Bruce Sterling's "We See Things Differently
October 6, 2005 11:00 AM   Subscribe

We See Things Differently - a 1989 story from the perspective of an Arab visitor to a future, run-down America. By Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer and one of the founders of cyberpunk. Besides his science fiction, Sterling is also known for his 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown, available free on-line, and the Viridian Design Project. He's also an entertaining science writer; here's a column he wrote on bacterial resistance.
posted by russilwvong (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The bacteria article is very good at reminding us what a miracle the discovery of antibiotics was and how grim life will be when bacteria reach full immunity status. But he colorfully attributes the resistance to bacteria's character instead of the reality of natural selection, but I guess hey, he's a writer. Well I guess its just Bacteria's world, were just living in it.
posted by uni verse at 11:20 AM on October 6, 2005

and he also hosts the best party at SXSW every year.
posted by crunchland at 11:38 AM on October 6, 2005

The story was a nice find, thanks
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:55 AM on October 6, 2005

I also love his articles about the birth of nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, the construction and upkeep of broadcast towers, and the slow death of the superconducting supercollider in Texas.
posted by straight at 12:12 PM on October 6, 2005

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to reread the story, which made an impression on me when it came out and now seems prescient indeed: "We bled ourselves white competing against Russia, which was stupid, but we'd won. With two giants, the world trembles. One giant, and the midgets can drag it down."

But this still annoys the hell out of me: "This is the dar-al-harb, the land of peace." All that research and he blows the simple distinction between dar al-Islam, the abode of Islam, and dar al-harb, the abode of war, the lands of the unbelievers? He could at least have fixed it for republication. Oh well, a powerful story despite my quibbles.
posted by languagehat at 12:30 PM on October 6, 2005

languagehat: clearly, clever kills.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:20 PM on October 6, 2005

More Sterling fun at in an interview about the significance of J.G Ballard.
I think Ballard is actually about ten times smarter than Burroughs. I mean, Burroughs is like a drunk who found a sharpened screwdriver in the gutter. His work is claptrap, but it’s marvellous claptrap. So that gives it a weird demented Bohemian majesty. Whereas Ballard is a very fastidious kind of guy who’s very much on top of his game. He’s willing to stare into the same abyss as Burroughs, but he’d never sit there in a heroin stupor as the abyss started eating its way up his leg.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:20 PM on October 6, 2005

uni verse : "he colorfully attributes the resistance to bacteria's character instead of the reality of natural selection, but I guess hey, he's a writer."

Keep in mind, this is the guy who wrote Neuromancer while thinking that modern computers worked by means of some crystal inside them. He may be a good writer (I dunno, not my tastes), but I don't think science or research are exactly his forté.
posted by Bugbread at 1:44 PM on October 6, 2005

Oh, crap, that last bit about Ballard had me cackling out loud.

I love Sterling. Sometimes his narrative styles leaves a bit to be desired, but the ideas, they do come thick and fast.
posted by lodurr at 1:48 PM on October 6, 2005

Keep in mind, this is the guy who wrote Neuromancer while thinking that modern computers worked by means of some crystal inside them.

William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, not Bruce Sterling.
posted by zztzed at 1:51 PM on October 6, 2005

Yeah, please do not confuse him with Gibson. Gibson did not get on the net until he discovered eBay had antique watches.
posted by Voivod at 2:00 PM on October 6, 2005 [2 favorites]

However, Bruce did write The Zenith Angle, for which I haven't yet forgiven him. It's mostly unreadable, but the parts I did manage to get through were horrid.
posted by sfenders at 2:02 PM on October 6, 2005

modern computers worked by means of some crystal inside them.

Uh, that's exactly how they do work. Microprocessors are based on wafers of monocrystalline silicon with various dopants.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:03 PM on October 6, 2005

Keep in mind, this is the guy who wrote Neuromancer while thinking that modern computers worked by means of some crystal inside them. He may be a good writer (I dunno, not my tastes), but I don't think science or research are exactly his forté.
Wrong, bugbread. Please try not to confuse mere authors like Sterling with gods like William Gibson. ;) Neuromancer by William Gibson launched the genre of cyberpunk and the first novel ever to win the holy trinity of science fiction: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. I own several editions of the book (including a signed first edition) and it remains one of my all-time favorite books.
posted by nlindstrom at 2:26 PM on October 6, 2005

Please, please, I'm sure bugbread's embarrassed enough already.

