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The New New Thing

THE GLASS BEES A Novel By Ernst Junger Translated from the German by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Mayer; New York Review of Books: 224 pp., $12.95 paper

November 05, 2000|BRUCE STERLING | Bruce Sterling is the author, most recently, of "Zeitgeist" and "Holy Fire" and co-author with William Gibson of "The Difference Engine."

It beggars belief that this novel was first published in 1957. Its speculations on technology and industry are so prescient as to be uncanny. Not merely "ahead of its time," this book is supremely anachronistic.

Ernst Junger, who was born in 1895, lived to be 102 years old. Even 20th century Germany was hard put to produce enough historical tumult for him. After a teenage stint in the French Foreign Legion, he signed up for patriotic action on the first day of World War I. The ensuing whirlwind of catastrophe inspired his first book, "The Storm of Steel." Adolf Hitler, who fought on the same battle front, was a devotee of the book and asked Junger to run for public office. He declined, preferring to versify, philosophize and practice entomology. He spent World War II, back in uniform again, writing veiled attacks on the regime and sipping champagne in occupied Paris. He was censored but survived the Nazi purges. When the war was over, he was censored by the victors, and he survived again. By 1951, Junger was dropping LSD. In 1962, at age 67, he married his devoted second wife. Even after all that, there were still entire decades ahead: magazine editorship, diaries, learned essays, respectful visits from European heads of state. The calendar could not stop him.

Junger outlived Imperial Germany, Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany and even the Federal Republic, finally seeing his country become Germany all over again. This clearly tired him far less than it would most mortals. The greatest strength of "The Glass Bees" is its Olympian disdain for the mere exigencies of time. We're never told the year. Our narrator never gives us his age.

The slithering narrative perfectly suits the spotted career of its hero, the gallant cavalryman Captain Richard. He tells us of his boyish cowboy-and-Indian games. His formative years at officer school. The ambivalence of his married life. He often alludes to merciless wars which somehow blend seamlessly into one another.

As early as Chapter One, "robots" enter the tale. The ageless Captain Richard (who grows markedly more sinister as he grows more open and confiding with the reader) needs a new job. He needs one pretty badly. He's even willing to forsake his knightly pretensions for a day job in high-tech.

Robots as Junger portrays them have nothing to do with the common standards of 1957. These robots don't clank, beep or take any orders, Isaac Asimov-style. On the contrary: these microminiature, computerized, bug-like automatons are straight out of the MIT Media Lab and Wired magazine, circa 1994. Uncannily anticipating the scattered structure of the Internet, Junger's glass bees "resembled less a hive than an automated telephone exchange."

Inside the moneyed fortress of technocracy, we find ourselves in a pseudo-pastoral campus--in other words, Silicon Valley. The robotics mogul, the aptly named Zapparoni, is a hybrid of Bill Gates and Walt Disney. He's made a vast fortune creating high-tech special-effects cinema. Zapparoni also employs fanatical creative squads of hackers who are, by Richard's standards, nutty, pampered and vastly overpaid.

Captain Richard's own desolate poverty shows this book's refreshing detachment from the tropes of American science fiction. The cavalier glories of his lost wars may own the captain's heart, but in his wallet it's always 1933. Captain Richard is a rare example of a science-fiction hero who knows what it means when people line up for soup.

Junger perceived industrial capitalism as a ridiculous game, so he proved remarkably good at predicting its future moves. "The Glass Bees" combines the icy insights of Stanislaw Lem with the reactionary rancor of Celine. Junger understands that technology is pursued not to accelerate progress but to intensify power. He fully grasps that popular entertainment comes with a military-industrial underside. Junger understands that programmers throw tantrums and act like loons because they are engaged in "a most peculiar kind of work . . . very close to pure fantasy." He even understands that 20th century wars are won not by courageous blitzkriegs but by making your own weapons obsolete as rapidly as possible. Though he sinks sometimes into astrological fatalism--all we science-fiction writers do have our crank aspects--he was a truly powerful and accomplished speculative thinker. Technomoguls, hackers, microminiature assembly, artificial pop stars, agropharmaceuticals--there's scarcely a single stroke of Junger's imagination that hasn't struck some real-life merchandizable echo.

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