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After the revolution, life goes on... and so do the bugs.
June 24, 2010 11:11 PM   Subscribe

The Exterminator’s Want-Ad, a short story by Bruce Sterling, is a twisted first-person missive by a former K-Street lobbyist making his way in a post-collapse socialist regime of sharing. It's part of the Shareable Futures series of short stories and speculative essays at Shareable.net. [Via]
posted by homunculus (41 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
So this features the Playboy Tea Party guy in the future?
posted by mwhybark at 11:36 PM on June 24, 2010


Yeah, I was wondering if Sterling could have had him in mind.
posted by homunculus at 12:02 AM on June 25, 2010


"Karma." Oh no.

Oh, Bruce. Bruce, Bruce, Bruce. You used to have It: that thing that made me think you were looking to describe a powerful social transformation through methods barely dreamt; lighting a strange lamp in the fog to keep us from tripping.

But something happened. I noticed it first when you undermined real environmentalism with the Viridian Design thing. I figured your fondness for technology was getting the best of you. Anybody could make that mistake. Yeah, maybe I was being naive. I noticed your name on Edge.org and its crowd of overly-indulged, self-congratulatory nincompoops but I thought, "I'm sure he meets dodgy literary agents all the time, so maybe he thinks there's nothing special about Brockman's zoo."

Maybe they steered you wrong. Yes, those multimillionaires are often upstanding normal people that wish good things for the world. That doesn't matter. The issue is systemic.

Karma? Really? Slashdot the economy? PageRank it?

Wikipedia a "Not for profit empire?" I know its from a character's mouth, but does anybody not know that Wikipedia is part of a business plan whose other side organizes all the crap Thundercats and Jem fans want us to know to better push contextual ads?

You think per-click monitoring is the gateway to socialism, Bruce? Were you aware that the acronyms most often used with "per click" are "pay" or "cost?" Not "give?"

Do you think Google's a charity? It ain't. Its values are not the harbinger of socialism. Engineers are not secretly preparing the world for socialist algorithms because they have naturally discovered it's the best system through the supreme reasoning skills afforded by distributed number crunching.

Your story's not a new one, Bruce. It's the long con that societies pull on themselves to soften the blow of a paradigm shift that nevertheless fails to bring significant change to the social order. When scarcity-driven societies undergo it, the leading edge are always good at portraying themselves as revolutionary because we want to believe it. We want to think that Ned Ludd is a crazy motherfucker and that the Brand New Thing won't lead to another regime with a packed can of assholes at its head. But it will. And in every transition, they will always, always ask us to make sacrifices.

It'll be just like your story, except you can sure as fuck be sure that Eric Schmidt's successors won't be left with boiled okra and commuter cycling. Come on, Bruce.
posted by mobunited at 12:51 AM on June 25, 2010 [13 favorites]


Post-collapse, socialist sharing societies won't have any former k-street lobbyists.

Not outside the labor camps, anyway.
posted by clarknova at 12:53 AM on June 25, 2010


clarknova: To borrow a line from Ian Banks: "Really? I had them slated for bone meal."
posted by Grimgrin at 1:05 AM on June 25, 2010


Labour camps, then bone-meal.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 1:26 AM on June 25, 2010


"That got pretty ugly, because social networks versus bandit mafias is like Ninjas Versus Pirates: it's a counterculture fight to the finish."

ahem.

Burlesque, noun from French, from Italian burlesco, from burla joke, from Spanish
Date: 1667

1 : a literary or dramatic work that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation

2 : mockery usually by caricature

posted by The Whelk at 2:36 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. That was not good. I used to think that Bruce Sterling had great sci fi potential if only he would sharpen his writing a little more. Then the internet ate him up and spit out a scifi seo spammer.
posted by srboisvert at 3:40 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I had to give up on that.
posted by maxwelton at 3:45 AM on June 25, 2010


...does anybody not know that Wikipedia is part of a business plan whose other side organizes all the crap Thundercats and Jem fans want us to know to better push contextual ads?

Not only do I not know that, I don't even know what "that" is. Explain. Please include an explanation of what is preventing anyone from forking Wikipedia if this "other side" gets too evil.
posted by DU at 4:36 AM on June 25, 2010


Either my taste in writing has gotten better or Sterling lost it.

