"Tell the missus we're heading out, and let's scramble headlong for the Next New Thing like all true-blue scabs must do" (p. 127).
So speaks Malvern, a character in one of the stories in Bruce Sterling's new collection, Visionary in Residence. The passage might well describe Sterling himself; far from being satisfied to chill out in the cyberpunk territory he helped stake out twenty years ago, in this book we see the author reaching for updated and alternative fictional digs. In all fairness, this is something Sterling has always done. Stories like 1989's "Dori Bangs"—an alternate-history tale in which the author played matchmaker to two icons of drop-out counterculture—never had anything to do with neck-jacks, mirrorshades, or even computers. But the stories collected here represent a more complete departure from Sterling's earlier work. They reflect the author's growing interest in dialogue with scientists, and, importantly, with the research/design/marketing process that governs how technology is commodified and introduced into society. Sterling's signature attacks on the linear narrative structures of humanist SF are still in evidence, but the anti-establishment grit that formed the punk half of cyberpunk's ethos has dropped away almost entirely. Perhaps this has to do with Sterling's new position inside the design and marketing world that he's satirizing: the title refers to his official title at the Art Center College of Design.
The stories in Visionary in Residence are organized into sections like "Science Fiction," "Fiction about Science," "Fiction for Scientists," "Mainstream Fiction," and so on. These titles, each accompanied by a short introduction, give us some meaty clues into the conceptual framework of the story collection. "I'm a science fiction writer," Sterling announces in the first introduction. "This is a golden opportunity to get up to most any mischief imaginable." The story that follows, "In Paradise," revisits the old science fictional device of the real-time translator and tells the story of an American man and Iranian woman who fall in love at first sight and run away together, despite the fact that they are able to communicate only through her expensive Finnish cellular phone. The story contains some unforgettable language ("The line of her lips was like the tapered edge of a rose leaf") and its uncluttered narrative pauses here and there to reveal bits of wisdom about the coming surveillance society: "Nobody was looking out for dangerous interstate pedestrians" (p. 14).
The next story, tagged as "Fiction about Science," is based on a scientific article about the behavior of different types of lightning bugs. Most science-fiction authors don't engage in such a direct dialogue with science, and "Luciferase," despite its silliness, works as a friendly invitation to SF writers to break out those scientific journals and look for the hidden possibilities contained within. Perhaps a scientific discovery with some kind of relevance to human life would generate a more gripping story, but I get the feeling that Sterling picked this out as a challenge precisely because it lacks such relevance. Talking insects telling each other about their habitats and diets are sure to provoke some eye-rolling, but the story reminds us that there are countless narratives to be culled from imaginative reading of scientific publications.
Interestingly, Sterling not only reads scientific journals but also publishes in them. This collection contains three flash pieces originally published in Nature. The first of these, "Homo Sapiens Declared Extinct," sketches a world populated by computer peripherals, AIs, and cyborgs, in which a poet reconstructs the Great Wall of China to read "THEY WERE VERY, VERY CURIOUS, BUT NOT AT ALL FAR-SIGHTED" (p. 44). "Ivory Tower" depicts an alternate present in which particle physics becomes as popular as American Idol, while "Message Found in a Bottle" relates a future in which sci-fi novels are used as firewood due to cataclysmic climate change.
Which brings us to the "Design" section of the collection. Here, in a story called "User-Centric," we first find ourselves voyeurs, reading through the internal emails of a design team in search of vision. The management insists that creating a new commodity is not enough, that "the product is a point of entry for the buyer into a long-term, rewarding relationship" (p. 66). The design team responds by thinking narratively, exactly as a writer might, developing a character and elaborating his world. His name is Al, he's a twenty-five-year-old philosophy major, uncomfortable around people, likes to work in the garden, enjoys tinkering with the plumbing. Suddenly, in a narrative disjuncture worthy of Donald Barthelme or Kathy Acker, the story shatters into Al's point of view. He's standing in front of the mirror, peeling dead pseudoskin from his face, considering the commodities around him. Is he truly a human being or a figment of the marketing team's imagination? The story wrangles with the existential fallout radiating from this question in what is probably the most critical and compelling passage of the collection.
The "ribofunk" section takes us further into the same waters. In the introduction, Sterling writes, "No one knows better than a 'cyberpunk' that the terms 'cyber' and 'punk' are both period coinages, now every bit as redolent of bygone times as 'electro-,' 'atomic,' 'streamlined,' or 'jet-propelled'" (p. 107). Sterling agrees with Paul Di Filippo that biotech is the next grand vista of the imagination, and proceeds to give us two stories based around the soft technologies of tendon, hormone, and nucleic acid.
"The Scab's Progress," coauthored with Paul Di Filippo, posits a far-future world in which bio-hackers, or scabs, compete for access to valuable genetic code. The story is packed with eyeball kicks of the grotesque, chimerical, and gristly sort: a pig "familiar" with four extra stomachs for storing genetic samples, cholla cacti crossed with venus flytraps, a lab built inside a giant diatom, and on and on and on. The language is also packed, in this case with biological jargon, which, when mixed with the constant punning and joking we find here, can get a bit tiresome (there's a glossary). However, as we follow our heroes Fearon and Malvern into the vast dumping ground for obsolete tech that West Africa has become, the story reaches a hallucinogenic high point. The everywhere-you-turn baroqueness of this landscape, combined with the sense of abandonment that pervades it, brings to mind the jeweled landscapes of Ballard's The Crystal World (which Sterling has spoken of as an influence here). After struggling against marauding cannibal tribesmen and a superstar rival scab, the heroes grab the Panspecific Mycoblastula (described metafictionally in the glossary as "the MacGuffin") in a most unexpected way.
