Thursday, March 11, 2010


Novella by Bruce Sterling
Originally published in F&SF (Jan 2007)

Borislav runs a little kiosk, selling all sorts of random items. He is finely in tune with the local economy and what hot new items people want to buy. Then he acquires a fabrikator, a medical-quality 3-d printer. Soon various outsiders, politicians, EU bureaucrats, and professors get involved and things get out of control. The economy is radically changed, leading to an armed revolution with Borislav at the center.

As an idea story, this is excellent. It examines the 3-d printer concept from an economic and social perspective much deeper than many such stories, and the poor, second world country setting is an important and underused viewpoint. The EU and more developed countries want to keep these things under control, but the people who just want to be able to afford knives and hair pins have a much different view of copyright. The revolution is dealt with quickly, all the focus is wisely saved for the causes and repercussions.

Borislav is an interesting character, and we get to know him pretty well, since the first half is spent listening to him philosophize on economics and social trends. And here is the best thing about Bruce Sterling: I was never bored by this. The dialogue is witty, the setting is very well developed by the random people Borislav interacts with and his discussions with them. He remains lightly sarcastic through the revolution to become the king of the prison economy when he is arrested afterward. And yet he's an idiot with the ladies.

So I love the setting, the idea, the character, the dialogue. Why am I going to give this less than a perfect score? Well the plot doesn't really do much, but I never lost interest and that wasn't the point; I'm fine with that. It was something that rarely bugs me enough to actually remove points: style.

And it frustrates me, because I can't pinpoint my exact problem with it. It is a bit dull and understated and utilitarian I suppose. More pessimistic than I'd like. But those really fit the setting and the character, and there is humor to be had. And to some extent, that is just how Sterling writes, and I've enjoyed his writing quite a lot in the past. Maybe it is the philosophy after all. I was interested in it, I wanted to keep reading, but maybe it distracted me, or wore down my enjoyment of the story. But I love Neal Stephenson, and he lately writes 900 page books with nonfiction essays chucked in. So I'm not really sure what it was, but I had no connection, no emotion. I didn't really care. I wanted to read the economic philosophy and think about nanotube printers. These desires were fulfilled, but I'm unsatisfied. So here is my best guess: Sterling did an excellent job of laying the hook and promising exactly what he was going to deliver, but it turns out that wasn't what I really wanted from a novella of this length. Maybe if it were shorter. Anyway, I'll close with a quote:

Some dedicated groups of damned fools would have to actually carry out the campaign on the ground. Out of any 10 people willing to do this, 7 were idiots. These seven were dreamers, rebels by nature, unfit to run so much as a lemonade stand. 1 out of the 10 would be capable and serious, another would be genuinely dangerous, a true immoral fanatic. The last would be the traitor to the group, the police agent, the coward, the informant. There were 30 people actively involved in the conspiracy, which naturally meant 21 idiots.

And 4 out of 5 enjoy Bruce Sterling.

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