John E. Branch Jr.'s Reviews > Islands in the Net

Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling
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's review
Feb 11, 12

bookshelves: sf
read count: 1

As far as I can tell so far, the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia, launched in 2011, aims to be authoritative in the manner of traditional reference works: broad in its perspective, knowledgeable in its scope of reference (entries are apt to allude to many styles, trends, subcategories, and the like, whether it be historical literary forms such as the picaresque or more SF-oriented groupings such as the Ruined Earth and Steampunk approaches), concise but thorough in its summaries, and evaluative. One will find much the same in traditional works such as the Oxford Companion to English Literature. And as far as I can tell so far, it succeeds.

Its entry on Bruce Sterling suggests I might do well to revisit Islands in the Net, which I read during a period of the 90s when I was not paying the utmost attention to the diversions I chose. The SFE proposes that “many of Sterling's novels may be seen as tours conducted around fields of data by protagonists whose main function is to witness them for us. This approach culminates in Islands in the Net (1988), a Near-Future thriller concerned with the increasing growth and complexity of political power in electronic communication networks.” That sounds like a book that could speak to the present day, depending on the details. And the concept of a tour is a good answer to the question “How can one best appreciate the kind of story it is?”

I’m not immune to the appeal of that approach. Two of James Cameron’s films, Titanic and Avatar, seem to me best regarded as tours; though they have fully developed stories (something neither I nor, apparently, the SFE are willing to claim for Islands in the Net), I can’t help thinking that Cameron wanted most of all to show us as much as he could of the great ship itself, in the former film, and in the latter as much as he could of the planet and its denizens that he (with collaborators) had imagined. If that’s what Sterling did in Islands in the Net, I might appreciate it for that today.

The impressions that I recall most strongly, on the other hand, are of an outlandish plot and a flat set of characters. Even the Wikipedia entry, which by Wikipedia rule should be devoid of any unattributed opinion, can’t help saying, in its predictably tedious plot summary, that at one point the central character “is miraculously freed” from impending doom. What I would have written about it at the time I read it might go something like this, though with descriptive details:

As a writer of nonfiction as well as fiction, Bruce Sterling is a kind of thinker, often entertainingly polemical and dogmatic, but also a kind of inventor, whether of verbal constructions, concepts, or entire analytical approaches. He may be most at home when at play in the field of ideas, especially those concerning the social or political impact of technology. His skills of invention are less developed when it comes to the complex interplay of character, action, plot, and theme that literature has customarily expected of novelists. One suspects that he has simply never had time (meaning he has never taken the time) to study and ponder how those things work. Has he ever read E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, for instance? It’s rudimentary in a way, but in the midst of reading Islands in the Net one feels like recounting some of Forster's points to Sterling. His story isn’t short of conflict, which public-school teachers often pound into the heads of students as the requirement sine qua non of a good story; what it lacks is architecture, which requires a sense of structure and a good choice of materials. Decor isn’t lacking either. The various spaces visited by this novel are pretty clearly distinguishable; one gets the point. But the overall result feels like so many elaborate tableaux.

There--that's my quick impression of my mid-90s character. He was somewhat dogmatic himself, without being entertaining. What I'd write today, if I reread the novel, would be different, but maybe not as much as I'd like to think.

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