While one could complain that the characters in this adventure are cartoons and that the puns and metafictional games that dot its text, like emoticons in a rambunctious email, deaden any emotional impact the story might otherwise have, to do so probably misses the point. A deeper problem with the story is that even though its protagonists are bio-hackers who act as independent agents in a world where genetic information is tightly controlled by powerful corporations, it never touches upon what this means for normal people. Today, for instance, the expense of amniocentesis means that many more children with Down's Syndrome are born to poorer families than to wealthier ones—although some wealthy families choose to have their babies anyway, which introduces entirely different issues to the situation (see Rayna Rapp's excellent article for more detail). "The Scab's Progress" is too playful to engage in exploration along these lines, and while some readers will no doubt enjoy it, others will be left wanting deeper engagement. Sterling and Di Filippo are so interested in the technologies, both biological and linguistic, of the world they've created, that they seem to be asking us to read the story as a fun-loving catalogue of possible bodily features to be appended to ourselves and every manner of creature around us.
Which brings us to the other ribofunk piece in the collection, "Junk DNA." Cowritten with Rudy Rucker, this is the tale of Janna Gutierrez, a young Latina-Vietnamese Californian. Despite her parents' washed-up attempts to make it in real estate, porn marketing, and wetware engineering, she manages to complete a degree in computational genomics at UC Berkeley, but soon finds herself scrubbing bottles for the Ctenephore conglomerate. Lonely and confused, she spends her evenings playing with the futuristic stuffed animals that fascinate the nature-starved youths of this world. Her fortune begins to change when she meets Russian immigrant vamp Veruschka Zipkinova, who soon shows her a technological wonder that she's sure there's a market for. She unveils the "Pumpti," which Janna is disgusted to see is "the size and shape of a Faberge egg, pink and red, clearly biological. It [is] moist, jiggly, and veined like an internal organ with branching threads of yellow and purple" (p. 169). Janna only sees their appeal when Veruschka makes a new Pumpti from the strands of her own junk DNA. In one startling scene, Verushchka tries to take the toy away from her, and Janna bites into it, enjoying a sensation "like being a kid and sucking the root of a lost tooth" (p. 181). When the two young women run out of capital, they are forced to turn to Ctenephore's sleazy executives for funding. While their demotion to wage-slaves at the company is humiliating, it is there that they come across a way to take the Pumpti way beyond the toy market, making everything from phones to holistic gene-maintenance kits from junk DNA.
The Pumpti is a gripping and plausible play on how human psychology modulates the business world: which of us wouldn't fall in love with an object that was literally a chunk of us? The science aspects of the story are well-wrought and it's refreshing to see the authors really deal with the business world. I can't recall another SF story that captures the ups and downs of R&D, capital investments, and the buyout process with such wacky accuracy. On the other hand, while it's clear that Sterling and Rucker are entirely uninterested in cautionary tales, the story is one-sided in its tough-girls-make-it-big triumphalism. Philip K. Dick used to say that when he built a story around a particular concept, he'd find one person who benefited and one who was harmed and then compare their fates. Considering the latest news about the side effects of, say, Ambien, this lacuna leaves me wondering how the Pumpti would be consumed in a society as splintered by inequality as ours, while on the narrative level, the lack of any serious danger tends to lower the stakes. Problems such as these make me wish that science fiction writers would pick up the occasional social science publication as well as journals of technology.
It's interesting to chart the paths of the cyberpunk originators. John Shirley went from picking a fistfight with Harlan Ellison and rebelling against the New Wave to becoming, essentially, a horror writer. William Gibson went from demolishing the history of the genre in "The Gernsback Continuum" to writing mainstream fiction, set—more so than many a mainstream novel—in the fractured and media-drenched emotional world of the present. Sterling, however, was truly interested in the tradition of hard SF that takes science seriously, and although he delivered blistering critiques of "humanist SF," he also drew a personal lineage that included Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Robert Heinlein. You can argue that, for better or worse, he has stayed closer to the roots of the genre than any of his contemporaries, and Visionary in Residence is mostly a book about science, with lots about business thrown in. At its best, the book evokes a sense of wonder at just how deeply technology shapes our posthuman destiny; at its worst, it gives in to an almost stealth-marketer-like obsession with gadgetry—soft or hard—without enough social context to make us feel the human consequences of what is going on.
Fragments of James A. Trimarco's skeleton have been discovered in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Prague, and St. Petersburg, Florida. The intent of this apparent ritual remains unknown. His writing has appeared in Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies, and is upcoming in Flashquake and Afterburn SF. His essay "Wounded Nation, Broken Time: Trauma, Tourism, and the Selling of Ground Zero," cowritten with Molly Hurley, appears in The Selling of 9/11 : How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity, edited by Dana Heller.