An apt description would be Moby Dick on an alien world, but at the same time it wouldn’t do justice to the book, because there’s much more to it. On the world Nullaqua the Nullaquans hunt the dustwhales who live in an ocean made of dust. When the drug Flare is outlawed, John Newhouse, an outsider who lives on Nullaqua, joins a crew of the whale hunters to make the drug on his own, since it’s made from the guts of the whales (I wonder if that was inspired by the sandworms from Dune).
Sterlings first novel is also one of his best. It’s completely unlike anything he has written later, at least the setting and the atmosphere of the novel. The main hero begins as one of the more typical Sterling characters, a drug addict and outsider to most of society. The book is about a voyage over a truly alien landscape, where people are small and can easily die, if they don’t work together. During the voyage John falls in love, learns something about the true past of the world he’s living on and changes so much that he can’t go back from where he started. It’s a beautiful first novel, full of weirdness and strangeness, and very unlike all of the rest of Sterling’s books.