Bruce Sterling's visionary novel Distraction: still brilliant a decade later

I just finished re-reading (for the nth time) Bruce Sterling's 1998 novel Distraction. I didn't mean to -- I picked it up in a used bookstore in Milwaukee on my way to a quick dinner in my hotel room, thinking I'd just read a few pages of this old friend and then leave it behind for the next guest to discover and enjoy. Now it's 18 hours later and I've read all 500-some pages of it, and, as ever, my mind is a-whirl with the incredible ideas, people and speculation in this remarkable, remarkable book.

Distraction is the story of an America on the skids: economy in tatters, dollar collapsed, unemployment spiked, population on the move in great, restless herds bound together with networks and bootleg phones. The action revolves around Oscar Valparaiso, a one-of-a-kind political operator who has just put his man -- a billionaire sustainable architecture freak -- into the Senate and is looking for some downtime. But a funny thing happens on the way to the R&R: Oscar and his "krewe" (the feudal entourage who trail after him, looking after his clothes, research, security, systems and so on) end up embroiled in a complex piece of political theater, a media war between the rogue governor of the drowned state of Louisiana, the Air Force, the newly elected president, and a weird, pork-barrel science park in its own glassed-in dome.

Every single chapter -- every one! -- has at least enough material for five great speculative short stories. From the net-gang hobos (and their remarkable, cellular-automata driven fleamarkets) to the weird economic boom in cognition research, to the idea of leisure unions and anti-work activist techno-triumphalists, this book fizzes with awesome ideas.

But that's only one of its three signal virtues. The other two are: the insight Sterling brings to the nature of politics and the political process in the age of networked economies and systems; and the vivid, larger-than-life characters who populate this book. They are, to a one, likable, frustrating, believable, admirable and enraging.

It's a powerful concoction, this book, and now, ten years after its initial publication, it's possible to asses just how prescient, how visionary, Sterling is. I love all of Bruce's books, but this one may just be my favorite. It's the kind of friend you end up staying up all night chatting with, even when all you plan on doing is saying a quick hello. Link


  1. I think Heavy Weather is even older than Distraction, but just as crazy, with its nomadic storm-chasers and bizarre lifestyles. These guys carry near-disposable laptops with ubiquitous internet connectivity, a vision of the future close to coming true today.

    It’s about time I got it out again, it’s been at least 6 years, and I have a bit of time this summer…

  2. This book was thrown at me just a month ago, and i couldn’t agree more: ten years out of date, it’s incredibly timely, and will be for another decade i’m sure. I’m so ready for my pressed-grass laptop and pet binturong!

  3. Ok- let’s do it. Run both Sterling and Pournelle as an “either party wins-so does America” plan.

  4. Enjoyed Distraction, Holy Fire, Islands in the Net. Lurved Heavy Weather. Something about that novel really appeals to me.

    Anyone read Schismatrix? Only Sterling I haven’t gotten to. Worth searching for?

  5. Yeah, I know what it’s like to pick up a book for a few minutes and then discover that the afternoon has fled and you’ve read the whole thing, cover-to-cover. I hadn’t done that in the longest time, but I did it two weeks ago with “Little Brother.”

    It was a perfect storm of opportunity, good weather, a Sunday afternoon, no pressing responsibilities, no insects, and the surprisingly raging need to just get lost in a good book for awhile.

    That mental vacation was just what the doctor ordered.

  6. yeah Schismatrix is amazing. I’ve got to read that again one day…

    along similar lines I’d like to recommend the slightly older but still remarkably prescient:
    the legendary John Brunner’s:
    Stand on Zanzibar (1968) [ed: the first snow crash?]
    The Shockwave Rider (1975) &
    The Sheep Look Up (1972)

  7. I may have to reread Distraction. I recall liking it, but coming out feeling like Green Huey should’ve been the main character.

    I think I’ve read nearly everything of Sterling’s (including the “Cheap Truth” zines), and my favorite is Zeitgeist, partly because the book is so hard to classify.

  8. Yeah, Distraction was outstanding, Schsmatrix is mindblowing… but Zenith Angle was like Mega Maid: Sucks and Blows.

    How can Sterling be so far ahead of the tech curve ten years ago, and in his most recent novel (and that’s three years ago), he can barely keep up a curren-tech thriller?

