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Gothic High-Tech by Bruce Sterling

1/12/2011. Contributed by Richard Palmer

Buy Gothic High-Tech in the USA - or Buy Gothic High-Tech in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 227 page deluxe hardback. Price: $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-404-1).

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Bruce Sterling's latest collection of short stories, ‘Gothic High-Tech’, covers ground that will be familiar to long time readers. That isn't to say that it is tired or pointless retreads of old ground. Sterling doesn't sit still long enough for that. In the case of his sixth collection of short stories, this is welcome.

The book is divided into three sections: 'Favela Chic', 'Dark Euphoria' and 'Gothic High-Tech'. Each of these is bound in some way, generally by settings, ideas or themes.

The first section, 'Favela Chic' has some of what I love about Bruce Sterling's work and also, those aspects of his writing that I find the most tiresome. Sterling is known for making pronouncements on the future and the impact that technology will have on it. Fortunately, generally speaking anyway, I think that Sterling is usually an astute, witty and insightful commentator on what the future may hold. No 'the X is dead' banality from him. Sterling carries his commentary into his writing. Anyone who is in the slightest interested in technology will be familiar with at least some of the things that he discusses in his fictions.

For example, the second story, 'Kiosk', revolves around the idea of 3D printing. The concept and the technology are by now well-known. In this, Borislav, the veteran of a Balkan war, runs a kiosk which uses a primitive form of 3D printing to produce gifts, small tokenistic items, for the local people. After this is bought, lock, stock and barrel, he manages to acquire an altogether more sophisticated machine which creates virtually indestructible items using carbon nanotubes. This, it seems, is technology that has been guarded by vested interests as they realise the disruptive influence that it will have on their businesses. When he is considering this, I certainly think that Sterling is an interesting writer. More than this, his willingness to set his stories outside of prosperous countries and involving the relatively privileged is to be applauded. That he is using a place damaged by war to explore human culture and creativity is laudable. This I like.

What I don't like about Sterling's work is that in spite of the humanity and humour that he can fit in to his work, there are occasions where I feel that these stories are letting themselves down a little as fiction when they become a little to obsessed with the detail of the disruption to intellectual property laws or medical businesses. 'Kiosk' mostly gets away with it, but something like the opening tale, 'I Saw The Best Minds Of My Generation Destroyed By Google', can grate more than a little. That's possibly a little harsh; it doesn't outstay its welcome and there is humour to be derived from it but really, it works better as a blog post to be read once and enjoyed on that level.

I did enjoy 'White Fungus' a story about architecture that has been used before to attempt to describe society. Sterling uses it to explore a world which is retreating from society as we know it. The death of the nation state and of professionalism are covered in a surprisingly human tale.

'The Exterminator's Want Ad' is an interesting story, written from the point of view of a bitter man. A conservative capitalist who had spent his time railing against those writing about the dangers of climate change and unregulated capitalism and consumerism. The collapse of society and the environment has put him very firmly on the losing side. Jailed for not conforming to the new world order, he continues to rail against those that he despises. There's quite a lot to this; his treatment is clearly not good but, then, his continuing refusal to accept what has happened to the world beggars any belief. An entertaining, if polemical, story.

The second section, 'Dark Euphoria', is a journey through a Turinese hell. There is hellfire an eternal damnation but there is a pleasing sense of ambiguity to this. Further, I think that the prose in this elevates the story.

'The Parthenopean Scalpel' is a steampunk jaunt through the history of the unification of Italy. Though I'd never profess to any expertise, it is a period with which I am vaguely familiar and, though it is clearly fiction, he had evoked quite nicely. I had to look this up, but it seems that the man had been living in Turin for a while! Nice to see him writing about a place he knows and loves.

I enjoyed the story 'Windsor Executive Solutions' which sees Queen Elizabeth II deathless, not allowed to die as she is considered too important and Prince Harry the leader of a mercenary army while the UK has collapsed in on itself. Great fun.
I was less fond of 'The Interoperation' which is another story about architecture and design. It is written in a humorous manner. I suspect that someone more fully immersed in the world of design than myself would get more from it, but I did feel that it suffered a little from not being that much of a story.

There are a couple of other stories in this collection, but the final one, 'Black Swan', is an excellent story about the multiverse , again set in Italy and this time featuring multiple versions of President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. This has been well-regarded and deservedly so. I certainly think that it is one of the more successful pieces in this collection and, though I had read it more than once before, was happy to read it again when preparing this.

Though there were a couple of occasions where I got a little annoyed by Sterling's writing style, mostly early on, I can recommend this as good an introduction to Sterling's work as anything. If nothing else, he'll give you plenty to think about.

Richard Palmer

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