Ascendancies by Bruce Sterling

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Ascendancies cover

As Bruce Sterling relates in his foreword to this career retrospective, he came into science fiction planning to be a pulp writer able to "dent the wire racks with truckloads of popular product," but ended up a "rather artsy, fussy, highbrow, theory-driven, critics'-darling kind of science fiction writer." Nonetheless, his ten novels and numerous short stories (which fill four volumes all by themselves) are by no means a meager output, and (along with his considerable journalism and other nonfiction) influential beyond their mere word count. The recipient of nine Hugo and six Nebula nominations, his fiction regularly appears in magazines and is routinely reprinted in anthologies running the gamut from Harry Turtledove's The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century to the Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories (and of course, the various best-of-year round-ups in any given year), and has done perhaps as much as the work of any other single author to define cyberpunk, steampunk, post-cyberpunk and indeed, the broader course of the genre's development in the last three decades.

Three decades after Sterling first appeared on the scene Ascendancies brings together twenty-three of his best-known and most highly praised short stories and novelettes, spanning the entirety of his career. There is no new material here, every one of these stories having appeared in previous Sterling collections (sometimes more than one). This time around they are divided into five groups —the Shaper/Mechanist stories, "Early science fiction and fantasy," the Leggy Starlitz stories, the Chattanooga stories, and "Later science fiction and fantasy."

In the Shaper/Mechanist stories human beings have carried the possibilities latent in information technology and biotechnology out into the rest of the solar system—including the possibilities for conflict they raise. A "thousand new ways of life beckon from every circuit and test tube," Sterling wrote in 1985's Schismatrix (the novel he set in this universe), but that didn’t mean humanity checked its politics at the door. Quite the opposite—the ascent toward ever-higher levels of "Prigogenic complexity" entails not the convergence of humanity under a universal government, but ever-greater fragmentation. The divisions, naturally, are not along the lines of old loyalties to dynasties, religious creeds, ethno-racial-national groupings and Enlightenment-style ideologies, but between those new ways of life in the most literal sense—particularly between the worldviews of the two biggest factions, the biotech-oriented "Shapers," whose bent is toward retooling their bodies and training their minds, and the information technology-oriented "Mechanists," prospering because of their advanced cybernetic machinery.

These stories, which for the most part take place on the fringes of their cold war, are strikingly imagined and written. "Cicada Queen" (1983) and "Sunken Gardens" (1984) in particular are almost Stapledonian in their cold, grand, long-range treatment of the evolution of humanity as it spreads across the solar system and beyond. "Swarm" (1982) is more compelling for its depiction of an encounter with a truly alien civilization, and "Twenty Evocations" (1984) is notable for its stylistic experimentation, offering the story of a whole life in this universe in as many brief passages.

The "Early science fiction and fantasy" stories that follow are comparatively eclectic. "Some, in fact, are only marginally speculative fiction, like "Dori Bangs" (1989), an alternate history in which real-life rock critic Lester Bangs and real-life comic book artist Dori Seda—who died in the 1980s—end up meeting, marrying and living not so happily ever after into the twenty-first century. "Flowers of Edo" (1987) and "Dinner in Audoghast" (1985) are variations on a common trope in Sterling's earlier writing, the revelation in an exotic, historical setting (Meiji Japan, medieval North Africa) of an apocalyptic prophecy that (as of our time) has long since come to pass. Sterling also offers some interesting twists on the cyberpunk theme of American decline (the doom-laden prophecy of modern times, "The Compassionate, the Digital" (1985) and "We See Things Differently" (1989) portraying a wildly implausible Islamist ascendancy that, minus the satirical edge, would simply be far-rightist hysteria of a sort only too commonplace now.

In a more light-hearted vein "Green Days in Brunei" (1985) (at forty-four pages the longest piece in the collection) tells the adventures of Turner Choi, an American engineer on a business assignment in the sultanate. The cliché-subverting "The Little Magic Shop" (1987), in which a man of the nineteenth century finds a path to immortality in a little store off Times Square, offers all the whimsy a reader can ask for. Appropriately for the end of this section, it also marks a turn in Sterling's fiction—specifically toward an increasing emphasis on wacky satire. Sterling coined the term "slipstream" in a 1989 article in SF Eye to describe this style of writing, by which he meant "writing which has set its face against consensus reality." While "fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so" it is given not to the evocation of wonder or rigorous extrapolation, but simply to making the reader "feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility." (As Sterling acknowledges, one could simply call this "postmodern," but for me at least, his label offers a bit more clarity than that badly overtaxed catch-all identifier.)

As so often happens with Sterling stories, "Magic Shop" ended up in a subgenre-defining anthology, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's 2006 Feeling Very Strange. Nonetheless, the stories that follow "Magic Shop" exemplify this sensibility to a perhaps even greater degree, producing that sense of the strangeness of contemporary reality without resorting to devices like magic potions. Their protagonist Leggy Starlitz, the consummate globe-trotting hustler, inhabits not the seamier backalleys and dives of tomorrowland the way his cyberpunk counterparts do, but rather the frenzied freakonomic fringes of the post-Cold War world, the kooky, quirky (and often shady) secret life of the world as Thomas Friedman imagined it in his infamous paean to the global economy, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

Not surprisingly Starlitz's schemes often have him doing business with people on the political as well as the economic margins—hard-liners from both ends of the conflict over abortion in "Are You for 86?" (1992) but in the main Soviets, ex-Soviets, and militant Marxists who in "Hollywood Kremlin" (1990) and "The Littlest Jackal" (1996) look every bit as outdated and shabby as a writer who was invited faculty at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos can conceive them. Starlitz's adventures tend toward the zany and free-wheeling rather than the seedy and brutal. Still, by the end of "Jackal," even Starlitz (here hanging with a Russian fascist-KGB-mafiosi and a deluded Carlos the Jackal stand-in) found the going too rough for his taste. (Starlitz, and supporting characters like Khkolov, Tamara, and Vanna, return in the 2000 Leggy Starlitz novel Zeitgeist.)

