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Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling

The Short: I really liked the 2007 collection by Bruce Sterling, “Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling“, Subterranean. He is a major speculative fiction author and certainly deserves a “Best of” Collection. My overall rating was 3.77/5, or “Very good”, just below “Great”. I’m very glad I read it. I do recommend it, but with a few minor reservations.

The Full Story: I’ve been a fan of Bruce Sterling for a long time. Historically, I have probably read more of his novels than his short fiction. I am very sure I read “Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology” edited by Bruce Sterling, Arbor House 1986, which included two stories that Sterling was a co-author on, “Red Star, Winter Orbit“, a novelette with William Gibson from Omni July 1983, and “Mozart in Mirrorshades“, a short story with Lewis Shiner from Omni September 1985.

I suspect I read other Sterling stories and novels from that era, including “Green Day in Brunei” in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Third Annual Collection“, Gardner R. Dozois editor, Bluejay 1986.

Although I have not been a completist, I have continued to read and enjoy Bruce Sterling’s fiction. With my recent pivot to short fiction, I have read a number of Bruce Sterling stories recently that I really enjoyed. When I heard that there was a “Best Of” volume for him, I knew I had to read it.

I really enjoyed reading “Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling”.

There was a lot to like about it. It included all of the great short fiction stories of Sterling that I was expecting to see, including

  1. Swarm“, a novelette from the April 1982 issue of F&SF, and his first Shaper/Mechanist story
  2. Dinner in Audoghast“, a short story from the May 1985 Asimov’s
  3. Bicycle Repairman“, a Chattanooga universe novelette from the anthology “Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology”, 1996, Richard Butner, John Kessel, & Mark L. Van Name editors, Tor
  4. Maneki Neko“, a short story first published in Japanese in Hayakawa’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1996 and then in F&SF May 1998.
  5. Green Days in Brunei“, a short story from the October 1985 Asimov’s

There were also a number of great Sterling stories that I did not remember ever reading before. I love it when this happens, especially for an author’s Best Of collection. These included:

  1. Spider Rose“, a short story, F&SF August 1982
  2. Twenty Evocations“, a short story, Interzone #7 Spring 1984
  3. Flowers of Edo“, a novelette, Asimov’s May 1987
  4. Dori Bangs“, a short story, Asimov’s September 1989
  5. Hollywood Kremlin“, a Leggy Starlitz story from F&SF October 1990
  6. Deep Eddy“, a Chattanooga novelette from Asimov’s August 1993
  7. Taklamakan“, a Chattanooga novelette from Asimov’s October-November 1998
  8. In Paradise“, a short story from F&SF September 2002
  9. Kiosk“, a novelette from F&SF January 2007
  10. The Blemmye’s Strategem“, a novelette from F&SF January 2005

There were several stories that I was underwhelmed by that I felt did not need to be included. These included:

  1. The Sword of Damocles“, a short story from Asimov’s February 1990, which I found to be too self-referential and post-modern to be of interest to me. Others might love it.
  2. The Compassionate, The Digital“, a short story from Interzone, #14 Winter 1985/86.
  3. Cicada Queen” and “Sunken Gardens“, a pair of Shaper/Mechanist stories from Terry Carr’s “Universe 13” anthology, Doubleday 1983.

Stories that I have not explicitly mentioned here all fell into the “Very good” category, worthy of inclusion but not quite “Great” or better.

It’s a generous 547 pages with 24 stories, although I think four of the stories could have been omitted. Editor Jonathan Strahan and author Bruce Sterling felt otherwise, and I don’t fault them for that. Most but not all of the stories are science fiction.

I loved the Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler and the Preface by Bruce Sterling. These were both extensive, informative and interesting, and definitely something I expect to see in a good “Best Of” for an author. For me, they both help put the author and stories into context. I especially loved Sterling’s story of how the title “Ascendancies” came about.

I am a bit disappointed that there are no story introductions. It’s a style choice for the author and editor, but I personally like them and feel they bring value to my enjoyment and understanding of the stories.

My overall average rating for the stories included is 3.77/5, or “Very good”, just below “Great”. It’s worth noting that if I was a fan of post-modern, self-referential fiction like “The Sword of Damocles” and had rated that as “Very good”, the overall average rating would have been 3.8/5, or “Great”. My first minor quibble is that it includes several stories that I don’t think need to be included. This is not a major problem, and many might view this as a plus. My other minor quibble is the lack of story introductions. Regardless, I strongly recommend “Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling”.

