Bruce Sterling,
Visionary in Residence
(Thunder's Mouth, 2006)

Bruce Sterling is one of the best short-story writers on the science fiction scene. So the publication of a new Sterling collection is always cause for celebration. And Visionary in Residence, Sterling's fourth assemblage of shorts, does not disappoint. It's full of the sort of mind-expanding stories that first drew me to the science-fiction genre.

Over the course of the 11 solo stories and two collaborative works included here, the reader is treated to such wide-ranging notions as how forbidden love can blossom with the assistance of a real-time voice-translation device ("In Paradise"), how bio-engineering might be affected by the market forces that drive the toy industry ("Junk DNA") and how literature can save someone from the ravages of global climate change ("Message Found in a Bottle").

Sterling's dry sense of humor flavors many of the tales in Visionary in Residence. Perhaps my favorite example of his wit is contained in "Ivory Tower," a story that makes its first appearance in this collection (having been rejected by Nature, the publication that commissioned it). "In the 2050s, even the junk is ultra-advanced, and nobody knows how to repair it. Any sufficiently advanced garbage is indistinguishable from magic." This bastardization of Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote is pure Sterling -- an author with an immense appreciation and respect for the past, whose eye is constantly casting about in the barely conceived, dimly lit corners of the future.

If there is a significant weakness to Visionary in Residence it's the number of very short stories that have been included. Five stories clock in at five pages or less. And while the author has done some very clever short-short work, these pieces tend to feel slight by comparison to his lengthier stories.

"I'm a science fiction writer," Sterling proclaims in the collection's first story introduction. "This is a golden opportunity to get up to most any mischief imaginable." And it's true! But while most of the stories in Visionary in Residence are clearly science fiction, Sterling has also included his only ghost story ("The Denial"), a historical piece ("The Necropolis of Thebes") and a story he calls mainstream though only a few decades back it would certainly have been labeled as science fiction ("Code").

Whatever the classification, these are quirky, jargon-drenched thought experiments written for a science fiction audience, folks who've been raised on Gibson and his progeny. "I want you to know, without you, I'm nothing. You're the feminine mitochondrium in my dissolute masculine plasm, baby" (from "The Scab's Progress"). "Veruschka hadn't been sleeping properly. Stuck on the local grind of junk food and eighty-hour weeks, Veruschka's femme-fatale figure was succumbing to Valley hacker desk-spread. ... Veruschka was swiftly becoming a kerchiefed babushka with a string-bag, the outermost shell of some cheap nest of Russian dolls" (from "Junk DNA").

I certainly wouldn't recommend this book as an entry point into science fiction. But for those with a taste for the marvels and absurdities that may well come our way as the future unfolds its techno-mysteries, this is a collection to savor. Bruce Sterling is, truly, a Visionary in Residence.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
11 November 2006

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