Notes on Sterling’s ‘Taklamakan’

Notes and comments for Bruce Sterling’s ‘Taklamakan’ (1998)

Sterling, B. (1998) Taklamakan [Chattanooga]. In Asimov’s Science Fiction. Vol.22, No.274, October/November, 1998.  Accessed 6 February 2016 from

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Discussions of ‘Taklamakan’ (1998)

Simone Caroti in The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001  (2011) has a good deal to say about ‘Taklamakan’ (Sterling, 1998). In general, he notes the special place of this short story as “an intelligent reworking of the generation starship concept for the information age.” (Caroti, 2011) It fits within this GS Project using Caroti’s modified guidelines (2009) and adapted especially for secondary education that looks at GS narratives where:

  • the traveller/s be sentient,
  • the travellers are generally awake and aware,
  • the journey is multi-generational
  • the GS vehicle voyages, or seems to voyage, to a supposedly habitable place in another solar system.

Caroti (2011) reminds the reader that the Taklamakan is a real place, a large, high-altitude desert in China. Following directions from a Lieutenant Colonel who was supposed to command the mission but who has died when his stealth landing pod crashed, two urban thieves specializing in infiltration arrive to check out what is believed to be a buried Chinese rocket base. The thieves are directly from the Cyberpunk tradition pioneered by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and they are equipped not only with modified bodies but extraordinary high-tech gear suitable to their task.

Spider Pete and Katrinko find the entrance to the underground complex and trace back a path made by three mummified corpses to an “impossibly vast cavern” that is festooned with artificial lights made to replicate the constellations. There are three enormous starships in the cavern underground. The starships, it might be assumed, are the same sort of experiment as seen in Ballard’s ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ (1962) covered here in the GS Project – an experiment of fifty years standing to test human responses to isolation for a GS voyage. But, as Caroti point out (2011), the Taklamakan starships in their buried cavern are not a human experiment. They contain “entire populations of undesirables, ethnic separatists who would not change the way they live, would not let the twenty-first century absorb them like the rest of the Sphere (or Asian Cooperation Sphere, 2052’s name for the political entity of which today’s China is the controlling member), and would fight constantly to retain their identity” (Caroti, 2011). The people on board the three separate and isolated starships have been abandoned to their fate, which becomes much worse than for the travellers in Ballard’s story (1962) because there is more down in the cavern than just people. The cave floor is a wash of “‘simmering tidepools of mechanical self-assemblage’ that regularly give birth to strange biomechanical robots (Caroti, 2011) and it is the single duty of these biomachines to “keep the undesirables inside the ships”. Anything they find they take back into the semi-sentient ooze below the old starships where it is transmogrified into a new advance for the biomechs. This element of ‘Taklamakan’ (Sterling, 1998) is certainly a new and distinctly Cyberpunk to the GS subgenre, creating uncertainty in the narrative and providing an epic conclusion.

In the three starships Caroti (2011) notes that Sterling has created,

a sort of pocket compendium of generation starship populations, a small metafictional showcase for the different social arrangements in previous narratives in the subgenre. The first ship they visit is populated by a society that could also have come out of “Universe/Common Sense,”  “Spacebred Generations,” and “The Wind Blows Free”.

The three spacecrafts Spider Pete and Katrinko enter are all entirely different. The first houses a “preindustrial Asian society …that exists in a mind game that will never end” (Caroti, 2011) with the people apparently resigned to their fate while the second is,

…pitted and pockmarked by old explosions, its surface blistered by the hasty plug jobs the robots have had to carry out as a result. The inhabitants of this ship are, like Roy Complain’s tribes in Non-Stop, a sort of nomadic warrior culture, and again like Roy’s people, they are fully aware of living in a cage. The poor conditions of the hull are a direct outcome of their continued attempts to escape using crude but evidently effective battering rams. (Caroti, 2011)

Spider Pete and Katrinko are essentially Cyberpunk thieves with their own anarchic morality and they decide to help these savages in their battle against the biomech creatures from the sentient ooze at the bottom of the cavern. They blow a hole in the side of the second GS craft and flee the resultant battle to the hull of the third craft, to help a child exploring that vessel. Katrinko is killed by a crossbow bolt and noxious fumes from the third spacecraft as it is a “stinking tomb of scorched flesh” (Caroti, 2011).

