Love him or hate him, Bruce Sterling is one of the most intriguing voices in science fiction. A successful writer of fiction and non-fiction, and a speaker of the most unique and presumptuous nature, his words carry regarding the future of technology and society. At base a humanist, Sterling’s work reflects the potential implications of applying the knowledge humanity acquires to economic, ecological, and socio-political environments. Islands in the Net, a good example of his aims, presents all of these facets in a political drama/thriller that continues to touch upon ideas in today’s world despite the decades that have passed since its publishing.
Islands in the Net opens in the year 2023. The world appears much the same as it does today, but with a few small differences. Multinational megacorporations wield ever-growing clout in systems which continue to utilize capitalism. Banks that operate in safe zones today have evolved into the data havens of tomorrow, trading currency and information both on and off the legal radar. The UN has been usurped by the Vienna convention, a group that acts in above-the-law capacity under the guise of protecting civil liberties in countries which have signed the treaty. And lastly, the hotbed of African political chaos has worsened. Foreign commercial and political interests continue to pressure, pillage, and outright seize its governments and people, the result being an unstable continent filled with terrorism and tyranny.
On the global commercial scene is Rizome, a progressive corporation of economic democrats. At the beginning of the story, their internet concerns lead them to bring together representatives from the banking and data havens of Singapore, Luxembourg, and Grenada in an effort to come to an accord regarding the systematization of data and data transactions. With business more transparent, Rizome believes that fewer assassinations, terrorist activities, and intrusions into weak political systems will occur. The meeting takes place at Rizome’s eco-Lodge in Galveston, Texas where local representative Laura Webster acts as coordinator. The atmosphere is tense from day one, things go ballistic when tragedy strikes, and whether she wants it or not, Laura is dragged into the ensuing global reaction.
Islands in the Net is a patiently plotted, satisfying novel. Thankfully lacking the minutiae of Tom Clancy, Sterling slowly but surely unwraps the story, culminating in a semi-revolutionary series of events that (slightly) change the hue of world politics. There is enough realism to make the economic and political matters feel plausible, and likewise enough imagination to bring into focus the futuristic technology-influenced concerns on the agenda. Action does exist in exciting enough spurts to push the story to its next phase, but emphasis remains on real-world concerns and the people affected.
Published in 1988, Islands in the Net holds up well to the test of time. In the two decades and a half since, the world has shifted in unquantifiable fashion, some of which Sterling gets correct. The increased political power of global commercial interests, the web’s ability to disseminate information beyond censorship, and the continued destabilization of Africa as a war ground are all main features of the novel. The subsequent tech which remains unrealized nevertheless has a very realistic, practical feel. Sterling is a vat of eco-ideas and many of the groups described survive on technology that is both simple yet evolutionary. Single-celled protein provides bland but cheap nutrition to millions and old technology is salvaged and put to new and modern uses (the renovated tanker is great), and so forth. But whether manifested or not, the world envisioned makes for interesting reading.
Islands in the Net likewise deserves commendation for characterization and cultural representation. The protagonist is a woman, and more importantly, a modern, intelligent woman motivated by a combination of personal choice and the situations she finds herself in — just like the real world. The conclusion of Laura’s story may be a touch trite, but while being put through the wringer, personally and politically, she is by turns victim and decisive participant; Sterling does not over-compensate by making her larger than life, and in turn produces a character readers can relate to.
Regarding cultural representation, many corners of the world, famous or otherwise, are visited or touched upon. Largely avoiding cultural appropriation, Sterling tries to realistically present what life is like in places beyond the West. He may not succeed 100%, but there is a definite feel that peoples and cultures are not simply being used for story, rather vice versa. Topping it all, Sterling uses the platform to condemn commercial interests which take advantage of people in underprivileged areas — a topic that continues to grow in importance. (This is not to say that human rights is the focus of the novel, rather that it plays a role.)
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Islands in the Net is, however, its ability to blur the line between terrorist and terroree. The reader never knows the good guys from the bad — at all times Laura’s situation is far from delimited. The political angles are presented realistically so as to supersede any localized, i.e. black and white, understanding, and in turn suspense is heightened. As a result, Sterling is able to filter the variety of political ideologies down to a bottom line: those who use violence as a tool in propagating their worldview, and those who seek to avoid it in favor of discussion and compromise, which makes for interesting discussion, indeed. When Sterling cuts into the notion that America is the world’s policeman, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
I’ve yet to read a review lauding Sterling’s prose, and rightfully so. The author goes about matters in a direct, straight-forward manner, so readers should not expect to be wowed by stylistics in Islands in the Net; Sterling is to be read for ideas and the interesting manner in which they are used. This is not to say he is a terrible connecter of words, only that the language used will neither impress nor disappoint.
In the end, Islands in the Net is a savvy political drama/thriller with near-future tech (some that has become real and some that remains imagined) wholly embedded and informing the storyline. The year is 2023, but it is a world that is quite familiar, especially given the circumstances Sterling was prescient of. (When you read such lines as “You Yankees don’t even have a real government — just capitalist cartels” is it really so far from truth in the US today?) The book features a solid, empathetic main character who believes information is to be used for the benefit of all, not just as a tool for political leverage — and of course its share of speculation on tech. It is after all, core cyberpunk. (But do ignore the cover.)