Haven't been able to finish any of his books written in the last five plus years.

The smug I know what's going to be happen, and you're all screwed, attitude gets really old quick.
posted by KaizenSoze at 4:58 AM on June 25, 2010


Wow, guys!

This is a classic dystopia story with a twist.
It's well written, it flows without showing any effort, it has an original point of view: money hungry assholes are rarely used as main characters.
It has a very light touch: themes are barely named and evoked, just to let the reader frame the sketch of an ambiance.

It's not in line for the Nobel Prize of literature, but it is a pleasantly entertaining story with the open intent to be slightly disturbing: the usual good guys are presented as the usual good guys, except that they are the enemy.

Now the snark battalion finds windmills and charges! A novelist is not a leader of thoughts nor a social scientist, nor an anthropologist who has to give you a report on a believable future. A novelist has no duty to perform anything for you. He has not promised anything to you. He doesn't have to conform to your expectations.

He just tries to tell an entertaining dystopia with a twist, lightly written and slightly disturbing. And he delivers so well that slightly disturbed readers pick the wrong axe. Thanks, Bruce!
posted by bru at 5:32 AM on June 25, 2010


"Now these organized network freaks had taken over the hurricane wreck of the church. They were sacrificing goats in there, and having group sex under their hammer and sickle while witches read Tarot cards to the beat of techno music."

I loled.
posted by symbollocks at 5:43 AM on June 25, 2010


Yeah, I don't see what's so bad about it. I wish he would have gone into more detail about how the regime in the story governs. I've always been wary about many of my radical friends tendencies to praise efforts to "distribute power democratically" and this story demonstrates why. William Gillis summed this up perfectly when he said:

"Fuck 'Power to the People.' Power is a psychosis. Liberty aint about equalizing power and giving everyone 5.3 milliHitlers of oppression each. It's about actually fucking abolishing power."

... especially if it's the power to alienate somebody using your "social capital."
posted by symbollocks at 6:10 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Please include an explanation of what is preventing anyone from forking Wikipedia if this "other side" gets too evil.

Well, I don't know what "that" is, either, but the answer to this is pretty obvious: Mindshare. In a Bazaar-model, forks only work if they can grab mindshare. And Jimmy's got all the bandwidth on this one.
posted by lodurr at 6:19 AM on June 25, 2010


The wikipedia name/domain is pretty powerful. OTOH, if they start being evil, they'll start alienating people enough that alternatives will get some mindshare too. Look at Microsoft/Apple vs Linux.
posted by DU at 6:21 AM on June 25, 2010


Hmm. I'm torn on this.

I've been a fan of Sterling's for years - his early books were basically my first exposure to science fiction. I gobbled up The Hacker Crackdown (non-fiction but awesome) and Heavy Weather when I was about twelve and have read nearly everything else he's ever written. Back in the day I even sent him one of those goofy 'I wantz to be a writer!' emails and he actually replied, a couple of times. Blew my teenage mind.

My main issue (especially with the short pieces he writes like this) is that they have become Markov-chains of 'eyeball kicks'. From the Turkey City Lexicon:

Eyeball Kick

That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." (Rudy Rucker)


In chaining together detail, detail, detail and larding down his stories with bleeding edge meme-tastic references (pirates, ninjas, McMansions), he's creating stories that look like tangential riffs from his SXSW keynotes.

The issue is that the worldbuilding is of the deeply implausible 'and then the geeks shall rise and change everything' school. Here's the best ever summary I've seen of this kind of nerd revenge fantasy writing.

Frankly, I put it in the same box as James Kunstler's World Made By Hand (warning, old timey auto-play music) slush, where the lights go out and we all go back to the ways of the Old West. Except here, instead of ridiculous nostalgia and a thinly-veiled longing for a disaster to remake the world, we get a daft knock off of Cory Doctorow's Whuffie Magic Kingdom set in a hurricane ravaged post-industrial Eden.

It's not quite as dire and vague as When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth, but it's drawing from the same pool of thinking.

