Posted by : atcampbell | On : November 16, 1999

Distraction by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling’s latest book drew a large crowd and mixed reactions. Eleven people attended the discussion. About half of us loved the book, a fourth of us liked it, and the rest hated it with a passion. Details will be provided below.

First, let’s provide a brief rundown of Distraction. This basic plot is a near-future story about a recently-elected Senator’s campaign staff getting tangled up in a political situation in East Texas involving the governor of Louisiana, a rogue Air Force base, and a national lab that clones extinct animals. Sterling uses this plot as a vehicle for a humorous farce with lots of clever worldbuilding and futurist extrapolation.

Those who liked the book felt it was an over-the-top satire in the tradition of the Pohl-Kornbluth collaborations and Wibberley’s The Mouse that Roared. We found the book was just brimming with clever and weird ideas (a Cold War with the Dutch, notebook computers made of straw, etc.). Favorable comparisons to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash were made.

A few of us who liked the book also felt some personal connection to the story. People who’d spent a lot of time in East Texas and Louisiana liked how Sterling achieved a convincing local flavor with clever extrapolations. One person who was friends in high school with an aspiring politician recognized a lot of character traits in the political staffers.

Those who disliked the book were clearly looking for something different in a novel. They found the plot minimal and the characters uninteresting, and felt that the authorial distance from the characters made the book hard to read. They felt that while this storytelling approach might be successful in short fiction, for a novel it is a deadly mistake.

Distraction made for one of the liveliest discussions we’d had this year. We suggest that you give it a try. Odds are that you’ll either like it, or you’ll hate it so much that you’l have something to complain about for months.

— A. T. Campbell, III