Future Tense

Happy 20th Birthday to Distraction

Bruce Sterling’s sci-fi novel offers some hope in our current political moment.

Distraction book cover and science-fiction author Bruce Sterling, as seen in Berlin in 2016.
Distraction and Bruce Sterling Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Spectra and Axel Schmidt/Reuters.

It’s one thing to use science fiction to imagine the future, to extrapolate a technology or trend forward a few decades and show how it evolves in isolation. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s robot stories extended the very limited computing machines of his day with timeless logic puzzles to envision how artificial beings might think. Better yet to come up with a cool idea and leave implementation to the engineers, like with Minority Report’s inspiring gestural computing interface. But as science-fiction author Frederik Pohl put it, “A good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” Great science fiction is more than a gripping plot or interesting setting—it offers a densely textured, plausible alternative reality layered on top of our own. Few novels have done that more successfully than Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, a science-fiction novel that was released 20 years ago.

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Distraction is alarmingly predictive in the way it depicts a world in which America has gone deeply off the rails. Politics is a cynical farce. The economy makes no sense and everyone is broke, except for a handful of billionaires. Spam emails sent out by artificial intelligence with dark ties to politicians feed conspiracy theories to gullible mentally ill people, inciting them to commit political assassinations. Covert wiretapping is the national pastime. Permanent encampments of homeless dissidents strangle major cities while internet flamewars spill over into street fights between ideological militias. Climate change is washing away the coasts and burning out the western forests. And the president might be a foreign agent in the employ of America’s greatest geopolitical foe. Twenty years ago, Sterling wrote a story about the coming Loud Ages, an age of howling noise and endless diversions and interruptions. Today our phones buzz with constant outrage, scandal, demands for attention, and six-second gumdrops of affirmation. There is no better description of the zeitgeist than absolute distraction.

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Distraction’s protagonist is Oscar Valparaiso, a high-energy, impeccably dressed political consultant who ran a successful outsider Senate campaign, which helped him land a position on the Senate science committee’s staff. During the lame-duck doldrums between the 2044 election and the inauguration, he sets out to investigate the Collaboratory, a massive genetics lab in East Texas. Oscar’s course puts him in direct opposition to Green Huey, the charismatic, authoritarian governor of Louisiana who has used outlaw biotech to transform his state, wiping out mosquitoes and cleaning the bayous with giant chimeric catfish. Huey is set on the presidency, and if he has to hack people’s brains to get there, then that’s what he’ll do.

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Oscar’s mission, on the other hand, is to reform American science. The problems are myriad: no funding, visionless leadership with no plan to deal with the changing climate, and a hyper-stimulated population that no longer believes in objective external reality. In one evocative scene, Greta Penninger, a Nobel Prize–winning neurologist, envisions a return to the 20th century golden age of science: the Apollo program, the Human Genome Project, a parade of whiz-bang superweapons and consumer toys. Miracles on tap. But Oscar sees those miracles as disasters. Rockets and atomic bombs made it possible to bring about the apocalypse in a single afternoon. The internet turned out to be the perfect platform for propaganda and intellectual property theft. Breakthroughs in biotechnology saved lives but could not make those people happy or fulfilled. Miracles evaporate under the tedium of everyday life, and we live in the residue of unintended consequences and slow-motion catastrophe.

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And scientists themselves aren’t helping matters in Distraction: They’ve accepted that real breakthroughs are impossible, and the best that they can do is serve as conduit for pork-barrel corruption. In response, Oscar envisions a scientific revolution: a strike in which scientists refuse to do anything other than their research, in the hopes of buying enough time to save the lab and fix the parts of the country he can. Strikes are by nature temporary, but before Oscar and Greta’s action can run out of momentum, Green Huey attempts to kidnap them and liquidate the lab so he can pick over the ruins. When the kidnapping fails, Oscar has to find new allies who can counter the rogue governor.

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That brings us to the centerpiece of the book, where Oscar forges a new political coalition between the Collaboratory’s renegade scientists and the Moderators, one of the nomad tribes that are the last vital force in American life. The nomads are the roughly one-third of Americans who have given been abandoned, thanks to the collapse of American consumerism. Nomad soldiers (squads of teenage girls, the perfect guerrilla commandos in a surveillance state on alert for male terrorists) allow Oscar and Greta retake the lab. Nomad bioreactors provide food, and nomad computers and cellphones replace lab systems wrecked in Huey’s counter-coup. While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.

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The boldness of Distraction is that it imagines a collapsing America that still feels livable. It’s very easy for science fiction to say that things are bad and they’re only going to get far worse. Margaret Atwood has a distinguished career warning us of the consequences of our sins, such as surrendering to religious fundamentalism in The Handmaid’s Tale or erasing nature and then civilization in Oryx & Crake. Tyrannical societies provide a backdrop for phoenix-like heroes to overcome the odds, as in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. It’s radical for science fiction to say “times are bad, they’re getting weird, yet people will survive by political organization” without resorting to deus ex machina like aliens, or A.I., or a superhuman messiah. This optimism, even in the face of entirely reasonable cynicism about the political process, is why it’s important to read Distraction now.

Oscar says it better than I could: “[America] invented the future! We built it! And if they could design or market it a little better than we could, then we just invented something even more amazing yet. If it took imagination, we always had that. If it took enterprise, we always had it! If it took daring and even ruthlessness, we had it. … We are a nation of hands-on cosmic mechanics!”

Read an interview between Bruce Sterling and Michael Burnam-Fink about Distraction, supporting science, and the future of politics.

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