Maybe I'm just getting burned out on post-apocalyptic fiction.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:34 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is an interesting part, and vintage Bruce:
So, I finally get paroled. I get amnestied. Not my pal Claire, unfortunately for her. Claire and our female warden had some kind of personal difficulty, because they'd been college roommates or something -- like, maybe some stolen boyfriend trouble. Something very girly and tenderly personal, all like that -- but in a network society, the power is ALL personal. "The personal is political." You mess with the tender feelings of a network maven, and she's not an objective bureaucrat following the rule of law. She's more like: "To the Bastille with this subhuman irritation!" [src]
The thing that I like about this is that it's at the same time mean, unfair, petty, and absolutely and painfully true. This is in fact a fact of life about social networks: Whoever is on top, for whatever really stupid "karmic" reasons, gets to call the shots.

It's fundamentally no different from the social dynamics of criminal gangs. Sterling has always understood this. Even the relatively glossy portrayals of trustafarianism, e.g. in Distraction and "Maneki Neko", have a dark side that he doesn't try to paper over with lazy characterization of the "villains", unlike some others whose names I won't mention because they're already whipping boys around here and more of it does nobody any good.

Anyway, back on topic: If you think this has a particular cant either pro or anti socialist, I suggest that you read it again as though it's a satire of the belief you first believed it to hold. My experience reading Sterling is that this usually produces some insights to the subject matter under discussion, even if (as is usual) it still leaves the author's intentions obscure.
posted by lodurr at 6:38 AM on June 25, 2010


Look at Microsoft/Apple vs Linux

I do, all the time, and if I take your grouping literally my answer is basically that nothing much has changed on that front in about 5 years or so.

However, if I amend your grouping to this "Microsoft vs. Apple vs. Linux" -- then it gets interesting. Because it's not Linux that's sucked mindshare away from MS, it's Apple -- and I'm convinced they've sucked mindshare (or at least, growth in mindshare) from Linux, as well. (They got me. I started using Macs after my second or third try at going Linux. And I've known or heard of lots of other people who had the same experience. Subjective, sure, but it illustrates the point that the merits that win out are not necessarily what we expect them to be.)
posted by lodurr at 6:44 AM on June 25, 2010


Frankly, I put it in the same box as James Kunstler's World Made By Hand (warning, old timey auto-play music) slush, where the lights go out and we all go back to the ways of the Old West. Except here, instead of ridiculous nostalgia and a thinly-veiled longing for a disaster to remake the world, we get a daft knock off of Cory Doctorow's Whuffie Magic Kingdom set in a hurricane ravaged post-industrial Eden.


I don't think we read the same story - the future presented is dystopian, it's constantly being referred to as smelly, rank, backward, itchy, and filled with forced social interaction and do-gooderism (and the sly implication with the European Red Cross scene, that the prison is below substandard, and the double implication: other countries are way more stable). Now to most people that doesn't sound half bad, but our protag, a self-described griefer and gleeful asshole, he *hates it* and is more than willing to point out the flaws in this Crustypunk Planet. Considering he drops a snide "Little Brother" line, one can almost take this as a two-sided critique of the various strains of utopianism/disaster porn that can be found these days, that what took over wasn't any better and this current world is just a band-aide until assholes like him take it back or they get blown up by bandits. I found it rather witty myself.
posted by The Whelk at 6:45 AM on June 25, 2010


and it's rare that a story like this tries to make us empathize with an outcast who maybe really, really deserves to be outcast.
posted by The Whelk at 6:47 AM on June 25, 2010


...one can almost take this as a two-sided critique...

I usually assume Sterling is talking from at least two sides. I don't think he even knows how to criticize something from just one side. (I'm told this can make him initially difficult, but ultimately very productive, to workshop with.)
posted by lodurr at 6:48 AM on June 25, 2010


I think I was on the right path calling it a burlesque, everyone finally gets the disaster world they've been waiting for.
posted by The Whelk at 6:51 AM on June 25, 2010


I don't think we read the same story - the future presented is dystopian, it's constantly being referred to as smelly, rank, backward, itchy, and filled with forced social interaction and do-gooderism (and the sly implication with the European Red Cross scene, that the prison is below substandard, and the double implication: other countries are way more stable).

You know, you're right. I guess I'm so used to the quietly gleeful tone of a lot of fiction in this vein that it took me a second read to pick that up.

