Islands in the Net is a very enjoyable read that starts out by grounding us in Laura Webster’s life running the Lodge in Galveston, Texas, for an economic democratic corporation called Rizome. The murder of a representative of a questionable power then upsets Laura’s life and launches her on an intensely dangerous journey that takes her through several very different societies, each of which are a fascinating amalgamation of certain philosophies, technology, history, political systems, and motivations all splattered together into vibrant wholes. Each transition ratchets up the danger she faces and the strain placed upon the global balance of power until inevitably something has to give, creating a horrifying sense of a grim acceleration.
While I found Laura Webster an interesting and capable protagonist, the novel is very much about the world and the interplay of technological advancement, development, and deployment, and how that affects economic, cultural, political, and ethical structures. When Sterling takes us through Grenada and Singapore, these exotic locations are not mere stage dressing for Laura’s investigation, but are as important a part of the narrative as the plot itself. The novel shows a very good use of technological -> societal feedback loops.
Some aspects are oddly prescient: while the futuristic Net as imagined in 1988 sounds positively silly to us, its use and the consequences of daily reliance sound pretty familiar to users of the Internet. The picture of American decline might be seen as predictive. There are some aspects that seem rather farfetched, such as the abolition of nuclear weaponry, the extreme degree of national governmental irrelevance, and the descent into global chaos and creation of new world powers. Additionally, the use of disruptive technologies that upset the power balance, such as single-celluar organismal protein food sources (i.e. growing bacteria for food), drone warfare, and gene-tailored drugs may seem exaggerated, although one could argue that such changes are simply further ahead in our future. Nonetheless, Sterling creates a world rich with plausible strangeness.
One touch I found very well done was the generational conflict between Laura and her mother over cultural issues and their worldviews. It was a convincing way to convey some background information that would be awkward to directly give the reader, and was very revealing, although the characters did seem a touch preachy at certain points.
I hesitate to mention it, but while visually the book presents itself as a cyberpunk novel, and you can find it classified as such, to me it really does not read that way. Admittedly, the appropriate strangeness of cyberpunk is present, but there is a lack of the grindingly oppressive dystopian feel that seems a cornerstone of the work to me, such as you find in William Gibson’s works, or the complete absurdness you might find in Stephenson’s Snow Crash. There’s a certain plausibility and grounding in a realistic mood. Perhaps cyberthriller? Not really sure, but I found thinking about the genre lines here interesting.
COVER ART REVIEW: I am legitimately not sure who this character on the cover is. It might be Laura Webster, but I really did not get an image remotely like this character from the book itself. While it definitely establishes a cyberpunkian mood for the novel itself, it really does not match any of the characters. I looked to see if there were any other cover images that might be a better fit, but honestly, I found nothin’.