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Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling Book Review | SFReader.com
Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling Genre: Cyberpunk Publisher: Penguin Published: 1989 Review Posted: 7/4/2005 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 8 out of 10
Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling
Book Review by Jack Mangan
Have you read this book?
This review was written in 2005.
Who can accurately predict today what life will be like in 2023? It's a
staple of Science Fiction works set in the future to guess at the
implemented technologies, cultural trends, and political landscapes of
tomorrow. It's a dicey game to play though, as a writer, to throw out bold
predictions which may make your story obsolete within a few years. For
example: Sci-Fi stories of the 70s and especially the 80s often transplanted
the Cold War, i.e., USA vs. USSR, into the far future. This tends to taint
post-Soviet collapse readings of these works; as good (or poor) as the story
may be, you suddenly find yourself reading an alt-history set in the future.
So what does this have to do with Bruce Sterling's breakout novel, Islands
in the Net? The book was published in 1988, and makes literally hundreds of
predictions about future cutting edge tech, as well as global and daily life
in the 2020s. Some of these have already been invalidated by history; for
example, if human societies progress on their current courses, then it seems
unlikely that any music or video will be recorded onto any kind of tape, as
if often depicted in "Islands." I imagine that hip, city-dweller types will
have easier access to portable, personal phones. I also doubt if African
nomads with high-tech equipment will look for global news via faxfeeds;
they'll probably just be able to check websites.
But - to harp on these few, minor inaccuracies would be entirely missing the
point. Fortunately, none of the aforementioned anachronistic guesses affect
the larger story. What's astonishing about Islands in the Net is what Mr.
Sterling got right, nearly twenty years ago. It was pretty bold in the
latter 80s to predict the irrelevance of the Russians (and who cares if the
mostly obsolete word Soviet makes one appearance?). Was anyone else writing
fiction back then that eerily echoes the current atmosphere of nationless
terrorist groups, data havens, and corporations playing at the same table as
major national governments? The contemporary reader will find that these
dead-on forecasts far outweigh the discrepancies, and are far more relevant
We follow the story of Laura Webster; she and her husband David are
idealistic young members of the Rizome economic democratic corporation.
Through a goodwill effort of Rizome's, they become embroiled in
international hostilities involving corrupt data havens in Grenada and
Singapore, which grows to include the bureaucratic Viennese global police
force, as well as a number of small terrorist and political groups; some of
which bear a slight, chilling resemblance to Al Qaeda. The conflicts immerse
them in a nasty underworld that they didn't even know existed, which then
put them in harm's way amidst horrific, violent, nation-shattering coups;
terrorist-initiated mass-hysteria. Yes, this was written nearly 20 years
ago. They are eventually torn apart, and Laura is cast adrift in this crazy,
lawless world within a world, desperate to get back to the safety and
security of "The Net"; the world where she used to live. She finds herself
out of control of her own fate, tossed from place to place at the whim of
others. The scenes in Singapore are riveting and unforgettable.
The Cyberpunk genre (which isn't dead, but has been absorbed into its parent
genre) saw only a handful of good films (I only count 2), but a number of
great books. The four most important are "Neuromancer," by William Gibson,
"City Come A-Walkin'," by John Shirley, "Snow Crash," by Neal Stephenson,
and Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling. These are the cornerstones of
the sleek, mirror-windowed, Japanese skyscraper that is Cyberpunk. "Islands"
stands out though, even amongst its own kind. While it adheres to some of
the genre's maxims; the protagonist, Laura Webster encounters numerous
varieties of high-tech lowlifes, and all along we witness the street finding
its own uses for innovations; it also deviates in a few important ways.
Laura is a decidedly un-street-savvy corporate type, with no aura of edgy
cool or low desperation. She doesn't stick it to "The Man" -- she is "The
Man" -- and there is no transformation for her into a lowlife, Molly-like,
cyberwarrior street samurai. She does shed much of her na´vete throughout
the book, but she mostly remains that idealistic, familiar Western
suburbanite who we met jogging on the beach on page 1.
But this keeps us close to her, through her naivetes, her terrifying
ordeals, and her tribulation. The reader understands her choices, and in
spite of the occasional obsolete prediction, we recognize and understand her
world. Bruce Sterling takes her, and the reader on an eye-opening, scary
trip through this whole prophetic setting, which, if your mind is open to
it, will leave your view of Science Fiction -- and Cyberpunk -- forever
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