by Bruce Sterling

Sullydog writes to you from Le Meridien Hotel in New Orleans, where he’s attending a conference on neurobiology. Where better to pen my review of Bruce Sterling’s brilliant novel Distraction, a book that takes us to the intersection of neural engineering, Louisiana culture, and high-powered American politics.

I love this city. It’s such a phahnqui juxtaposition of the sublime and the profane, opulence and squalor. At Alex Patout’s, down in the Quarter, you can dine on etoufee and braised lamb; across the street you can wrap your paws around a sloppy, slippery po’ boy.  Antique shops glitter with eighteenth century treasures of polished oak and mother-of-pearl; next door you can pick up a patent-leather split-crotch harness for that special someone. Preservation Hall swings, Krystal’s rocks. Of course, every community harbors its own cultural spectrum. But in Louisiana and particularly in N’Awlins, the spectrum is compressed into a singularity, a fecund mishmash that congeals into a spicy okra gumbo.

Distraction captures this flavor, and much more, as Sterling argues that This is Where We Are All Headed. Our protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political mercenary, a sort of non-toxic James Carville sans genetic introns. He’s the product of an ill-conceived and illegal program to cook up babies from scratch, and as such his metabolism and his cognitive functions are a bit skewed. The book gets off to a slow start, projecting a detailed background of America in chaos as we learn that Oscar has just completed a successful campaign to put a billionaire (who else?) in the Senate. In return, Oscar is promised a seat on the influential Senate Science Committee. He thinks it’s in his patron’s best interests to begin stirring up trouble right away, and launches a personal investigation of the Conservatory, a self-contained, vaguely bio-dome-like genetic-engineering laboratory in East Texas.

As we travel with Oscar to this multibillion-dollar nexus of 21st century science, Sterling shows us an America in disarray. This America is at war with the lowland nations of Holland and Denmark and Indonesia, who blame the US for the world’s rapidly rising waters. This America is roamed by de facto nations of high-tech nomads whose greatest commodity is prestige. This America has lost its status as an economic superpower, cut off at the knees by Chinese software piracy. And this America has neglected its own military for so long that the Air Force has to put up bake-sale roadblocks and extort citizens at gunpoint, just to keep the bases open and the troops fed.

The Conservatory is seriously dirty. This multidisciplinary laboratory is the ultimate pork-barrel project. But it has little to do with Texas. It’s the brainchild of the power-hungry, charismatic, and dangerously unstable governor of Louisiana, known by his adoring public as Green Huey. Green Huey won’t like a Senate staffer poking around his Conservatory, but that’s what he’s got. Oscar becomes involved with one of the senior researchers, Dr. Greta Penninger, a Nobel-laureate neuroscientist. Through her eyes he begins to see the Conservatory as a microcosm of American Science in the 21st century—enslaved to economics, cut off from cultural reality, disenfranchised and irrelevant, pawns of the Power Structure. And Oscar  begins to whiff something malignant and evil at the Conservatory, a plot involving neural engineering, illegal Haitian immigrants, the Dutch, the President and the growing disconnect between Louisiana and the rest of the country. It’s got Green Huey’s fingerprints all over it.

Back in Washington, Oscar’s senator falls into a well of depression and madness. Next door in Louisiana, an insane governor begins engineering his destruction. Oscar’s response? He gives up his Senate science gig and leads an armed insurrection by the Conservatory’s scientists, giving birth to a sort of scientific Camelot. As the book picks up steam, Green Huey’s plot unfolds, and we get a glimpse of our neurobiological destiny, a glorious and terrifying promise of cognitive engineering. More important, more penetrating, is Sterling’s view of the “Gumbo Future.” One could argue that the entire book is a platform for the following paragraph:

Sterling’s mastery continues to flower and grow. He’s got a lot on his cutting board here: Big Science, politics, culture, madness, cognitive engineering, environmental devastation, love and loyalty, tribalism and nationalism. But just as a Louisiana chef “sweeps the kitchen” and blends the odds and ends into a rich jambalaya, Sterling cooks all these themes into a tasty concoction, rich and satisfying. It may be the single best work of political science fiction yet written. Try it with a dash of Tabasco and a shot of Tennessee whisky.

Sullydog Approves.

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