30) Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling
A really good read, set in an early 21st century future but written in 1988. It is of course not intended as a work of prediction, but it’s impossible not to read it in that way now – yes, end of Cold War; no, didn’t see collapse of communism; yes, video-recorders obsolete; yes, non-state actors capable of major damage to industrialised society; no, rogue states on the whole not providing havens for “data piracy”. The passages explaining how fax machines operate seem particularly quaint – were they really so unusual back in ’88? But on the whole, this was an interesting envisioning of the future we are now in.
The central character, Laura Webster, is taken on a tour of the underside of her world – I hoped at first that the “islands” theme would be consistently maintained, as she starts on Galveston Island in Texas, then goes on to Grenada and then to Singapore, disaster following her as she goes. But she then ends up in the desert of northern Africa, which is about as far as you can get from being an island. (Though that is perhaps too literal – she is certainly pretty isolated in Mali.) I would have preferred also if a bit more of the climax had happened on-screen, as it were, given how much of the setting depends on the concept of the Net, the wired world in which everything is observed by anyone who wants to observe it. But these are fairly minor quibbles – it’s a great story of a world which, twenty years ago, was just coming into existence and now is pretty much here.
Bechdel test: a very easy pass, as Laura has numerous female peers. She also talks to her baby daughter, if that is allowed to count.