"If we don't do something, [make] some earnest attempt to understand the future--the real future, everybody's future, starting *now*--then in all honesty we should abandon 'Science Fiction' as a genre."
- Bruce Sterling,
"Science Fiction Eye"
What would it take to make you believe in society? To make you wholeheartedly support the powers that be? To make you love 'the system' enough to give your life for it? For Bruce Sterling it would take simply this: the end of war, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and the advent of a global information culture. For Sterling, these are the sole requisites for utopia. Set early in the 21st century, "Islands in the Net" is his depiction of that utopia.
There is something surprisingly disturbing about the prospect of utopia being so close at hand. The concept of sacrificing the self for the greater good of society feels jarringly anachronistic. Somehow it clashes with our basic instincts. It seems vaguely fascistic, or at the very least highly uncool. What about free-spirited individualism? What about subversion? What about the spiritual release of decadence? What about egalitarianism and the class struggle? Must we really surrender these conceits in the face of nuclear disarmament and the end of war?
For Bruce Sterling, the answer is unequivocally, yes. It is war and the threat of nuclear annihilation which undermined our faith in society and spawned the cult of the individual in the first place. It is war which makes believers in causes seem like so many mindless robots killing each other according to the dictates of economic forces camouflaged as religious or nationalistic dogmas. Without war, society necessarily becomes an unquestionable good. Sterling has once and for all taken the punk out of cyberpunk.
Islands in the Net makes a compelling and extremely thought provoking argument. The characters he portrays possess a mindframe thoroughly alien to our own. They look back on our generation with a mixture of revulsion and condescension. This generation gap of the future is clearly exhibited in a discussion between Laura Webster, the heroine of the novel, and her mother:
"You're modern people, you and David," her mother said. "In a way, you seem very innocent to us, oh, premillennium decadents." She smiled wryly. "So free of doubts...."Laura took a deep breath. "We don't live under terror, Mother. That's the real difference. No one's pointing missiles at my generation. That's why we think about the future, the long term. Because we know we'll have one."
Smug, confident and idealistic, Laura's generation calmly takes the end of war and the positivism it engenders for granted. In the opening scene of the novel Laura Webster trips over the cord of an old buried VCR while jogging on the beach. Her reaction serves as a metaphor for the theme of the novel.
She looked around for a stick or a chunk of driftwood to dig with. The beach as usual was conspicuously clean. But Laura refused to leave this filthy snag to trip some tourist. That wouldn't do at all--not on her beach. Stubbornly, she knelt down and dug with her hands.
As Laura does her civic duty, so she goes on to sacrifice herself out of a sense of global duty. For Laura and her generation, doing the right thing is as obvious as picking up litter.
Laura Webster is a public relations specialist working for Rizome, a multinational corporation which adheres to a philosophy of "economic democracy." In what might be the most flattering portrayal of a multinational corporation ever written, Sterling depicts the "associates" of Rizome as a rainbow coalition of politically correct, denim-clad, neo-yuppies who frequently hold hands and sing the anthem of their democratic, peace-loving corporation. Rizome's central committee and its CEO are freely elected by the associates of the corporation. All associates, regardless of their position, share equal rights. Perhaps Rizome's corporate ethic is best summed up by Laura when she explains: "We in Rizome don't have 'jobs' .... Just things to do and people to do them."
In Sterling's utopia, power has lost the menacing aspect of exploitation and assumed the friendly guise of social responsibility. Status in this information culture is determined solely by how much one knows which in turn is determined simply by how much one wants to know. Clearly, for Sterling, the end of war redeems much. In his view, it is the hypocrisy inherent in war and the shallow vision of nationalism that has made the social hierarchy--the very structure by which a culture culls the good from the bad and rewards merit--dubious, thus lending Marx's idealistic vision of a classless society its appeal. But for Sterling "classless society" is an oxymoron. The individual's merit can only be measured by their social achievement. There is no innate transcendent goodness in man that justifies the notion of a classless society. With the ascension of a global society Sterling believes this must become self-evident.
Just as Sterling depicts the rise of a global community as establishing an objective standard against which to judge the individual, so he depicts it as establishing an objective standard against which to judge the merits of any given culture. Sterling is *not* a cultural relativist. The further from rational global civilization the culture, the more corrupt, brutal, and dangerous it is. As opposed to William Gibson's romantic depiction of free-spirited Rastafarians orbiting the earth in a homemade space station while smoking ganga and listening to reggae ("Neuromancer"), Sterling describes the third-world thusly:
She could see people. None of them moved: they crouched stunned, torpid as lizards, in the shade of doorways and tent flaps....There were patches of raw night soil in certain crooked alleys, hard yellow sunbaked human shit, with vast explosive hordes of African flies. The flies were fierce and filthy and as big as beetles....
