Afrocyberpunk 2: Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988), part one

BKTG17418If Gibson’s Neuromancer omits Africa and its peoples, including the diaspora, Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988) might seem like a step in the right direction, at least inasmuch as it spends one long section in Grenada and (after visiting Singapore) another in Mali (with a brief snatch of coda passing through Algeria to Morocco). Intended as – or at least praised for being – a more realistic take on a global cyberpunk future, the novel offers an improbable variant on that old saw attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek: it is easier for Sterling to imagine Americans happily giving up their guns than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The novel is set in the 2020s, after the ‘Abolition’ (of nuclear weapons and conventional small arms). Under a new world order (that is pretty much the old world order but with fewer issues of national sovereignty getting in the way of a liberal-ish neoliberal hegemony) dominated by the ‘developed world’ which at least makes a point of feeding the ‘developing world’, albeit on ‘scop’, a cheaply produced single cell protein – ‘the national food of the Third World’ (38). If no one is exactly racing home to enjoy their dinner, no one need go hungry any more. Except in Africa, where such ‘aid’ enables the unscrupulous to accumulate power.

And that’s the problem. The future in Sterling’s novel is of the demoralising, predatory kind projected by the futures industry. As Kodwo Eshun writes, in such projections, typically produced by NGOs and multinationals,

African social reality is overdetermined by intimidating global scenarios, doomsday economic projections, weather predictions, medical reports on AIDS, and life-expectancy forecasts, all of which predict decades of immiserization. … Within an economy that runs on SF capital and market futurism, Africa is always the zone of the absolute dystopia. There is always a reliable trade in market projections for Africa’s socioeconomic crises. (291-2)

Such projections usually propose corporate intervention – the extension and intensification of the market – as the only possible solution.

Sterling introduces his future Africa through precisely such a modelling tool, David’s Worldrun game,

a global simulation. Worldrun has been invented as a forecasting tool for development agencies, but a glamorized version had found its way onto the street. … Long strips of the Earth’s surface peeled by in a simulated satellite view. Cities glowed green with health or red with social disruption. Cryptic readouts raced across the bottom of the screen. Africa was a mess. ‘It’s always Africa, isn’t it?’ [Laura] said. (10)

Later, David explains to a Pole called Andrei Tarkovsky (!) that in the game,

Protein tech, like [scop], is one of your major tools for world stability. Without it, there are food riots, cities crumble, governments go down . . . And not just in Africa, either. (137)

The sense, implicit in this comment, of Africa’s desperate exceptionalism, that it is the benchmark against which to measure the extent to which you have escaped disaster, barbarism, backwardness is everywhere in the novel. Describing the wired world of 2020 – a passage which is quite endearingly clunky in so badly missing the extrapolative mark – Sterling notes (more or less focalised through Laura) that ‘Most of the world, even Africa, was wired for telex these days’ (22). Rizome, the multinational for which David and Laura work, has decided to ‘negotiate’ with the data havens; Emerson explains

‘That’s a modern solution. It worked for the arms race, after all. It has been working for the Third World.’
‘Except for Africa,’ David said. (45)

After the lodge David and Laura run near Galveston is attacked, the mayor, Magruder, objects that terrorism ‘isn’t supposed to come down any more. … Maybe in Africa. … Not here.’ (70-71). The spook sent by Vienna (a metonym for the international conventions/agencies keeping the new world order in order) to investigate the attack muses about all ‘of those millions and millions of unfired NATO bullets … Too many even for the African market, eh?’ (77) – a point reiterated when Laura, in a Malian jail, overhears an execution:

They would often shoot a single man with five or six machine guns; their ammunition was old, with a lot of duds that tended to choke up the guns. They had a worldful of ammunition, though. All the ammunition of fifty years of the Cold War had ended up here in African war zones. Along with the rest of the junk. (355)

