One of the perils of writing near-future SF is that, by setting your sights so close to the present, you risk trapping your work there. Bruce Sterling, one of the field’s foremost futurists, has never been afraid to take this risk; in fact, I suspect he embraces it, which is why his science fiction always feels so immediate and relevant. His stories riff off the real world, something I wish science fiction would do more often.
It comes as no surprise, then, that his collection Globalhead (1992) very much feels like a product of its time — but not at all in a bad way. Featuring thirteen stories published between 1985 and 1992, the collection contains near-future SF, contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate history, and “non-SF” — my word for stories that feel science fictional without necessarily being science fictional. Regardless of subgenre, Sterling’s stories here (like his newer work) tend to explore the real world through an SFnal lens. The world of these stories, though, is colored by its era, so the stories tend to fall under the shadow of the Cold War, the American-Russian geopolitical divide, the tail end of the Reagan regime, and the early, early days of the internet and personal computing explosions. It’s tempting at times to accuse the work of feeling dated, then, but more often it merely feels ahead of its time; this is the “futurismic fiction” of its day, fearless and forward-thinking, but still in communication with the modern reality from which it was conjured.
I have to admit, I don’t always exactly get Sterling, and the stories here — which are very idea-driven, sometimes at the expense of narrative — occasionally flew right over my head. I found “The Compassionate, the Digital,” a weird Islamic political screed involving AI, and “The Gulf Wars,” a densely written time-bending fantasy (?) about two Middle Eastern soldiers, to be politically interesting but somewhat impenetrable. They do represent rare examples of SF of this time period wrestling with Middle Eastern concerns; not particularly satisfying stories, but Sterling was definitely ahead of the curve identifying the next important area of focus for the US in the wake of the USSR’s decline. A more satisfying read in this arena, and perhaps even more prescient, is “We See Things Differently,” a near-future tale of culture shock as an Arab reporter from a powerful Islamic Caliphate visits Florida to interview a politically active rock star in the wake of the US’s decline as a superpower.
The two collaborations on display in this volume are also products of their era, and consistent with the collection’s global themes. “Storming the Cosmos” (written with Rudy Rucker) is a chaotic, energetic secret history that mines the lore of the Russian space program and a certain famous Siberian mystery, a breezy, entertaining tale that has the feel of a “hot typewriter” collaboration. And “The Moral Bullet” (with John Kessel) has a post-apocalyptic feel familiar from the time, detailing a future wherein life extension pharmaceuticals have wreaked worldwide havoc; a standoff develops between responsible European missionaries and a greedy bandit kingdom that’s come into power in the fragmented, anarchic new US. It’s a bit unsubtle politically, perhaps, but an inventive and nicely realized scenario. Both collaborations are satisfying reads.
The solo SF feels more unmitigated, though. Take, for example, “Our Neural Chernobyl,” written in the form of a book review that looks back at the spread of an intelligence-enhancing plague. It’s the near-future treated as a deeper future’s past, containing more ideas in ten quick pages than some SF novels. In “The Unthinkable,” US and Russian political counterparts contemplate the changing world landscape — an interesting mix of Cold war politics and surprising genre content. There’s also “The Shores of Bohemia,” a transformed far future where a weird European enclave of retro-humans resists the world’s inevitable change; the intrigue here is in gradually unlocking the secrets of the world outside its walls.
Three stories fall into what I think of as the “non-SF” category. “Jim and Irene” could in fact be more traditionally classified for its fantasy elements — but the mindset is so SFnal, I’m tempted to call it “futurismic fantasy.” Whatever it is, it’s one of my favorite stories in the volume, an engaging and heartfelt road fantasy about an unlikely relationship between an off-the-grid thief and a Russian émigré, which reads now like an early 1990’s period piece, looking at its now through a futuristic filter. Less satisfying as story, but jam-packed with ideas and humor, are the volume’s two Leggy Starlitz tales, “Hollywood Kremlin” and “Are You For 86?” Starlitz (also the star of Sterling’s 2000 “non-SF” novel Zeitgeist) is kind of a quirky international scam artist with a skill for evading the authorities and rolling with every weird geopolitical punch. The more interesting of the two is “Hollywood Kremlin,” where Starlitz debuts as a cog in the black market machine of decaying Russian influence in Azerbaijan, but “Are You For 86?” is good edgy fun too, transplanting Starlitz to the U.S., where he and his bisexual girlfriends run afoul of right-to-lifers as part of an abortion-drug smuggling ring.
I’ve saved my favorites for last. “The Sword of Damacles” is a wickedly funny deconstruction of a famous Greek myth about the perils of political power, subversive postmodern metafiction that most writers would never have gotten away with. And “Dori Bangs,” like “Jim and Irene,” is a kind-hearted and kinda beautiful alternate history, mashing together the lives of two somewhat obscure underground pop culture figures in an unconventional and touching love story, ending the collection on a perfect note.
Globalhead is a challenging and at times difficult collection, perhaps more for Sterling enthusiasts than casual SF readers, but I found it an interesting and rewarding read.