I’m not really sure why I haven’t read more of Bruce Sterling’s work. I was underwhelmed by Visionary in Residence, it’s true, and since Distraction he’s not really been published in the UK; but I like Schismatrix, of course, and a lot of the short stories I’ve read in magazines over the years. Maybe I should make it a project for 2010 to get caught up.
Anyway: this story, about a tech blogger/journalist meeting up with a source, is one of the stories I like. It’s essentially a bald argument — minimal attention to things like characterisation here — but it’s an argument that interests me, explored briskly and with some brio. Our narrator has a nice line in similes (“A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns”), for instance, while his source spends most of the story being amusingly drunk.
What’s neat is the way argument and story dovetail. This is a tale entirely without shame about its narrative conveniences; the source seems almost eager to reveal that he’s a world-hopping dimension traveller, for instance, and when he does the narrator doesn’t waste time having to be convinced: “It was hard to say why I believed him, but I did. I believed him instantly.” But it’s also a tale entirely about the place of such narrative conveniences in our understanding of the real world. The universes “Black Swan” describes — in which Italo Calvino is responsible for a twenty-first century Italian techno-cultural hegemony, and Nicolas Sarkozy is a wanted criminal — are not so implausible as to be shadow history, nor is the story’s resolution, while unexpected, so out-of-the-blue as to be fully absurd; but it is, nevertheless, a reminder of how parochial, how partial, the narratives we construct tend to be.
Yet the news never shouts that history has black swans. The news never tells us that our universe is contingent, that our fate hinges on changes too huge for us to comprehend, or too small for us to see. We can never accept the black swan’s arbitrary carelessness. So our news is never about how the news can make no sense to human beings. Our news is always about how well we understand.