Distraction Hardcover – Dec 1 1998
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It's the year 2044, and America has gone to hell. A disenfranchised U.S. Air Force base has turned to highway robbery in order to pay the bills. Vast chunks of the population live nomadic lives fueled by cheap transportation and even cheaper computer power. Warfare has shifted from the battlefield to the global networks, and China holds the information edge over all comers. Global warming is raising sea level, which in turn is drowning coastal cities. And the U.S. government has become nearly meaningless. This is the world that Oscar Valparaiso would have been born into, if he'd actually been born instead of being grown in vitro by black market baby dealers. Oscar's bizarre genetic history (even he's not sure how much of him is actually human) hasn't prevented him from running one of the most successful senatorial races in history, getting his man elected by a whopping majority. But Oscar has put himself out of a job, since he'd only be a liability to his boss in Washington due to his problematic background. Instead, Oscar finds himself shuffled off to the Collaboratory, a Big Science pork barrel project that's run half by corruption and half by scientific breakthroughs. At first it seems to be a lose-lose proposition for Oscar, but soon he has his "krewe" whipped into shape and ready to take control of events. Now if only he can straighten out his love life and solve a worldwide crisis that no one else knows exists. --Craig E. Engler
From Publishers Weekly
It's 2044 A.D. and America has gone to the dogs. The federal government is broke and, with 16 political parties fighting for power, things aren't likely to improve soon. The Air Force, short on funding, is setting up roadblocks to shake down citizens and disguising its tactics as a bake sale. The governor of Louisiana, Green Huey, is engaging in illegal genetic research and has set up his own private biker army. The newly elected president of the U.S., Leonard Two Feathers, is considering a declaration of war against the Netherlands, a country that finds itself half under water due to global warming. Trying desperately to hold things together is Oscar Valparaiso, political consultant and spin doctor extraordinaire, who has just engineered the election of a new liberal senator for the state of Massachusetts, only to discover that his boss suffers from severe bipolar disorder. Looking for a new challenge, Oscar takes a job with the U.S. Senate Science Committee. His first assignment is to investigate the scandal-ridden Collaboratory, a gigantic, spaceshiplike federal lab in East Texas. Oscar, himself the result of an illegal Colombian cloning experiment, immediately falls head over heels for a gawky but brilliant young Nobel laureate, with whom he sets out to save both the lab and the nation from Green Huey. In his latest novel (after Holy Fire), Sterling once again proves himself the reigning master of near-future political SF. This is a powerful and, at times, very funny novel that should add significantly to Sterling's already considerable reputation.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Sterling's technological and political speculations are interesting and plausible, and his plot moves right along, propelled by informal but evocative language and a lot of humor. The best part of the book, though, is its protagonist, Oscar Valparasio, who combines the genius and audacity of Lois Bujold's character Miles Vorkosigan with a personal reserve and opacity that makes us even more interested in finding out what he's really like. Sterling actually manages to keep Oscar mysterious even though we're seeing through his eyes throughout the book.
Distraction is mostly about the ride -- like another of my favorite Sterling books, Heavy Weather, it has little pretension to epic scope or deep literary meaning -- but it has enough depth to make it a worthwhile read. My chief complaint is that it drowns in cynicism towards the end, leaving us with a downbeat and overlong ending and nothing much in the way of climax. A classic character like Oscar deserved a better sendoff.
The people who don't like the plot are probably looking for a conventional Triumph of the Individual Against All Odds adventure. "Distraction" is that rarity in speculative fiction, character-driven Sci-Fi. For an S-F novel to be character-driven, the character(s) must be recognizable and well-observed, but also modified by some speculative concept. The ability to observe well a person who cannot yet exist requires an intuitive vision that, if successful, confirms the whole genre of Sci-fi as a literary artform. I think Bruce Sterling pulls it off.
The whole delightfully wierd rambling plot, about feuding anarchistic nomad bands and the power-grappling over a national
biological laboratory by 16 political parties and neurological Gumbo a la Bayou, are loaded with flip ideas and throw-away shaggy-dog genius, but are ultimately a... well, a distraction. The real story is about Oscar himself, whose plight as the ultimate outsider seems like it must be a sublimation of something the author knows about personally. I'm sorry to say that I worry that Oscar's in-vitro birth as a genetic experiment in a black-market off-shore Columbian Mafia baby-selling operation may be occurring in real life right now. How the scary dark unavoidable abuses of our unprecedented technology impact on human souls is the real subject of this book.
Oscar's dark alter-ego, Green Huey, says to him,"I finally got you all figured out... You're always gonna have your nose pressed up against the glass, watchin' other folks drink the champagne. Nothing you do will last. You'll be a sideshow and a shadow, and you'll stay one till you die. But, son, if you got a big head start on the coming revolution, .... you can goddamn have Massachusetts." But Oscar consistantly chooses quietly perserving his own dignity over exploiting his tremendos gifts, which would only re-enforce his alienation. 'Distraction' is for anyone who's ever found their nose pressed up against the glass in this present bewildering Cyber-Age.
Other reviews here have alluded to the main characters of this novel being two-dimensional. I disagree - Sterling's protagonist is engaging and witty, brilliant and suave and wonderfully flawed to boot. I found great pleasure being in his company for the duration of the book.
Much of the book is cleverly and compellingly written in dialogue form - allowing the author to warm to his subject through his characters instead of off-loading his political philophies as wordy exposition. Sterling handles this expertly, drawing the reader in and entertaining them thoroughly in the process.
Worth the bother? Definitely!
Unfortunately, a few minor problems damaged my enjoyment of the story. The most fundamental is that the main character's true intentions throughout the book tend to be rather hard to follow. Though this is generally a good thing because it allows for a more realistic, non-linear motivation, I really felt a craving for a touch more direction. If only there had been a couple more of scenes where he took a reality check with his majordomo and explained his end goals, this book would have been perfect.
Also, the ending left me wanting more. Perhaps this is the mark of a truely good story, that you do not want it to end. In this case, however, I feel that the book simply ended too soon for me to truly feel a sense of closure. Now, if a sequel is in the cards, I take my last remark back and eagerly await the conclusion.
I would hate for the above, however, to stop anyone from reading this book. Perhaps it is not as good as Gibson's Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, but it is definetly as good as any other middle-future work on the market today. (Including Gibson's latest which, while more lyrical than Distraction wasn't nearly as much fun.)Anyone with an interest in the future, research, or in American politics should pick this up.