The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has just posted Bruce Sterling's new novella, "Kiosk," and I read it all in one big gulp, making noises of delight and intrigue that were so loud they woke the house.
Kiosk is the story of Borislav, a wounded veteran in Belgrade (or an anonymous city very much like Belgrade, anyway), who runs a little, sophisticated kiosk. He is a philosopher-merchant, his kiosk a window into the soul of the people's desires -- a soul that is bared once he installs a primitive "fabrikator" that can make short-lived tchotchkes from downloaded plans.
But Borislav's world tilts precipitously when he sells his kiosk to a condescending Eurocrat and shortly finds himself in possession of a much more advanced, carbon-nanotube-based fabber that precipitates a social revolution with Borislav at the middle of it.
Sterling says of this story, "I've been in an eight-year struggle to write 'a kind of science fiction that could only be written in the 21st century.' With the possible exception of my forthcoming novel, this story is my best result from that effort." I think he's right -- about the story, anyway; I haven't seen the novel yet.
This is a genuinely 21st century piece of sf. It uses the slightly stilted, comic dialog form of great sf to unravel the social and technological implications of automated search, copying, governance and communications, with an enormous amount of compassion and heart. Sterling's way of thinking about technology has often struck me as kind of stern, but years of living in Serbia appear to have given him a bit of a melancholy Slavic outlook that creeps into the story in a hundred little ways that tell you how much affection he really has for our poor tired human race.
Keen-eyed, brilliantly incisive and humane: this is science fiction at its greatest. If this story doesn't win a Hugo award, then there is no justice in the world.
The fabrikator spoke to him as a veteran street merchant. Yes, it definitely meant something that those rowdy kids were so eager to buy toys that fell apart and turned to dirt. Any kiosk was all about high-volume repeat business. The stick of gum. The candy bar. The cheap, last-minute bottle-of-booze. The glittery souvenir keychain that tourists would never use for any purpose whatsoever. These objects were the very stuff of a kiosk's life.
Those colored plastic cards with the 3-D models.… The cards had potential. The older kids were already collecting the cards: not the toys that the cards made, but the cards themselves.
And now, this very day, from where he sat in his usual street-cockpit behind his walls of angled glass, Borislav had taken the next logical step. He offered the kids ultra-glossy, overpriced, collector cards that could not and would not make toys. And of course – there was definitely logic here – the kids were going nuts for that business model. He had sold a hundred of them.