by Bruce Sterling
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596064041
Date: 31 December 2011 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Gothic High-Tech collects twelve of Bruce Sterling’s short stories written since 2006. Sterling has always been one of the best authors out there at imagining futures that are fundamentally different from the present, while also showing us how this alien future might plausibly come about. This talent is once again on display in this present collection, but in more recent years Sterling has branched out, so this collection also contains a number of fantasy stories, a satire, and a story of alternate universes. However, all of these stories display Sterling's characteristic vision and inventiveness. Not all of the stories in this collection worked for me, but there are a number of absolutely brilliant stories that show that, even after more than thirty years of writing Science Fiction, Sterling is still at the cutting edge.
Bruce Sterling and William Gibson were the prime figures of the cyberpunk movement of the eighties, and while both have since moved away from writing cyberpunk they both continue to be influenced by the concerns of the cyberpunk, about how technology will alter both the world around us, and out own identity. However, while Gibson's writing explored the texture of the future, its emotional impact and feel, Sterling was always more concerned with the shape of the future. What will the structure of society be like? How will technology alter our social relations, our systems of government, and our self-understanding? This are the questions that Sterling’s fiction continues to explore.
The best story in the collection for me, hands down, is "Kiosk". In this story, Sterling explores the consequences of cheap 'fabbing', or 3D printing using carbon nanotubes, on our industrial society. Insightfully, he has this technology take hold and find its true potential in an unnamed eastern European country, where a combination of ingenuity and disdain for international law allow the technology of fabbing to take hold, when the first world had quietly suppressed it so as to avoid destabilizing the traditional manufacturing centers. The protagonist is a man named Borislav who own the eponymous kiosk. Borislav's point of view allows the reader to see the world from a perspective that is quite different from our own, and to realize that this perspective might be at least as true and reasonable as our own. Borislav is also a thoroughly fascinating character in his own right, who turns out to have hidden depths as the story develops. All in all, Kiosk is worth the price of the volume all on its own.
A few of the stories, such as "I Saw the Best Minds of my Generation Destroyed by Google", suffer from being a bit too short to really develop their central idea, and end up being somewhat unsatisfying sketches. "The Exterminators want ad", on the other hand, does an excellent job of showing us what a more cooperative society, based on social networking, might look like from the point of view of those who are at the bottom of the new society. This is both a gratifying deflation of some of the more utopian views of such a society, and a sobering reminder that every society will have losers and misfits, and those who are on top right now might be just such misfits in other possible social systems.
While not all of the stories in this collection hit the mark, they all display Sterling's inventiveness and imagination; none feel in the least clichéd or familiar. The stories that do succeed are among the best SF being written today, and provide a fascinating perspective on the future, and thereby also on our own modern world. Bruce Sterling remains one of the key SF writers, and his talent is well displayed in his latest short story collection.