Spider Pete is trapped in the cavern, not so much because he cannot escape – he can – his camouflage gear and abilities hide him completely, but he decides that he has stumbled onto a “big, big money thing” as the biomech creatures are a secret guarded by global companies based in China, the ‘Sphere’. Pete decides to stay, returning to the first spaceship and “amuses himself by exploiting the locals’ superstitions to play a fundamentally innocent game of haunt-the-village”. (Caroti, 2011) Pete meets and eventually talks with a beautiful, young priestess who worships him and the reader is not sure how long he stays in the first craft, but he does start noticing that the fake stars are fading or blinking out of existence. This is because the biomech creatures devoured Spider Pete and Katrinko’s high-tech gear and have evolved. Now, they were going up and out with improved sentience and, perhaps, Cyberpunk street-smarts. Spider Pete follows the biomech army out to the surface of the Taklamakan Desert where satellites are attacking the horde with laser beams and while he cowers, he finds himself the subject of a news drone come to cover the conflict.

Caroti (2011) notes that this development shows one of the great uses of SF generally and of the GS subgenre in particular as Sterling’s ‘Taklamakan’ (1998) story displays the same set of tropes, “the persistence or loss of memory, both social and personal; the transmission of knowledge, values, ethical principles, and goals from one generation to the next; and the effects of prolonged isolation inside a man-made container of limited size -a prison, in other words” (Caroti, 2011). In this sense GS texts create a “context-specific, fully isolated, easily contained locale within which the variables listed above can develop according to patterns that reflect back on their analogues here on Earth, today.” A central question of the subgenre such as ‘who would isolate generations of people in a metal cylinder?’ is answered by Sterling’s ‘Taklamakan’ (1998) – those who can. Caroti goes on to ask the contemporary reader,

How many people? How many tribes, nations, and communities? How many ethnic or religious minorities are there in this world, eking out a difficult living in landscapes blasted by war and revolution or slowly eroded by the simple neglect of those who cannot be bothered? We seem to know their names, here in the patronizingly self-appointed First World, but they may be half-forgotten, as unpleasant to the ear as the places where their tragedies slowly unravel over a period of generations – the Gaza Strip and Beirut; Darfur; Kosovo; Afghanistan and Pakistan; Cambodia; Haiti. It is a long list. (Caroti, 2011)

‘Taklamakan’ (Sterling, 1998) looks at the isolation of these disempowered and isolated communities through the eyes of Spider Pete  and Katrinko noting that their “moral attitudes ….are the product of a mixture of twenty-first century realpolitik, a cyberpunk/hard SF worldview, and a very Philip K. Dick-like suspicion of everything governments do”. (Caroti, 1998) The ‘uncivilised’ communities who do not want to join the twenty-first century of global corporations larger than governments are put into GS craft and buried and Caroti likens this to the way indigenous peoples are confined “into miserable corners of Starship Earth, where succeeding generations of the unwanted have transmitted to one another the only message of import we have been willing to send them: that they are, indeed, unwanted.” (Caroti, 2011) Caroti examines this theme of Sterling’s story (1998) further, linking the trapped ethnic communities in their GS craft underground with the surge of biotech robots who are cut apart by Sphere satellites,

This is not their world anymore. It was once, but bad people took it away from them, and it’s not our fault those bad people were our fathers, or that we stood to gain from theft, rapine, and murder. It is also unfair that we should feel guilty over all this. We didn’t actually do anything. Like Pete and Katrinko, we stumbled upon the problem on the way to looking for something else, and we have done what we can – helped a breakout here, behaved nicely to the natives over there, and politely refused to rape the priestess. So it’s OK if we just escape with the robots and leave everyone down in the cave, because we have done our best. Right? (Caroti, 2011)

At the end of a passionate reading of ‘Taklamakan’ (1998), Caroti notes a bright promise. The flow of data that comes from the robots, from Spider Pete recognised by the communications drone and from the attack by satellite laser on the conflict shows that the truth will be discovered as “in the long run it will find a crack in the wall or a backdoor in the system, or simply subvert the programming of the guards” (Caroti, 2011). He concludes his comments on the story with ,

