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September, 2006 : Review:

Reaping the Whirlwind

Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather and Tomorrow Now

Heavy Weather
By Bruce Sterling
Bantam Spectra, 1995
320 pp.

Tomorrow Now
By Bruce Sterling
Random House, 2003
368 pp.

Although its raison d'etre isn't prophecy, despite what some people seem to believe, science fiction has foreseen some things—Sir Arthur C. Clarke's satellites are an oft-cited example—and depicted others yet to be (cars that fly through the air are still on drawing boards). What science fiction does better is use possible futures to show us what we're dealing with now, and sometimes give us pointers on how not to arrive at the bleaker maybes it portrays. It is often a literature of change and consequences, examining how we live now in the light of how we might live in the future.

When it works well, SF shows us futures that remind us we have responsibilities to ourselves, other humans, and the rest of the planet. Earlier science fiction writers often wrote of technology as humanity's savior. However, in the late 1950s (and even more so in the 1960s, when the phrase "military-industrial complex" came into prominence), SF writers began to view technology with a more jaundiced perspective. Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is one of the top stories (if not the quintessential one) in which a new technology consumes its creator.

Twenty years ago, Bruce Sterling edited the now-famous Mirrorshades anthology, which gave readers a mega-dose of cyberpunk between two covers. Though cyberpunk is no longer en vogue, Sterling is still active in thinking about the future in both fiction and nonfiction, and some of his older works have proved prescient. Heavy Weatheris one such work; Tomorrow Nowmight yet be another.

First published in 1994, Heavy Weather is set in the United States of 2031, where global environmental havoc is raging in the form of "heavy weather," meteorological phenomena at least ten times as bad as anything humans have yet experienced in recorded history. Thousands of tornadoes every year, widespread drought in the mid-continent, and governments that collapsed under the weight of their own greed are now the norm. After the 2005 hurricane and tornado seasons in the U.S., this kind of severe weather seems like it's already here. It also makes Sterling look like a prophet; he'd probably say he was just paying attention to what was going on.

Into this maelstrom Sterling throws a brother and sister from a rich German-Mexican family that emigrated to the United States a generation before, a group of weather trackers known as the Storm Troupe whose leader is a charismatic mathematician, and the math maven's spooky (as in espionage) brother. Their world is one where chaos is a way of life and hope is more often something their grandparents had than an element in their daily lives.

Juanita "Janey" Unger finds her tuberculosis-ridden brother Alex in a Mexican clinic, undergoing treatment to cure his staph infection before treatment can begin on the tuberculosis. The dust- and chemical-laden air outside is toxic to Alex, so the Mexican clinic's doctor wants to give him a lung enema. Yes, it's just as disgusting as it sounds, but it actually works on Alex—for a little while. Alex has been having respiratory problems since childhood, and he wants to just go somewhere and die quietly. But his sister won't let him.

Kidnapped by his sibling and taken to the Troupe's latest camp, Alex decides to stay there for a while and enjoy being able to breathe normally again. Troupe guru Jerry Mulcahey doesn't overtly object, which Janey appreciates because she and Jerry are lovers. She's gone from being a spoiled rich girl looking for a thrill to a bona-fide storm tracker, and Jerry is her grand passion, something she'd despaired of ever having in her life. Jerry is consumed with his ever-growing certainty that the mother of all tornadoes, the F6, is going to happen that summer, and he wants more than anything to be there when it comes. Janey shares his desire and his vision, and not entirely because he's her lover; she's found evidence for it herself, and is driven to document the event for the future, whether doing so kills her or not.

Alex, despite himself, becomes attached to Troupe life and the storms they hunt. He finds his own niche among them, and they treat him as they'd treat anyone else who actually wanted to join them. This is new for Alex, because he's been sick since he was six days old, and his family has spent his lifetime trying to find a way to cure him.

Alex reaches the point where he realizes "I'm just some kid, I'm not just some dying kid" when he's with the Troupe. He's lost the "dying kid" label among them, and this has engendered something new in him. He even trusts trouper Carol enough to give him a field lung enema, having purchased the requisite medication and equipment himself when his symptomatic cough returns. "You know what?" he tells her. "I'm interested . . . Interested in the F-6. This big thing that's been hanging over us. I really believe in it now. I really know it's there! I know it's gonna really happen! And I really want to see it."

Out there in left field, where spooks tend to hang out, is Jerry's brother Leo Mulcahey, one of a group of secretly operating chaos agents. Leo and his comrades see themselves as inciters of positive movements that will save the earth from humanity's trashing. But their methods for accomplishing that goal are very far away from most of humanity's moral codes, so they operate in the shadows, tweaking events in small ways instead of attempting major statements. Leo's agenda only becomes clear late in the story, and despite his chosen career, it's hard not to agree at least in part with his reasoning—since it's only fiction, and no one in the real world would do what he does. Would they? . . .

