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Thursday, December 31, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Filled With `Distraction' -- Author's Futurist Look At America Is Fun, Dark And Imaginative, But Story Elements Lack Cohesion

Special To The Seattle Times

----------- Book report -----------

"Distraction" Bruce Sterling will read from "Distraction" at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E. in Seattle. For information, call 206-545-4365.

In 1993, noted science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling visited Moscow on assignment for Wired magazine. The trip had a profound effect on his thinking.

"The former Soviet Union - as it's continually called these days - was really the dark brother of the United States," he said by phone recently. "It was the other 20th century. The alternative 20th century. The way to do it absolutely differently from the way Americans do it. And they just plain collapsed. They failed so utterly and totally, it's almost indescribable."

His observations led Sterling to wonder what America might look like if its situation was that dire, if, as he says, "we gave into our worst possible impulses."

The result is "Distraction" (Bantam Books, $23.95), Sterling's sixth novel, set in America in the middle of the next century. Sixteen political parties jostle elbows while the federal government is at the mercy of do-nothing "emergency committees."

Whole bands of citizens, unable to find work, have taken to the road as nomads. Temporary roadblocks and toll extraction are commonplace. Even a U.S. Air Force base - left off the latest federal budget - resorts to extortion to feed itself. This is a third-world America, America as decentralized and anarchic as the Internet. "Take away America's money," one character tells another, "and you've got a country of tribes."

Our protagonist through all of this is Oscar Valparaiso, a political consultant and man of suspect birth who, in the aftermath of helping elect a U.S. senator, takes his entourage (or "krewe") to a domed federal lab in Texas. The Buna National Collaboratory is where scientists clone "all-but-technically extinct" wildlife and screw with their neural structure, rendering them placid and petlike.

For reasons known mostly to himself, Oscar engages in a power struggle for control of the lab. He enlists the aid of Dr. Greta Penninger, a Nobel laureate and his eventual lover, even as members of his krewe desert him. They find him cold and calculating - they wonder why he never sleeps.

This bare-bones plot, by the way, doesn't begin to describe the wonderfully imaginative, futuristic tidbits Sterling scatters across our path: "smart" concrete blocks that announce their functionality to builders ("I'm a cornerstone. Carry me five steps to your left"); a cold war with the Dutch; street lights in Boston that illuminate gunfire. When Oscar takes Greta to a trendy bayou restaurant, they are entertained by a classical string quartet: "It was amazing how many Anglos had gone into the booming classical music scene," Sterling writes. "Anglos seemed to have some innate talent for rigid, linear music that less troubled ethnic groups couldn't match."

One of the more evocative scenes is a walk on the beach. By 2044, the world's oceans have risen two feet, and "beaches" as we know them are now many miles out to sea, giving the rippled brown shoreline a "gimcrack, unhappy look." Unhappy for us, yes, but not for Oscar. "The plethora of drift junk filled him with a pleasant melancholy. Every beach he'd ever known had boasted its share of rusted bicycles, waterlogged couches, picturesque, sand-etched medical waste."

The world Sterling creates, in other words, is often as complex and dizzying as reading the morning newspaper. About as cohesive, too, unfortunately. Disparate elements never come together in a satisfactory manner. The question that so many characters ask Oscar - why are they hanging out in the lab? - isn't properly answered. It's as if Sterling has so many ideas swirling through his head, he can't focus. He suffers from the faults of the world he creates - he seems distracted.

Not that the ride isn't fun. Sterling writes, he says, because it fills him "with a tremendous secret glee," and this glee is apparent in "Distraction." "I like to try to understand society and illuminate some of the cracks in it," he says. "Turn things upside-down and shake them and see what falls out of reality's pockets."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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