That said, and maybe this is just an inherent limitation of short stories, but I'd kind of fed up of stories that spend all their time vaguely telegraphing the details of whichever apocalypse has befallen the world - I find I'm almost always more interested in the chain of events that has led to the time of the story than the story itself.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:52 AM on June 25, 2010


I liked driving my SUV to the mall, whipping out my alligator wallet, and buying myself some hard liquor, a steak dinner, and maybe a stripper. All that awful stuff at the Pottery Barn and Banana Republic, when you never knew "Who the hell was buying that?" That guy was me.
The story overall makes me shrug and I won't remember it a few months from now even if someone offered me lots of money and/or karma to do so. But I want to hear more about how the Pottery Barn sells strippers.
posted by Drastic at 6:54 AM on June 25, 2010


I'm sure they're very tasteful and come in Avocado cream and Sundried red.
posted by The Whelk at 6:56 AM on June 25, 2010


seriously, you didn't know about that?

here's what you do: go to a pottery barn, look for the hottest babe (or hunk, if that's your thing) on staff, and tell them you want to go out back and is $20 the right price. They'll fix you right up.
posted by lodurr at 6:56 AM on June 25, 2010


that is also how Pottery Barn sells weed and off-season napkin rings.
posted by The Whelk at 6:58 AM on June 25, 2010


Because it's not Linux that's sucked mindshare away from MS, it's Apple -- and I'm convinced they've sucked mindshare (or at least, growth in mindshare) from Linux, as well.

I think we need to be clear about what kind of "mindshare" we are talking about. My bringing up of Linux was to illustrate that a) it was widely known and b) it was a viable alternative universe for people cheesed off by MS/Apple. These are the same properties that a Wikipedia fork would have to have. "Number of users" isn't even all that well-defined for an operating system, but for a lookup website it's even less so.
posted by DU at 8:03 AM on June 25, 2010


I see what you mean, but it seems to me that only makes a fork less likely to succeed.

The key metrics for Wikipedia are # of users, # of contributors, and # of committed* contributors. They all have to hit a critical mass or it doesn't really work right anymore.

Success in a bazaar model is largely a function of how many people think you're important.

Anyway, if Wikipedia "goes evil", it seems to me more likely to tar the whole concept than to drive people to a fork/competitor. I think a Wikipedia fork would have to fly on its own strengths, not Wikipedia's failings.


--
*Do feel free to make jokes about this phrasing. I would.
posted by lodurr at 8:34 AM on June 25, 2010


I think this all depends on the nature of the evil (for instance, have they stolen all the content so you can't get new edits?) and the nature of the fork (for instance, is it intended to replace the entire contents or merely a subset or merely show the same data in a different layout?).

Also, I think you are still counting success by starting with a number of people. I prefer to count success by rating the experience (along many dimensions) for each person. Linux isn't successful because it has more users than Windows. Linux is successful because it works better (for several values of "work", including security, openness, choice, cost, etc).
posted by DU at 8:44 AM on June 25, 2010


Right, but Wikipedia has totally different success metrics. It's successful to the extent that people trust it and that people use it as a first resource. The first is akin to user experience, but extends to people who've never actually used it. The second is basically a matter of top-of-mind awareness: What's your first stop when you want to know about corn salad, e.g.?

The unspoken issue for both of these is where does the money come from. I actually don't know where Wikipedia gets its money; Linux gets its capital via pseudo-largesse. It's successful in very, very large part because many large corporations pay for people to work on it. Yes, hobbyists work on it; but it would be nowhere near as successful if IBM et al. weren't making many millions of $$ per year off it, and investing accordingly in its upkeep. I have to think something similar goes on with Wikipedia, but I'm willing to be counter-educated on it.
posted by lodurr at 8:56 AM on June 25, 2010


Reading it, there's no doubt that the narrator is definitely a shallow greedhead whose function was not only to consume but to exhort others to consume, and to undermine those who doubted the long-term sustainability of such a lifestyle. So, not a nice guy.

However, he's being held captive after a Great Leap Backwards and forced to undergo struggle sessions because, for petty idealogues who squirm towards power of the flavor which suits them, it is not enough to merely triumph over your opponents, they must be forced to endure rituals of humiliation, culminating in the vanquished admitting that you had been right all along.