    Anybody who’s read BoingBoing can see the macguffin coming… and will hate it.

  9. Seconded, Zenith Angle was poor. (Compared to the rest of Sterling’s work). Seemed like the need to get something “contemporary” out post 9/11 watered it down. What I have always loved is Sterling’s positing the evolution of current underground/counter-cultural trends into the future, i.e. the bicameral mind thread running through “Distraction,” I was reading Julian Jaynes “Conciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” right around the time he was writing the novel, though I didn’t read the novel till a few years later…what a pleasant surprise… I hope he returns to form for his next book

  10. I re-read Distraction again myself (for the second time) recently, in part because of the whole housing situation in the US. Despite what seems to be a bleak economically distopian future I think in a lot of ways it reminds me that there can be optimism within that space, that people aren’t really down and out if they don’t interact with the larger economic mainstream, they can create new societies which don’t have to play nice with the larger societal whole, they can be incompatable and thats just fine. I think of that as a ray of sunshine when viewing the world I see around us today.

  11. Question:

    Have you ever heard of CEOs or R&D people intentionally “mining” novels such as these looking for practical tech gold that they can bring to market?

  12. Thank you for reminding me of this book! I read it years ago, and loved it. Then I must have experienced some strange memory clearance sale. For several years now I have remembered the amazing story, but completely spaced out the author and title. Now I remember — Sterling!

    Busy now hunting down a copy, hee hee hee.

  13. Those who haven’t read Brunner probably don’t know how much they’re living in the future he foretold.

  14. Brunner is one of those authors who, when you reread even their minor work, yields up surprising payloads of acuteness scattered amidst the dross. A first-rate mind even when he was writing second-rate books — and some of his books were, make no mistake, first-rate as well.

    Cory is dead right about Distraction; it’s Sterling’s finest novel so far and one of the greatest SF novels of the last thirty years. I use it to teach SF expository technique.

  15. when Stand on Zanzibar came out,I did see the future. I’m here now and I don’t need shades.
    Chad C.Mulligan, Jubal Harshaw, Kilgore Trout.

    Who today?

  16. I’m just wrapping up a re-read of Bears Eon Books (1 & 2) with Allastair Reynolds “Revelation Space” on deck after I finish. I’ll have to check this out before that one though.

  17. I put Distraction at the high end of the middle for Sterling. Lots and lots of stunning ideas and visionary stuff, but . . . politics? Politician characters? That made it tough going for me and I never reread it. This probably says more about me than the novel.

    I’m going to read it again — was thinking about doing just that a week or so ago — but for the record I must have taken in Holy Fire five times, and since grad school I hardly ever reread novels.

    I’m waiting for Sterling’s next novel. He claims to be writing one, and as evidenced by the occasional short story he hasn’t entirely given up SF writing for being a design professor.

    * * *

    Brunner. Cripes. He’s one guy you don’t want to be a visionary, but f$#! if he wasn’t the best at sussing out even a broad outline of what was to be.

  18. I’ve decided not to pick this book up on at least 4 occasions. I feel I’ve made at least 4 serious mistakes.

  19. Wow, great to find this discussion here. Distraction is really a cool book – especially because of the politics, and I didn’t believe it as I read Cory stating that it is already 10 years old.

    About the other Sterling books: most (including the non-fiction ones) are really great, the recent thrillers are positioned too high on the Stephensons-Cryptonomicon-slippery-slope-into-boredom-scale for my liking. But I aggree with Stefan Jones that he really should bring his next novel together.

    About Schismatrix — Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers is a bit similar, or if one takes something more recent, Stross’ Singularity Sky — epic tales of a universe populated by scheming post-human variants. What I remember best about it is some post-human swarm intelligence, terraforming olympics and great descriptions of barock clothing styles. The nearest to this of Sterling’s near-future books is Holy Fire.

  20. What I remember most about Distraction (which I loved) is that it was a piece of terribly funny political satire. If you are bored by, simply dislike, politics, it may not be the book for you.

  21. #6

    I have always had a thing for “Stand on Zanzibar”. Read it when it was new, then watched reality unfold around it. Not simply the content, but the style of the thing. MTV style editing and whew, if Reagan wasn’t Prexy…

    I’m going to have to look into Sterling if he’s half as fun and hair-raising as Brunner.