I put Zenith Angle down about three months ago, about a third of the way in, and haven't been able to bring myself to pick it up again.

I remember when it used to be assumed that genre fictions where the province of hacks, and you had to go mainstream to get quality. Is the reverse now the perception, I wonder? I know that the SF I used to read as a kid was written to a far higher prose standard than most mainstream stuff I saw at the time or have seen since.
posted by lodurr at 2:52 PM on October 6, 2005

zztzed, voivod, nlindstrom,

I am so embarassed now, if I had a normal complexion, I'd be cherry red. Since I work night shifts in a tech job, my skin paleness is so great that probably the peak for me is a light pink, but you can bet I'm pink-as-a-motherfucker now.

George_Spiggott : "Uh, that's exactly how they do work. Microprocessors are based on wafers of monocrystalline silicon with various dopants."

Yes, but he (er, Gibson, not Sterling) was talking "crystal". Like, open it up, hang it from a necklace, and sell it in new age shops, not thinkgeek.
posted by Bugbread at 3:03 PM on October 6, 2005

"Seven American Nights" is set in a fallen America that could well be a result of the conflict in "Hour of Trust." "Hour of Trust" is the most haunting: it shows not only suicide bombers, but also their recruitment from an incoherent mass of variously disaffected people, and how they are used as tools for a coherent policy of terror; it shows a schism between Europe and the US; it shows the power of amateur video being broadcast. These stories were all written before the hostages were taken in Iran (1980), another moment which seems a part of the same picture.

Gene Wolfe was there first with Seven American Nights from the collection The Island of Doctor Death & Other Stores & Other Stories.

Seven American Nights lingers with me still--hardly a day goes by when it does not come to mind, as does Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore. In ...Nights, America is a ruined wasteland while Iran is the great power and one can see the lights of New Tabriz in the dark of the new moon after sunset.
posted by y2karl at 3:03 PM on October 6, 2005

Gardner Dozier wants to pin cyberpunk on Vernon Vinge.

Sterling has a website out there too. Schismatrix or some such.
posted by Max Power at 3:05 PM on October 6, 2005

Here I am at last! After twelve mortal days aboard the Princess Fatimah-twelve days of cold and ennui-twelve days of bad food and throbbing engines-the joy of being on land again is like the delight a condemned man must feel when a letter from the shah snatches him from beneath the very blade of death. America! America! Dull days are no more! They say that everyone who comes here either loves or hates you, America-by Allah I love you now!

Having begun this record at last, I find I do not know where to begin. I had been reading travel diaries before I left home; and so when I saw you, O Book, lying so square and thick in your stall in the bazaar-why should I not have adventures too, and write a book like Osman Aga's? Few come to this sad country at the world's edge, after all, and most who do land farther up the coast.

And that gives me the clue I was looking for-how to begin. America began for me as colored water. When I went out on deck yesterday morning, the ocean had changed from green to yellow. I had never heard of such a thing before, neither in my reading, nor in my talks with Uncle Mirza, who was here thirty years ago. I am afraid I behaved like the greatest fool imaginable, running about the ship babbling, and looking over the side every few minutes to make certain the rich mustard color was still there and would not vanish the way things do in dreams when we try to point them out to someone else.

The steward told me he knew. Golam Gassem the grain merchant (whom I had tried to avoid meeting for the entire trip until that moment) said, "Yes, yes," and turned away in a fashion that showed he had been avoiding me too, and that it was going to take more of a miracle than yellow water to change his feelings.

One of the few native Americans in first class came out just then: Mister-as the style is here-Tallman, husband of the lovely Madam Tallman, who really deserves such a tall man as myself. (Whether her husband chose that name in self-derision, or in the hope that it would erase others' memory of his infirmity; or whether it was his father's; and is merely one of the countless ironies of fate, I do not know. There was something wrong with his back.) As if I had not made enough spectacle of myself already, I took this Mr. Tallman by the sleeve and told him to look over the side, ` explaining that the sea had turned yellow. I am afraid Mr.. Tallman turned white himself instead, and turned something else too-his back-looking as though he would have` struck me if he dared. It was comic enough, I suppose-I heard some of the other passengers chuckling about it' afterward-but I don't believe I have seen such hatred in a human face before.

