Sterling's skills shine in tale of Earth's stormy tomorrow

November 06, 1994|By F. Brett Cox

Over the past decade, Bruce Sterling has established himself as one of the most important voices in science fiction. Along with William Gibson, he was the central figure of the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s, producing stories and novels that accepted radical technological and social change as not just possible, but inevitable. His award-winning 1988 novel "Islands in the Net" offered one of the most meticulously constructed and politically savvy near-future scenarios since the glory days of Robert A. Heinlein. More recently, his non-fiction book "The Hacker Crackdown" provided an energetic look at the real-life cyberpunks of the computer underground.

"Heavy Weather" is perhaps Mr. Sterling's finest work to date, a brilliant synthesis of shrewd and ingenious technological extrapolation with a hip outlaw sensibility and a profound awareness of the primal energy of the American landscape.

TTC Set in 2031, the novel's backdrop is a United States that has largely collapsed, both technologically and environmentally. The information economy has overloaded and shut down. In the aftermath of this "State of Emergency," the homeless can still access the Library of Congress on cheap laptop computers, but business is conducted largely through barter and the black market. At the same time, the environmental predations of the previous century have led to dust bowls, mass evacuations, and "heavy weather": flood, drought, and a fourfold increase in the incidence of tornadoes.

The result is a society with a refugee metality, a society whose inhabitants often wear "that drawn, tight-around-the-eyelids look. . . . A haunted, wary look, like the solid earth beneath their feet had become thin ice, never to be trusted again."

Against this chaotic background, Mr. Sterling sets the story of Alex Unger and his sister Jane. The scion of a wealthy Houston businessman, Alex has spent most of his 21 years battling

illness; as the novel opens, he is receiving experimental treatment in a Mexican clinic. Enter sister Jane, who has Alex kidnapped and brought to the Storm Troupe, a band of high-tech outlaws who "hack heavy weather" -- chase, analyze, and record storms through the Tornado Alley of Texas and Oklahoma -- and whose leader, the brilliant mathematician Jerry Mulcahey, is Jane's lover. As Alex slowly becomes part of the Troupe, he becomes involved in its search for the F-6, "a giant, unprecedentedly large, and violent atmospheric storm" that could become "Earth's own version of the Great Red Spot of Jupiter."

A novel of chaotic events is always in danger of itself sinking into chaos, and one of "Heavy Weather's" chief virtues is how well Mr. Sterling manages to hold it all together. No one in science fiction is any better at combining technological extrapolation and narrative, and "Heavy Weather" is a feast of fascinating mechanical details.

A key factor in the novel's success is the writing itself. Like other science-fiction writers before him, Mr. Sterling has been accused of being more concerned with the ideas his words convey than with the words themselves. The narrative voice of "Heavy Weather," though, is as precise as the details that adorn it, a smoothly energetic outlaw drawl laced with turns of phrase that, like science fiction itself, take the reader a step beyond the expected. The overall effect reads like a collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and Hunter S. Thompson:

"By the time people figured out that raging nonlinear anarchy was not exactly to the advantage of anyone concerned, the process was simply too far gone to stop. All workable standards of wealth had vaporized, digitized, and vanished into a nonstop hurricane of electronic thin air. . . ."

"The global ocean of black money was so vast in scope that it was instantly, crushingly obvious that the standard doctrines of conventional finance had no workable contact with reality." Mr. Sterling's extrapolative brilliance and engaging style, however, remain firmly in the service of a larger concern: the depiction of a blasted America and the people who must live in it. It is Mr. Sterling's greatest gift as a novelist to be able to make us understand that the future is neither Utopia nor Dystopia. The future is where we will all have to live. It will be utterly different from today, but brothers and sisters will still fight and reconcile, unworthy people will still grasp power, and the forces of nature will still be just a little bit beyond our control.

In reminding us of this, while giving its readers as challenging and enjoyable a fast ride as they are likely to find in any novel this year, "Heavy Weather" shows us just how good good science fiction can be. Bruce Sterling has set the standard. The rest of us now have to keep up.

Mr. Cox is a writer and an assistant professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Ga.

Title: "Heavy Weather"

Author: Bruce Sterling

Publisher: Bantam Books

Length, price: 310 pages, $21.95

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