When Laura speaks obliquely about the attack to a mercenary, saying ‘I saw a man killed by a machine gun, once’, he replies ‘Oh, really? You’ve been to Africa?’ (270). Later, on the rogue nuclear sub that takes her to Mali, another mercenary tells her the story of how he ‘ended up in Africa’:

‘Africa,’ Laura repeated. The very sound of it scared her. (331)

There has also been a devastating AIDS-like retrovirus, spread by horny sailors and ‘harbor hookers’:

But the world had the virus pretty much whipped now. Contained anyway. Under control.
Except in Africa. (334)

When Laura demands that her accidental rescuer Gresham helps Katje, a ‘dying woman’, he replies: ‘You’re in Africa now. Dying women aren’t rare here.’ (382)

Lying behind all the globetrotting shenanigans is a group called FACT (not the Federation Against Copyright Theft, but the Free Army of Counter-Terrorism) who have effectively taken over Mali and are at war with Azania (as South Africa is now called). FACT not only have a nuclear sub, but have tested one of their warheads in the desert and are – with the collusion of an embroiled Vienna – contemplating using it in the war. Laura and Katje were being taken to the test-site to appear in a propaganda video about this nuclear capacity when Gresham and his Tuareg warriors attacked the convoy in which they were prisoners. Fleeing with her unintentional rescuers through the Sahara, Laura eventually looks around her:

Time passed, and the heat mounted sullenly as the miles passed. They were leaving the deep Sahara and crossing country with something more akin to soil. This had been grazing land once – they passed the mummies of dead cattle, ancient bone stick-puppets in cracked rags of leather.
She had never realised the scale of the African disaster. It was continental, plantery. They had travelled hundreds of miles without glimpsing another human being, without seeing anything but a few wheeling birds and the tracks of lizards. She’d though Gresham was being cavalier, deliberately brutal, but she understood now how truly little he must care for FACT and their weaponry. They lived here, it was their home. Atomic bombardment could hardly have made it worse. It would only make more of it. (386-387)

There is more to say about Islands in the Net, and I will do so. But for the moment, let that stand as its futures-industry-style representation of Africa: atomic bombardment could hardly have made it worse.

Works cited
Kodwo Eshun, ‘Further Considerations of Afrofuturism’. CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003), 287-302.
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. London: Legend, 1989.

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One thought on “Afrocyberpunk 2: Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988), part one”

  1. Nice article! It’s cool to see somebody writing and discussing about this Bruce Sterling’s book in nowadays. I read “Islands in the Net” (“Data Pirates” in the brazilian portuguese translation) 2 years ago. At the end of the book I would to talk about it with somebody that read it too. But, unfortunatelly, I didn’t found any person in Brazil (searching in communities on internet).

    To be honest, I found one guy, but he read the book a long time ago and can’t remember. At that time, I wasn’t encouraged to try to talk with people of other countries, because my english at that time wasn’t good (even today, I have a intermediate broken english, sorry about this). But something happened: 2 months after I created a community “Bruce Sterling” in SKOOB (a books social network in Brazil), the translator of “Count Zero” and “Starship Troopers” answered me! 🙂

    Like many people, I guess, I had a disappointment when I realized what the book was about. Because the translated title (“Data Pirates”) gave me a idea of a “traditional” cyberpunk story, like “Neuromancer” or Johnny Mnemonic.

    But after this initial “shock”, I started to stay immerse in this fictional universe created by Bruce Sterling and how he was right in many “predictions” of the future. For example, the drones. Nowadays, drones became popular and U.S. Army is using it.

    At some point, the plot became a action movie / thriller like, but very good!

    Bruce Sterling always talks about Brazil and other Third World countries. And as a brazilian citizen, I have to say that he was right in the mainly idea of future. Brazil for sure it’s a good example of the “high tech, low life” in cyberpunk books.

    I’m looking foward to upcoming (I guess) parte two of this article. And man… what a desire I am now to read this book again! But it’s complicated because of university and the bookk queue. 😦

    Best regards!

    Like

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