There was a sump of misery in this camp city big enough to choke the world. She had always known it was bad in Africa, but she'd never known that life here meant so utterly little. She realized with a rush of fatalistic terror that her own life was simply too small to matter anymore. She was in hell now and they did things differently here.
Sterling sees any philosophy that would seek to exalt the cultural integrity of third-world countries as a threat to the predominance of technological global culture as well as to the inhabitants of that country itself. The third world is not to be romanticized--it is to be modernized. Religion has no place in Sterling's utopia. Rather, technological prowess is the final measure of a society's worth. Society is good to the extent that it functions efficiently--to the extent that it is strong. As Laura Webster puts it: "Imperialism, that means nothing to me."
For Sterling, it is the threat of Armageddon that has undermined our faith in technological advancement. After all, how can one seriously say that killing with nuclear warheads is more advanced than killing with pointed sticks? Only if the technology of information dispersal predominates over the technology of destruction can technology and society itself be redeemed. But how confident is he that this will actually come to pass?
A careful reading of "Islands in the Net" gives the impression that Sterling himself is not sure of the answer to this question. Disturbing ripples of doubt cloud his vision. At times, he seems to acknowledge the possibility that another, deeper force may be at work in the world--some profound human perversion that sometimes manifests itself as a species-wide death wish. Towards the end of the book, Laura--while thinking about the threat posed nuclear weapons--reflects on this compulsion:
The pressure of *raw possibility*. If something was *possible*, didn't that mean that somehow, somewhere, someone *had to do it?* The voodoo urge to truck with demons. The imp of the perverse. Deep in the human spirit, the carnivorous shadow of science. It was a dynamic, like gravity. Some legacy of evolution, deep in human nerves, invisible and potent, like software.
Sterling embodies this death wish in the character of Colonel Jonathan Gresham. A guerrilla leader fighting from the depths of the African desert, Gresham is a "disaster freak." A self-described "postindustrial tribal anarchist," he wages war against social order of any kind--"cops and fucking rule books" as he terms it. He fights for the sake of fighting. He worships chaos and death. As he tells Laura:
I love war .... Somewhere inside me I wanted Armageddon. This is the closest I ever got. Where the earth is blasted and all the sickness comes to a head.
Though clearly depicted as misguided, Gresham remains a strangely sympathetic character. There is a nobility in Gresham's intensity that one cannot help but admire. Gresham is a romantic figure, a future Lawrence of Arabia. But, ironically, it is this very romance which, in Sterling's view, ultimately trivializes him.
At the conclusion of the novel, while considering whether Gresham and his forces represents a threat to global stability, Rizome's central committee concludes that Gresham is destined to become nothing more than a pop icon--a romantic hero for "rugged individualists" the world over. The Net will ultimately absorb Gresham by turning him into a commercial parody of himself.
Yet we cannot dismiss Gresham so easily. Why would Sterling portray Gresham, the enemy of society, as at all sympathetic? (He does after all become Laura's friend and lover.) If he's not a monster, how could he possibly be against the Net? Gresham wants something more than the Net can offer--more than peace, stability, a universally high standard of living, justice, and order. But what more is there?
The only thing left is some kind of mystical, romantic, transcendent, meaning to life. Gresham is a disappointed idealist. He seeks the ultimate meaning he cannot find in the Net in the sanctity of individual free will--in some spiritual value inherent in untamed man--in man untainted by any form of social control. Of course, as long as he tries to live as a member of a group--as long as he uses or even *thinks* in language--he can never achieve this. At best, he can only achieve another, less efficient, form of social control. Gresham himself realizes that he is doomed to living this inescapable paradox:
I'm not innocent enough to let chaos alone. I stink of the Net Laura. Of power and planning and data, and the Western method, and the pure inability to let anything alone. Ever. Even if it destroys my own freedom.
Can mankind ever overcome this yearning for some unreachable transcendent meaning to our lives? Or, at the very least, isolate this yearning within the frame of a television screen as the Net does to Gresham? Or will the need for transcendence drive man to Armageddon? We can only speculate about the answer to this question. Clearly, if we want our species to survive we must hope for the former.
By clearly envisioning such a world, Bruce Sterling is hoping to help create such a world. More power to him.
"Kenneth sent this review to Bruce Sterling and got a very negative response. Sterling thought that Ken had totally missed the point of "Islands," and that by publishing this review, it would mislead people as to what the book was about. We decided to run the review anyway -- with this cautionary statement. The bottom line is: *Islands in the Net* is a brilliant exploration of shifting geo-politics in a near-future world of complex information nets and pirate datahavens. Its issues and ambiguities are more relevant than ever. Read this book!"
- Gareth Branwyn
Islands in the Net
Ace Books, 1989
graphic: Richard Thompson, SF Eye#1