major functions have become interoperational. Instead of needing people to create, only administrators are required. It’s remarkable how often different levels of code fail to work together with the required synergies. To get a perfect outcome every time, all the loose ends must be nailed down and kept in place. Except do we always want standardised outcomes? Would life not be more interesting if we lived it as a work in progress? And finally, “Black Swan” (anthologised in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seveth Annual Collection) suggests that, where you have multiple realities and the ability to move from one to the other, you need to keep track of who you are and whether you have any friends. Other than that, life is as easy as one, two, three.

When you put all this together, Gothic High-Tech is a high-class thought experiment, speculating on how the world might be changed by technology. All the stories are told with economy yet display a marvelously evocative use of language. Whether you want to read for the quality of the ideas or the way they are expressed, this collection by Bruce Sterling is a must-read.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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