Spies become prisoners, jailers become escape artists, and secrets become public knowledge, so that even those of us who wish the uncomfortable truths would just go away are destined to be visited by them again and again, until we do something to change things – or at least to have some peace and quiet. Before the web, the cell phone, the PC, and the dance of data, we had peace and quiet because we were too far away to hear the screams. Now the voices cannot really be dimmed anymore – from Haiti and Darfur, from Gaza and Cambodia, and from the rest of those immobile generational prisons inside which we have put those we did not want to acknowledge. There is mercy in Taklamakan, and the hope that the somewhat optimistic resolution of the nightmare of fictional peoples can one day be matched by an equally happy conclusion to the grief-laden stories of actual human beings alive today. (Caroti, 2011)


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Relevance to the focus questions

The focus questions for the GS Project texts presented are –

  1. What is worth holding onto over the generations?
  2. What should be discarded for the voyage? and
  3. Can life be sustained in the GS …or on Earth?

Through the use of three GS craft buried under the cold sands of the Taklamakan Desert, Sterling seems to offer different answers to the first questions of what is worth preserving for the occupants of the craft. The first GS craft has a population of several thousand who seem to have accepted their fate. They have evolved a quiet and repetitive life within the shell of their craft, looking out through portholes at the fake lights of what might have been distant galaxies. They may have believed they were on a great voyage to another star system and accepted this. This links to several other GS narratives found in this GS Project and is used intertextually by Sterling to refer to these older stories, such as ‘Spacebred Generations‘ by Simak (1953), covered here. The inhabitants of spacecraft one have even built a religion around their captivity, establishing a temple, sacred places and a priesthood that is mocked by one of the protagonists of Sterling’s story (1998), Spider Pete.

It is Spider Pete’s admiration for those trapped in the first spacecraft that has him spend a longer period of time with them, observing and subverting their ways of life, including perhaps even seducing the high priestess. If Spider Pete admires these people, should the reader? What is worth preserving from their culture?

In the second GS craft the thousands are warlike and ready to battle for freedom. They battle the biotech robot swarms and win brief victories. Their basic technology cannot defeat the semi-sentient robots for long, but they continue the fight. Is this willingness to continue conflict to achieve freedom to be admired in the story? What does Sterling show the reader about these people that should be either fostered or preserved?

The third spacecraft is full of charred corpses, possibly due to a mechanical fault many generations before. However, these people were more sophisticated with their clothing, showing an aesthetic impulse by their clothes and the remains of artworks left about. While the accident that destroyed them is probably Sterling’s expectation of the result of any GS trip, it is also the fate of many in earlier GS narratives and again acts intertextually. What does Sterling say about the artistic ambitions of these people and their demise?

Like Ballard’s ‘Thirteen to Centaurus‘ (1962) and the very recent cable series Ascension  (Levens, 2014), Sterling’s ‘Taklamakan’ (1998) spends a good deal of time commenting on the society that made this entrapment of ethnic minorities possible, and which let biotech robots evolve amongst them as a commensurate experiment. The protagonists of Sterling’s story are street-wide, hardened, future thieves, though they do have their own code of conduct. It is clear they believe the near future global corporations that built the Taklamakan complex are capable of anything and unconcerned with human life. The final battle between the biotech horde with raised sentience and the global corporations seem to be an answer, of sorts, to the third question. In a world where ethnic minorities are locked away and ignored, the Spaceship Earth is not sustainable but must end in conflict.


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Resource List

Aldiss, B.W. (1958). Non-Stop. London: Faber and Faber.

Ballard, J.G. (1962) Thirteen to Centaurus. In Amazing Stories. April, 1962.

Caroti, S. (2009). Theater of Memory against a Background of Stars: A Generation Starship Concept between Fiction and Reality. Space, Propulsion & Energy Sciences International Forum: SPESIF-2009. AIP Conference Proceedings, Volume 1103, pp.429-439.

Caroti, S. (2011). The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001. USA: Mcfarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6067-0.

Heinlein, R.A. (1941). Universe. In Astounding Science Fiction. May, 1941.

Levens, P. (Creator) (2014) Ascension. Written by Cruz, A. TV Mini-series. USA: SyFy Channel.

Oliver, C. (1957) The Wind Blows Free. In The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July, 1957.

Simak, C.D. (1953) Spacebred Generations. In Science-Fiction Plus, April, 1953.

Sterling, B. (1998) Taklamakan [Chattanooga]. In Asimov’s Science Fiction. Vol.22, No.274, October/November, 1998.  Accessed 6 February 2016 from

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