Just then the captain came strolling up, and I-considerably deflated but not-flattened yet, and thinking that he had not overheard Mr. Tallman and me-mentioned for the final time that day that the water had turned yellow. "I know," the captain said. "It's his country" (here he jerked his head in the direction of the pitiful Mr. Tallman), "bleeding to death."...

This Seven American Nights has, from the looks of it, most, if not all, the story's text, albeit rather poorly typed.
posted by y2karl at 3:43 PM on October 6, 2005

I was mesmerized by early Sterling, especially Crystal Express and his Shaper/Mech stuff, but I have found his novels mostly disappointing, except for the at-times hilarious Heavy Weather. I groaned all the way through Zenith Angle can barely remember anything about Holy Fire or Islands in the Net, and I never finished Distraction or Zeitgeist. On the other hand my head still contains vivid imagery from Schismatrix -- his Shaper/Mech universe is richly and darkly conceived.

His short stories are much more compelling and quirky, less dependent on characterization. I always enjoy finding his stories in SF anthologies I pick up while traveling. "The Little Magic Shop" is a gem.
posted by ldenneau at 4:56 PM on October 6, 2005

Islam in Science Fiction.

Sterling is still one of my favorite writers, even though it seems he's not writing much fiction nowadays. Ah well, at least there's his blog.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:11 PM on October 6, 2005

Personally, I never really got into the Shaper/Mech stories, but I thought Distraction was great. What I really like about Sterling--besides his colorful and frequently hilarious writing style--is his treatment of the intersection between technology, culture, and politics.

Compared to Seven American Nights, the United States depicted by Sterling in "We See Things Differently" and Distraction is much less far gone. It's still running, just not very well; kind of like post-Soviet Russia.
posted by russilwvong at 5:21 PM on October 6, 2005

No discussion of the relative merits of Bruce Sterling's work
is complete without a mention of Involution Ocean
(1977) or The Artificial Kid (1980). I think they're both
among his best work.

Involution Ocean is Moby Dick writ (thankfully)
small, and The Artificial Kid is a coming-of-age story
of a strange adolescent in a strange age. I recommend them
both without reservation.
posted by the Real Dan at 6:23 PM on October 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm reminded of a fairly ghastly joke...
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:26 PM on October 6, 2005

Sterling's early novels (Artificial Kid, Islands in the Net, and most especially Schismatrix) are his most interesting by far. (I haven't read Involution Ocean, considering it's been out of print for quite awhile and is a collector's item now.)

However, pretty much all of his short stories are amazing. His collections Crystal Express (out of print), Globalhead, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future are all well worth checking out.

His non-fiction book The Hacker Crackdown is also quite entertaining.
posted by neckro23 at 9:32 PM on October 6, 2005

Another Heavy Weather fan here. You might also enjoy Paul Theroux's O-Zone.
posted by emf at 4:04 AM on October 7, 2005

Involution Ocean is... well, you can tell it's early work. Unpolished, maybe, and with fantastic, rather than SF-ic, roots.

(abebooks has paperback 1st ed. copies for $10, so I'm not sure that it qualifies as a collector's item).

Speaking of Gardner Dozois, and Muslim-related SF, one of his best-of-short-SF anthologies from the late 90s seemed absolutely chock-full of stories with Islamic themes. I remember one about people writing the Koran into their junk DNA, and one where newly-awakened AIs promptly convert to Islam as stand-outs.
posted by Leon at 4:25 AM on October 7, 2005

I remember coming this particular short story in, oh, '98? I remembered it after 9/11, but so many of my books are in boxes that I gave up on finding it. Sterling did write some great stuff early in his career, and I think the stuff he current writes is still at least passable. I guess that wouldn't sound like a great compliment to him. I love the schismatrix shaper/mech works, and Islands In The Net is among my favorite sci-fi books, up there with The Left Hand of Darkness (that's by LeGuin for those who haven't heard of it).

Sterling's knowledge of and feel for the contemporary world, and the impact of technology, is impeccable. I think of Gibson's Neuromancer works as being a dreamlike mirror image of the modern world, a surreal distortion. Sterling's stuff is more restrained, managing to convey a real feeling of modernity in his settings. Both writers get a lot of mileage by limiting exposition, teasing the reader to invent what they don't actually show.
posted by Edgewise at 12:10 PM on October 8, 2005

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