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9: Bruce Sterling - Distraction

Author: Bruce Sterling
Title: Distraction
Genre: SF
Published: Millennium 2000
Pages: 489
Purchased: Borders, Cambridge, 2004-01-24, £6.99
ISBN: 1-85798-928-7

It's 2044, and the USA has reached political deadlock. Climate change has caused the seas to rise, and the US is in a cold war against the Dutch. The Chinese have used the internet to break the software and entertainment industries by effectively revoking copyright. The USAF raises funds by running road blocks. Large numbers of citizens have dropped out and become nomads. Into this scenario comes Oscar Valparaiso, young political operator, with his krewe.

Oscar has just successfully run the election campaign of a Massachusetts senator, and he's now at a slight loose end. Then he comes across the Buna National Collaboratory, a pork-barrel research institute just across the border from Louisiana in East Texas. It's a literal hot-house - a glass dome covers the whole facility - and a metaphorical one too, with a bunch of frustrated scientists unable to research because of the graft going on. Oscar decides that he can do something to change this.

But Governor 'Green Huey' Huguelet of Louisiana reckons the facility is his.

Oscar is an interesting protagonist. He's not entirely human, being the product of an illegal Colombian cloning lab. He's sharp, manipulative, and not entirely nice. On the other hand, he gets things done, which is pretty unusual these days. For someone with a body temperature of 101 F, he can be quite cold-blooded. In his own way, he's a genius, but his relationship with the Nobel-winning Greta is spiky and far from smooth. (One of his first acts is to get her a proper image makeover - so no, she's not exactly an obvious beauty, and even afterwards, another character disses her as having too much nose and not enough ass.)

The future here is quite plausible in a slightly horrifying sort of way. It's not sharply different, it's not a dystopia (nor a eutopia either), it's perhaps more cynical. But there are funny moments - the first encounter between Oscar and Huey is nicely done - and it's hip and smart. The characters are nicely drawn and they do develop. The technology is fun, too - there's some wonderful snobbery when one character notices that someone's laptop is made of grass!.

As for the plot - well, that jinks from high point to high point. Much of the story is a contest of wills between Huey and Oscar, and Huey has all the power and all the experience, and Oscar's best hopes are in Huey not getting wound up enough to really take him seriously.

The only mildly annoying thing about this book is that I'd read it before. This time, I noticed within a page or two, unlike 'The Diamond Age' which I must have read first when ill or something.

Strongly recommended.
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