The Chattanooga stories which see Sterling return to the near future—"Deep Eddy" (1993) "Bicycle Repairman" (1996) and "Taklamakan" (1998)—are so named because their protagonists "Deep" Eddy Dertouzas, Lyle and "Spider" Pete were all associated with one another in Chattanooga, Tennessee circa 2037. It may safely be said that these are to post-cyberpunk what Sterling's earlier writing was to the original flavor. (Indeed, "Bicycle Repairman" kicks off Kelly and Kessel's follow-up to Feeling Very Strange, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.) Accordingly, these stories take a fresh look at essentially the same realities that gave rise to cyberpunk's dark futures, and instead come away with an image which may be just as messy, but tends to be rather mellower and gentler. The familiar cyberpunk themes—technology out of control, the redefinition of the human, capitalism run amok—are commonly presented as fun and interesting instead of edgy and nightmarish, and the prevailing sense is of an absurd universe just as likely to manifest itself as screwball comedy as noir, in an echo of the superficial optimism surrounding the "New Economy". The resulting world also happens to be considerably more "middle-class" in perspective, so much so that I've suggested calling post-cyberpunk simply "cyborgie". Eddy and Lyle, notably, are not so much punks as young middle-class people going through a Bohemian phase; Spider Pete, who comes closer to being a "normal" cyberpunk figure, is an aging operator who knows it, and is working for NAFTA military intelligence when we last see him.

The last four stories, lumped together under the heading "Later science fiction and fantasy," are a comparatively mixed bag, including a digressive exercise in metafiction in "The Sword of Damocles" (1990) (the only story in this volume I found tedious), two light ultra-near future tales that handily qualify for the slipstream label, "Maneki Neko" (1998) and "In Paradise" (2002) and "The Blemmye's Stratagem" (2005). (The publisher’s website lists a fifth story in this section, the recent novella “Kiosk”, but there was no sign of it in my proof copy.) "Stratagem," despite being described as "crusaderpunk" in the issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction where it first appeared, is no twelfth century analog to the counterfactual anachronism of The Difference Engine. More modestly (and accurately) Sterling simply calls this one a story "about encountering aliens," in this case an extraterrestrial stranded in the Middle East in the time of Saladin. The most audacious of the stories in the last set, this milieu is not as sharply imagined as some of Sterling's other historical settings, but it features some interesting twists within a surprisingly conventional action-adventure framework. Indeed, it is the "pulpiest" tale in the volume, which ironically means that the career trajectory traced by Ascendancies seems to finish with just the kind of story Sterling says he wanted to write all along.

For all of the variety the collection offers, these stories have a great deal in common. Sterling’s fiction is dense in concept and detail (even if that handling is occasionally problematic, particularly in a tendency toward optimism that may be unwarranted, and an implicit market fundamentalism, for which critics like Mark Bould have taken him to task). Like the writing of many other cyberpunks, Sterling’s stories depend more on concept and style than on character and plot—as Sterling notes in the foreword—but largely succeed at being stylish without being overwhelmed by that style (except perhaps for "Damocles," where the experimentation looks like an attempt to make up for a very thin idea). Perhaps most importantly, the stories almost all manage to be entertaining as well as intellectually engaging, particularly when striving for a sense of over-the-top fun—as with the breezy storytelling of "Magic Shop," the intricate intrigues of the Starlitz stories, or the spy caper in "Taklamakan" (and of course, "Stratagem").

It has to be said, however, that Ascendancies is not exhaustive, and leaves out some notable pieces. Sterling’s collaborative efforts, such as his contributions to the influential cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades (which was edited by Sterling himself)—"Red Star, Winter Orbit" (cowritten with William Gibson), or the classic "Mozart in Mirrorshades" (which he wrote with Lewis Shiner), an oft-reprinted story which certainly ranks among the best-known and most enjoyable parts of Sterling's output—do not appear here. It might also be noted that readers will not find much of his newer material in this book, "In Paradise" and "The Blemmye's Stratagem" the only examples of his writing since 1998, now largely collected in 2006's Visionary in Residence. (By contrast, this volume contains about two-thirds of the stories in his three earlier collections, Crystal Express, Globalhead and A Good Old-Fashioned Future.) But despite such omissions, the collection is an excellent introduction to Sterling. Those who rarely read short fiction, but know Sterling from his novels, will similarly find it of interest, if only because—as noted with respect to the Shaper/Mechanist and Leggy Starlitz stories—the different streams of his fiction are closely intertwined in places, and in others, set up interesting counterpoints to one another (such as the Chattanooga stories make with his rather grimmer portrait of mid-century America in his 1998 novel Distraction). And readers already familiar with Sterling's short fiction but looking for that one handy collection to keep on their shelves are also likely to find Ascendancies their logical choice.


Nader Elhefnawy is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Miami for the 2007-08 year. His articles and reviews of science fiction have appeared in several publications, including the New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, the Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Tangent Online.