Crystal Express: Stories by Sterling

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCrystal Express by Bruce Sterling SFF book reviewsCrystal Express by Bruce Sterling

Crystal Express is a 1989 collection of short stories by Bruce Sterling, originally published between 1982 and 1987. Five of the stories are set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe made popular in Schismatrix, three are general science fiction, and four lean toward the fantasy genre. The stories are grouped along these thematic lines, and the following is a brief summary of each story.

Shaper/Mechanist:

  • “Swarm” (1982) — Certainly one of Sterling’s initial forays into the Shaper/Mechanist universe if not the first, “Swarm” is poorly written (it has almost a cartoon presentation), but does a solid (if overt) job of delineating the differences between Shapers and Mechanists. It tells the tale of two people trapped inside an asteroid filled with Investor youth and their plans for genetic modification.
  • “Spider Rose” (1982) — A heavily modified Shaper working alone as a deep space miner finds an unusual object for trade. But the Investors who come looking to haggle have more than she bargained for. “Spider Rose” is a better-written story than the first, not to mention more imaginative; things turn out like no one could predict. But then, that’s Sterling’s point when post-humanism is at play.
  • “Cicada Queen” (1983) — This story starts with a bizarre, drug-induced initiation ritual, and only gets stranger from there. It also becomes more cohesive ideologically, and more closely parallels the political machinations of Schismatrix.
  • “Sunken Gardens” (1984) — Mars has been bombarded with ice asteroids by a group attempting to give the planet a livable atmosphere and plant life. In the aftermath, another faction called the Regals hold a terraforming competition that defies best environmental practices. Suffice it to say, Sterling’s political standpoint is more than obvious.
  • “Twenty Invocations” (1984) — Anything but a traditional story, these twenty windows into the life of Nikolai are a fun experiment with structure and reveal flashes of Shaper/Mechanist life. This may be the best of the Shaper/Mechanist stories in the collection.

Science Fiction:

  • “Green Days in Brunei” (1985) — A Canadian engineer named Turner signs a temporary contract in Brunei to get a retired millionaire’s boat business back on its feet. Things may turn out a little too nicely — materialistically, amorously, and ideologically — for Turner, but the story portrays a window into post-oil politics in a cyberpunk setting.
  • “Spook” (1983) — When “being human just isn’t enough fun”, a secret operative looks for more from life. He gets what he bargained for, and then some.
  • “The Beautiful and the Sublime” (1986) — In this future where modernism has returned to fashion, retro-retro is in, as is aestheticism. Manfred de Kooneng vies for the woman he loves, and the more subtle his tricks, the more his soul fills with joy. Sterling is experimenting with something of a Victorian style here, and this is one of the best stories in the collection though it is relatively straightforward.

Fantasy:

  • “Telliamed” (1984) — The cream of the collection, this is the story of the aging de Maillet and some strange jungle snuff he inhales while sitting beside the sea one day. Sterling strikes a conceptual groove in this vividly written story that waxes in the mind after it is finished. Reminiscent of Gene Wolfe
  • “The Little Magic Shop” (1987) — In this short, strange tale, James Abernathy discovers an elixir of immortality, and keeps coming back every two decades to the same shop to pick up a fresh supply.
  • “Flowers of Edo” (1987) — A progressive, ne’er-do-well comedian and a traditionalist, former samurai walk the streets of an Edo slowly falling under the influence of foreign fashions, architecture, and engineering. A minor adventure of sorts, the two’s supernatural encounter at the home of an artist is of telling interest.
  • “Dinner in Audoghast” (1985) — A group of Muslim aristocrats discuss life over a meal of gaudy proportions. When a leprous fortune-teller appears on their doorstep, history takes a new perspective.

In the end, Crystal Express is neither a great nor terrible collection of stories. The Shaper/Mechanist section sheds more light on that universe, but certainly falls short of the novel Schismatrix for quality (though they are highly original stories).  The sci-fi section is an improvement in style and presentation, and its stories take on a variety of more contemporary subjects. Ending on a high note, the fantasy section contains the best stories in the collection. “Telliamed” and “The Beautiful and the Sublime” are nice little pieces in highlight. I can’t help but feel the collection lost a little something by being divided into sections, however. A certain, small degree of interest is lost in the predictability. But this is a minor quibble. More troublesome is the quality of writing. Sterling is still finding his literary feet in some of these works, and his syntax is startlingly amateurish in several of the opening stories. The quality noticeably improves as the collection progresses (perhaps a reason behind the genre grouping?). Sterling slowly draws the reader in, while moving closer to social, political and cultural concerns of the present day.


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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