  22. #25: I like the innovative and very creative Stephenson of Snow Crash and Diamond Age. I gave the Cryptonomicon a try, but found it oversoaked in show-of-geekness and more or less 50 % too long for a story that boils down essentiality to a standard thriller. And Zeitgeist and especially Zenith Angle go a bit too much in that direction for my liking. (Maybe if I get Spooks Country/i> by Gibson, I will be disappointed in a similar way).

  23. #25,

    I couldn’t agree more. I find Stephenson way more engaging than either Sterling or Gibson (although I do enjoy them both).

  24. Cryptonomicon seems to suffer from the fate that overtakes many of the better authors (of which Stephenson is one): once they get to be well-known, their editors seem to become afraid to tell them what needs to be tightened up. I do think judicious cuts would have improved it. And for me it came across as a bit of a shaggy dog story; some interesting digressions but the moments that appeared intended to be high points came across as pretty flat terrain.

    On the other hand, I do have friends who absolutely love it as it stands. So this may be a matter of taste and style; the pacing may work better for some folks than others, or there may be some subtlety in the layering that I’m missing.

    Worth picking up. May or may not be worth finishing. It didn’t grab me; your milage will vary.

  25. Can’t agree more – Brunner is essential reading. Stand on Zanzibar is beyond prescient, and is a must read book 30+ years later.

  26. I’ll try to take a look at this. Not sure if it’s in Spanish. Anyway, I think Oscar Valparaíso is an interesting choice for a name.

  27. Asses = the plural noun for a donkey.
    Assess = to evaluate something.
    nitpicking, I know. couldn’t resist.

  28. Distraction and Holy Fire are two of my favourite books. I wonder when he’s going to do one for Asia :-)

    Zenith Angle… maybe it’s a straightforward technothriller, but I couldn’t help thinking that most of the things the protagonist does *don’t make any sense*, they’re an incoherent reaction to an incomprehensible attack, and maybe that was Bruce’s perfectly deadpan point.

  29. Nawal, I got it in Italian (with the absurd title “Desolation USA”) so there must be a Spanish translation as well.

    I read it 6 years ago, it’s one of those books that made me hate the author because he writes so well that I’ll never be able to compete. It’s an absolute must for infofreaks.

  30. Completely agreed.

    I particularly enjoyed the bit about the Netherlands becoming a superpower by selling dyke technology to cities drowning under rising oceans…

  31. Yet another voice in the chorus: Distraction is really really great. I’m glad that others feel that way.

  32. I read Distraction shortly after 9/11 and loved it. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll have to look for it when I get home tonight, but I have a horrible feeling that it was included in a batch of books I gave away when we converted the study in our old apartment into a bedroom for our daughter.

    I read Stand on Zanzibar in high school, and didn’t understand more than a third of it. I should probably give it another try — I like to think I’ve gotten a little more sophisticated in the last 20+ years.

  33. I agree that Distraction is brilliant. I read it just after it was first published. As a nice touch I was on a trip to Louisiana when I was reading it. A friend of mine (who is from that part of the world) commented on the book, and I told her roughly what it was about. “Where I am up to, the characters are eating a genetically engineered giant crawfish with a corrupt governor of Louisiana named Huey”. This cracked her up, and she laughed for about 20 minutes.

    I still think “Islands in the Net” is Sterling’s most prescient book though. This one was written a good deal earlier (1988) and even the title is wonderful. (Even more wonderful then than now, because a great many fewer people even knew what “the net” was at that point). However, we have a recognisable global communications network, the end of the cold war and a resultant less dominant US and rivalry between many nation states, powerful and unpleasant terrorist organisations, failed states, mutating multinational corporations , NGOs etc interacting and appeasing one another in peculiar ways, and motives that now look rather familiar. It’s an amazing book.

    Holy Fire is good, but I also love Zeitgeist, the science fiction novel in which the “science” is deconstructionism and the like. An all girl Spice Girls like pop group based in Turkey named the “G7 Girls” with one member from each G7 country is another thing that had me laughing for a considerable time.

    Come to think of it, another wonderful thing about Sterling is just how funny he can be.

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