One final thought is that Bruce Sterling was only 53 when “Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling” was published. Although he had been a published author for 31 years when it was published, he is still writing and publishing speculative fiction. I count at least six stories that are included in various “Year’s Best” anthologies after 2007. Although his only major award finalist story after 2007 is “The Peak of Eternal Light, 2013 Sturgeon finalist, Bruce Sterling is still writing worthwhile fiction and we should continue to pay attention to him and read his fiction.

Detailed Review/Comments: SPOILERS HERE!

  1. Swarm“, a novelette from the April 1982 issue of F&SF, and his first Shaper/Mechanist story. A great story in the battle between two perhaps posthuman factions, the cyborg Mechanists and the bio/genetically modified Shapers. They both send agents to take advantage of the biological/genetic and other riches of the Swarm, a nominally non-intelligent species. The surviving agent of the Shapers discovers that the Swarm does possess frightening capabilities and intelligence, only manifesting it when needed. The Swarm is a trap, and they plan to use humans as another modified Client species. Hugo, Locus and Nebula Award finalist. Included in the Terry Carr anthology “The Best Science Fiction of the Year #12“, 1983 Timescape/Pocket Books and the Donald A. Wollheim/Arthur W. Saha “The 1983 Annual World’s Best SF Year’s Best“, 1983 DAW. Rated 4/5, 0r “Great”.
  2. Spider Rose“, a Shaper/Mechanist short story, F&SF August 1982. A great story of a Mechanist, an Investor “pet”, and an attempt to kill her by her dead husband’s clone. She is forced to eat the pet, but her end is unexpected. Locus and Hugo finalist. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  3. Cicada Queen“, a Shaper/Mechanist novelette from Terry Carr’s “Universe 13” anthology, Doubleday 1983. A very good story of a Cicada Queen faction scientist focused on Mars terraforming. Rated 3.6/5, or “Very good”. This was a Nebula finalist and was included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 1984 Bluejay, so clearly others think more highly of the story than I do.
  4. Sunken Gardens“, a Shaper/Mechanist short story from Terry Carr’s “Universe 13” anthology, Doubleday 1983. More Mars terraforming, set in future of “Cicada Queen”. A subservient, fallen faction biologist has ambitions, but at what price? Rated 3.6/5, or “Very good”. This was a Nebula finalist and was included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Second Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 1985 Bluejay. Perhaps I am more severe than others.
  5. Twenty Evocations“, a Shaper/Mechanist short story, Interzone #7 Spring 1984. I really like this story of 20 vignettes of the life of a Shaper/Mechanist, from start to finish. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  6. Green Days in Brunei“, a short story from the October 1985 Asimov’s. Nebula finalist. Great, optimistic story of a young engineer who is the Overseas Chinese grandson of a Triad headman, and a princess in Brunei, and their efforts to escape their families. Robots and phone line modems, and a Green Revolution are also key elements. Nebula finalist and included in the Gardner Dozois “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection“, 1986 Bluejay. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
  7. Dinner in Audoghast“, a short story from the May 1985 Asimov’s. Set in Audoghast, Saharan Africa, perhaps circa 1100 AD. Four men, rich and successful, are dining. A poor, leprous storyteller and fortune teller is brought to entertain them, and he tells the future in specific and probably true detail, including the destruction and erasure of the memory of their city. No one takes him seriously. Not sure this is SF, perhaps more fantasy or speculative fiction, but a great story. Hugo and Locus finalist, and included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection”, Gardner Dozois editor, 1986 Bluejay, and the Arthur W. Saha “The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 12“, 1986 DAW. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
  8. The Compassionate, The Digital“, a short story from Interzone, #14 Winter 1985/86. Epistolary story of the success of artificial intelligence of the Union of Islamic Republics to penetrate the fabric of space-time. This story is interesting but it did not wow me. Rated 3.6/5, or “Very good”.
  9. Flowers of Edo“, a novelette, from Asimov’s May 1987. I am not sure if I have ever read this before or not. A great story of an Edo after foreigners have come to Japan, and a modern electricity demon perhaps. A Hugo, Locus and Nebula finalist, and included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 188 Bluejay. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  10. The Little Magic Shop“, a short story by Bruce Sterling from Asimov’s October 1987. A very good fantasy story of a little magic shop and an unusual customer, and freedom. It was included in the Arthur W. Saha “The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 14“, 1988 DAW. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very good”.
  11. Our Neural Chernobyl“, a short story from F&SF June 1988. A review of a book by a 95 year old genius, who may be a secret master of the Neural Chernobyl, about that and its effect on the world. This epistolary story also features gene hackers. A Hugo finalist, and included in the Gardner Dozois “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Sixth Annual Collection“, 1989 St. Martin’s Press. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very good”.