It's a strategy designed by those who are so insecure with their comfort (or lack thereof) in the world which they have created that someone else must be forced to trumpet the wisdom of the victors, because the victors themselves no longer believe their own propaganda. Inquisitor or O'Brien, the capitulation of the subject via confession of guilt is the main thrill of their satisfaction.
posted by adipocere at 9:40 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


we get a daft knock off of Cory Doctorow's Whuffie Magic Kingdom

Bruce Sterling ripping off Cory Doctorow? Wow, we've come full circle here, people.
posted by Ratio at 10:56 AM on June 25, 2010


actually, it's kind of like the homeless whuffieless guy's version of Whuffie Magic Kingdom. Sort of like saying "Hey! You! Yeh, it's me, the human cockroach! Thought you could get rid of me with Trust Capital, didja?"
posted by lodurr at 11:04 AM on June 25, 2010


... also, I'm having a hard time getting how we get this far down the page without someone mentioning the fact that Tom DeLay used to be known as "The Exterminator."
posted by lodurr at 11:07 AM on June 25, 2010


...Wikipedia has totally different success metrics. It's successful to the extent that people trust it and that people use it as a first resource.

And neither of those is measured in number of people. There's a level-of-trust metric and a goto-rank metric. (You also mention non-users trusting it, which is a number of people thing, but again there's a difference between using a resource and knowing you can trust that resource.)

Yes, hobbyists work on it; but it would be nowhere near as successful if IBM et al. weren't making many millions of $$ per year off it, and investing accordingly in its upkeep.

This is a little disingenuous. I don't know how much corporate money there is per line of Linux code, but:

1) It had to get viable in the first place before anyone threw money at it.

2) While IBM or whoever might be funding some kernel hackers, I doubt they are doing much funding of GNU projects and that's really the majority of a "Linux" system. How much of Debian, for example, is funded by corporate dollars?

3) IBM et al aren't providing funds/hackers to Linux for free but neither is Linux giving them some kind of evil benefit (e.g. advertising in the boot messages). These companies are doing things like porting to their embedded chips because that's the only way they can get a great embedded OS on their product.

In any case, while the question of funding might pertain to why Wikipedia might go evil, it doesn't really pertain to forkability. Depending on what form the fork takes, it can leave most of the work up to the upstream source and just tweak some little thing (display, certain subtopics, etc).
posted by DU at 11:20 AM on June 25, 2010


lodurr: at the start, I was half-hoping that the narrator would be DeLay.

I don't know what it is, but I'm finding I can't handle Sterling's constant...I don't even know what to call it: nihilism? The last time I went to sxsw, I actually walked out of his speech, because it was so angry and morose. Otherwise I think I would have taken this story as being a burlesque, like The Whelk said.
posted by epersonae at 12:11 PM on June 25, 2010


it can still be nihilistic and be burlesque. but i take your point.

a friend is continually talking about the negativity of dystopian fiction. he wants positive examples, and found himself pointing again and again to doctorow stories to make his arguments. complains that it's easy to make a big impact with negativity, pointing to examples like Paolo Bacigalupi's stories (if you think this is negative, check out Paolo*) -- e.g. "Yellow Card Man" and "The Tamarisk Hunter."

After a while, my friend put his money where his mouth was and wrote a story in the Doctorow mold of kids saving the planet "one city at a time." It was actually pretty darn good. I liked it more than Cory's stuff not just because it was written by a friend, but because it lacked both the boundless arrogance of Doctorow's protagonists and the boundless cynicism of Sterling's. It was just about a couple of kids whose moms think they should pay attention to their schoolwork isntead of screwing around in the basement. Meanwhile the kids between the two of them are cleaning up Lake Ontario and preventing southerners from stealing its water. Far-fetched? Sure. but the point is that it's only a grim future if we allow it to be, and allowing ourselves to be convinced otherwise is tantamount to giving up. (I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir on that.)

Anyway, yes, I hear you. "Life is not all miserable," as Nancy Kress likes to say whenever this subject comes up. I tend to see the negative, myself. It's how I'm wired.


--
*Mind, I think Paolo's a brilliant writer and he seems really sincere, not at all angling for audience through negativity. If you have a good resistance to depression I highly recommend him. Plus I don't think it's nearly as dark as most other people do.
posted by lodurr at 1:21 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Paolo Bacigalupi also has a story in this series: The Gambler.
posted by homunculus at 2:54 PM on June 25, 2010


The Guy Who Worked For Money
posted by homunculus at 11:38 AM on July 13, 2010


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