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.