  12. We See Things Differently“, a novelette from the “Semiotext[e] SF” anthology, Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, & Robert Anton Wilson editors, 1989 Autonomedia. A Muslim travels to a failed US, where the world economic system no longer favors the US. Pretending to be a journalist, he takes actions that will kill a major American rock star/political figure. Included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Eighth Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois, 1991 St. Martin’s Press. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very good”.
  13. Dori Bangs“, a short story, Asimov’s September 1989. I don’t know how I missed this sfnal alternative world tale of rock critic Lester Bangs and an underground “comix” artist, and their perhaps progeny if life had been different. I loved it. Sturgeon, Locus, Nebula and Hugo Award finalist, and included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 1990 St. Martin’s Press, “The Orbit Science Fiction Yearbook Three“, David S. Garnett editor, 1990 Orbit/Futura, and “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Third Annual Collection“, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling editors, 1990 St. Martin’s Press. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  14. Hollywood Kremlin“, the first Leggy Starlitz story, a novelette from F&SF October 1990. A great story of a mysterious hustler in Azerbaijan in the mid 1980s. He thrives while others do not, and is said to not show up on video devices. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  15. Are You For 86?“, a Leggy Starlitz novelette from Sterling’s “Globalhead” collection, 1992 Mark V. Ziesing. More fairly gonzo Leggy Starlitz, this time with abortion pill smugglers, the Mormon Meteor, a Japanese girl band and perhaps Janet Reno, all back in the USA. 3.7
  16. The Littlest Jackal“, a Leggy Starlitz novella from F&SF March 1996. An enjoyable story of Leggy Starlitz, Finnish Aland revolutionaries, an international terrorist, and the Russian mafia. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very good”.
  17. Deep Eddy“, a Chattanooga novelette from Asimov’s August 1993. The first Chattanooga story, but read second. A great story of Deep Eddy, a young man and data mule visiting Dusseldorf with a delivery. A Hugo and Locus finalist, rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  18. Bicycle Repairman“, a Chattanooga novelette from the anthology “Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology“, 1996, Richard Butner, John Kessel, & Mark L. Van Name editors, Tor. A great story of a bicycle repairman, Lyle, in a very different world, living in an urban anarchist area. He just wants to be left alone, but encounters a black ops woman working for an AI front for an almost dead Senator. A Hugo winner, Locus nominee, and included in “Year’s Best SF 2“, David G. Hartwell editor, 1997 HarperPrism and “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fourteenth Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 1997 St. Martin’s Griffin. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
  19. Taklamakan“, a Chattanooga novelette from Asimov’s October-November 1998. A wonderful story of two future, freelance climbers on a spy mission in the Taklamakan Desert in Asia and their penetration of an old hydrogen bomb cavity where they find 3 simulated starships and an amazing mess of genetically evolving security biomechanical robots. Pete, the older climber, is from Chattanooga and knows Lyle. A Hugo and Locus winner and Nebula finalist, and included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois, 1999 St. Martin’s Griffin. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  20. The Sword of Damocles“, a short story from Asimov’s February 1990. Not my thing, too self-referential and post-modern, clever but boring. I am surprised to find this story in the Best Of Collection; others might love it, but not me. Rated 2.9/5 or “Okay”.
  21. Maneki Neko“, a short story first published in Japanese in Hayakawa’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1996 and then in F&SF May 1998. Fantastic story of life and alternate economy/gift/ friend networks on hand held devices in Japan. This deservedly won the Locus, was a Hugo runner-up, a Sturgeon finalist, and was included in “Year’s Best SF 4“, David G. Hartwell editor, 1999 HarperPrism. Rated 4.3/5, or “Superlative”.
  22. In Paradise“, a short story from F&SF September 2002. A great story of a young plumber and an illegal political refugee who fall in love. They find paradise while being deported. Locus and Sturgeon finalist, and included in “Year’s Best SF 8“, Kathyrn Cramer/David G. Hartwell editors, 2003 Eos/HarperCollins, and “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twentieth Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 2003 St. Martin’s Griffin. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
  23. The Blemmye’s Strategem“, a novelette from F&SF January 2005. A fun and twisty story of conflict, assassination and perhaps aliens in the middle East during the Crusades, with the Old Man Of the Mountain and Hudegar the Abbess. Sturgeon finalist, and included in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Third Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 2006 St. Martin’s Griffin and “Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005“, Jonathan Strahan editor, 2006 Locus Press. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  24. Kiosk“, a novelette from F&SF January 2007. A great tale of future Transitions in society including one from fabbing. A Nebula finalist, and included in “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Two“, Jonathan Strahan editor, 2008 Night Shade, and “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection“, Gardner Dozois editor, 2008 St. Martin’s Griffin. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
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