Sterling has attitude and plenty of imagination, which he liberally uses to create this not-so-brave new world and its people. He knows Texas very well, having lived there for several years, and has done his homework well in the areas of weather forecasting, covert operations, storm tracking, human disease syndromes, genetics, botanical disruption created by altered weather and atmospheric composition, and historical weather events. His tech is dirty, used daily, part of life, not shiny and pretty and squeaky clean. The world of Heavy Weather is 100 percent cyberpunk. It's also carefully crafted, peopled by characters one can't help rooting for despite their shortcomings, and moves like a freight train when necessary—a lot like a tornado, actually.

The only negative thing about this novel is what nearly turns into an info dump near the end, after the F6 has scattered most of the characters away from each other. I say "nearly" because it wasn't obvious what he was doing until the scene where it happened was almost over. That's a testament to his skill and talent as a writer. Could he have found a different way to get that information to the reader, and do so a bit earlier in the story rather than leave it for the penultimate portion? Revealing that information earlier could have ruined the denouement—so the answer's no. Points for disguising to Mr. Sterling.

Despite the cynical attitudes of his characters, Sterling always manages to find a speck of hope for them somewhere, some possibility of "normal life" amid the technological turmoil. It isn't all rosy, though; many of his characters find what they later discover is a temporary peace, a calm stretch before the next storm hits, and how heavy a burden being responsible can be. But that's what "real life" is like, and thus Sterling's imagined worlds aren't so very far from what we know now. That hope is what makes his stories complete, and what keeps me searching out Sterling's works for further exploration.

Sterling has a well-developed ability to collect information worldwide and discern patterns within that information, then write about the potential future consequences in his fiction. This is how he made his reputation in cyberpunk. Distraction is a novel about how politics could very well look in another 50-100 years. Heavy Weather depicted what the greenhouse effect could eventually do to Earth's weather in the not-too-distant future. Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years isn't fiction, but there are loads of ideas in it which savvy writers should steal and use as story bases. I don't think Sterling would mind.

Sterling uses a character from Shakespeare's As You Like It, Jacques, as his ethereal guide and the author of this book's outline, based on Jacques' "All the world's a stage" soliloquy, which contains a description of the seven ages of human beings, from birth to death. It's an effective structure, and covers just about every possible concern we as humans are facing in the next half-century and further. As he writes in the book's introduction, "My intent in writing this book is to come to terms with seven novel aspects of the twenty-first century, situations that are native to that epoch and no other."

These aspects are then presented in thematic stages, following Shakespeare's presentation in the aforementioned play. The separation points and what Sterling discusses within each point are logically selected and presented, and offer much to mentally masticate.

Never before in human history have humans possessed as much power over the world and each other as they do now; Sterling asserts this is directly tied to the technological achievements of the last two centuries. His net gathers in subjects that concern us today; among them are genetics, reproduction, education (and the internet, of course), information as economy, how big wars have and will continue to evolve into smaller and deadlier conflicts without fronts or tangible gains but with huge losses, the changing face of politics, how the rich stay that way and why, and what future humans' approach might be towards death. Of each subject and how it might manifest in the next fifty years, Sterling asks two questions: What does it mean? How does it feel? He then gives what he thinks will be likely answers, and they're fascinating ones.

Reading Sterling in his nonfiction mode is like trying to keep track of a very fast ping-pong game. By the time one concept has begun to sink into the brain, he's already fired off two or three more ideas one wants to pursue and examine. Like a book of good poetry, the verbiage here is densely packed with images, possibilities that flit like butterflies from the hand only to be found again later on the path through each chapter.

His wryly twisted sense of humor pervades every chapter in the book, and with good reason. There's a lot of really depressing what-iffing going on here, and a few laughs are required to break the tension of actually considering all this bad juju that's probably just up the pike from where we are on the time stream. But it's not all doom and gloom. Sterling does see some lights along the way, though at present and from his perspective, they're dim ones.

A lot of baby boomers will still be alive in another half-century. For all of us, and for the generations to come, I sincerely hope Sterling's wrong about most of what he sees and writes about for this book. Otherwise, life will come to resemble something out of a Bruce Sterling novel, and that's not something to welcome.

Copyright © 2006, Janine Stinson. All Rights Reserved.

About Janine Stinson

J.G. Stinson has been reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror for 40+ years. Her reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, the Broadsheet and SF Site, among others. Her essay "The Human As Other in the Science Fiction Novels of C. J. Cherryh" was published in The Cherryh Odyssey (edited by Edward Carmien, Borgo Press/Wildside Press, 2004).


Sep 27, 17:30 by IROSF
A thread to Bruce Sterling, or J. G. Stinson's reviews.

The article can be found here

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