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From the Hackerbarrel
An Interview with Bruce Sterling
by Nick Gevers


Bruce Sterling, the Texan co-founder of the Cyberpunk movement, is probably the best example of the author as public figure produced by Science Fiction since Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. A charismatic literary showman, he has built tirelessly on his origins as an SF writer and samizdat propagandist, becoming famous as a journalist, essayist and commentator, even as he has continued a steady output of award-winning stories and impressive novels. His role as energetic interpreter of present trends and future possibilities makes him one of contemporary genre fiction's most significant personalities.

The early period of Sterling's writing began slowly but promisingly, with the moody Involution Ocean (1977) and the glitzy picaresque The Artificial Kid (1980). It was the Shaper-Mechanist stories (eventually assembled in Crystal Express (1989)) and their sequel, the remarkable metamorphic future history Schismatrix (1985), that confirmed Sterling's importance, and that constituted his signal creative contribution to the success of Cyberpunk. In his Cheap Truth pamphlets, Sterling meanwhile poured boiling oil on stodgy genre standards and on perceived literary antagonists; and his seminal Cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades (1986), gave the movement a valuable showcase.

From the late 1980s, Sterling concentrated his attention on the immediate issues of the Information Age. His novel Islands in the Net (1988) was a exhaustive exploration of the potentials and dangers of that Age; more starkly, The Difference Engine (1990, reviewed elsewhere), co-authored with William Gibson, illuminatingly transferred the socio-economic crises of the late Twentieth Century and the dilemmas of Artificial Intelligence to a mid-Victorian England revolutionised by radical Byronic politics and massive breakthroughs in computing. Globalhead (1992) gathered stories of a similar urgency, and the non-fiction volume The Hacker Crackdown (1992) dealt penetratingly with the emerging conflict of state and individual over information technology and its "lawful" application.

Sterling's mature fiction considers incisively and provocatively the transformative "posthuman" potentials of the Twenty-First Century. Heavy Weather (1994) portrays high-tech nomads in pursuit of weather systems gone frighteningly berserk; Holy Fire (1996) more quietly takes its heroine through the cultural wonderland of a truly postmodern Europe; and Distraction (1999, reviewed elsewhere) dissects American politics with a ruthless and hilarious futurist scalpel. The collection A Good Old-Fashioned Future (1999, reviewed elsewhere) complements the satire of Distraction with fine inventive comedy.

Interviewing Sterling by e-mail in January 2000, at the present height of his career, I asked him questions covering the full range of his published work and his socio-cultural concerns. With his customary volatile articulacy, he responded, no holds barred.


NG: To state the obvious: you're synonymous with cyberpunk, an association owing much to your vigorous advocacy of the movement in publications like Cheap Truth in the 1980s. Does "cyberpunk" still summarize your ideological and literary character adequately?

BS: Well, if a middle-aged professional who's been married more than half his life, has two kids, lives in a mansion and makes more money than 99% of the world's population can be called a "punk," yeah, sure, I'm a cyberpunk. On the other hand, if you're a science fiction writer and your "ideology and literary character" can be adequately summarized with one word, you're probably not working hard enough.

I often encounter this name-game problem when I'm being cited by newspapers. For some reason, even though I'm comfortable with the term, editors don't want to print the shocking allegation "Bruce Sterling is a cyberpunk." They even get mildly uneasy when I suggest that they call me a "science fiction writer." They feel somewhat happier with "futurist," though that term seems a little old-fashioned these days, and the cognomen "pop-science journalist" removes even more wrinkles from their brows. But this isn't my problem. I'm still me; I've been me all along.

I'm an anomaly no matter where I go or what I do. My business cards just say "Author/Journalist." That saves a lot of discussion.

NG: So is the combination of missionary zeal and iconoclastic mischief evident in Vincent Omniaveritas, your cyberpunk propagandist persona in Cheap Truth, still something you'd acknowledge yours?

BS: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Just not within science fiction circles. I pretty well had my say in terms of SF critical propaganda; after twenty-three years, twelve books and two Hugos, if you don't get it by now, more rants can't help you. But I'm doing very similar work these days in industrial design. In the world of industrial design in 2000, I'm in practically the identical position that Vincent Omniaveritas was in science fiction in 1983. "Missionary zeal and iconoclastic mischief," absolutely, that's the stuff. Look at this:

NG: The cyberpunk / humanist divide of the 1980s may be considered a passe question now, but was the antagonism real at the time? (Cheap Truth certainly suggested it was, as when it targeted novels by Kim Stanley Robinson.) Does the basic opposition involved still exist?

BS: Edward Gibbon the historian once wisely said, "I never make the mistake of arguing with people for whose opinions I have no respect." There were legions of writers around in the early 1980s whom we never bothered to attack. We simply dismissed them entirely. Stan, however, clearly deserved an argument. Although he was just getting started, he already stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. We didn't feel particularly antagonistic toward Stan personally, since we'd never met him, but we genuinely couldn't abide his work. The guy's approach, techniques, his core assumptions, prose style, his whole worldview were violently wrongheaded and objectionable.

Stan himself is a delightful fellow, he's bold, he's charismatic, he's funny. Stan is a can-do guy, he's a doer. When he wants to write a book on Antarctica, Stan pulls strings, gets his parka and goes to Antarctica. Stan doesn't merely make lip-service to politics, he has sincere, strongly-held politics; he doesn't make limp gestures toward environmentalism, he lives in an eco-designed community. These are fine things. He has justly become a major figure in the genre. He has more intellectual and creative vitality than 95 percent of his colleagues. However, I still can't stand his writing. I think every young SF writer today should study Stan's accomplishments closely, and decide for themselves what they can't stand about him.

NG: One of cyberpunk's claims to importance is its role in reviving, or at least reorienting, Hard SF in the 1980s. In your view, how does one define Hard SF? Are you a Hard SF writer, and if so, how does your approach to the form differ from that of, say, Gregory Benford, or (again) Kim Stanley Robinson?

BS: Well, there are a lot of physics majors around who'd like to write about spacecraft orbital dynamics to an accuracy of .9999, but alas, they also tend to be pathetically naive about the hard realities of science and its relation to society. They aspire to write power fantasies of infinite technocratic prowess which are basically works of ludicrous fantasy. This smokestack-era boosterism still has something of a hammerlock on the "hard-SF" label, which one associates with seminal SF figures like John Campbell, an outrageous kook who believed in anti-gravity and psychic powers.

Life is too short to run around rescuing old labels. If you want to write well about science, you'd be well advised to learn something specific and factual about contemporary science, and forget what Hugo Gernsback had to say on the topic. SF's vernacular tradition just isn't of much guidance here.

It was one of the happiest days of my career when I had an SF piece published in the august pages of Nature. It just doesn't get much "harder" than that.

NG: Do you see writers such as Neal Stephenson and Tricia Sullivan as members of a second cyberpunk generation? How do you view their work?

BS: There would probably be more justice in saying that Cyberpunks were members of a second New Wave generation, but much as I admire the New Wave, I wouldn't want that said about me.

There are younger writers around today who are obviously aware of cyberpunk writing, but they deserve to be assessed on their own merits, not as an echo of something else.

NG: Do you consider yourself quintessentially Texan? Is there a distinct Texan approach to writing SF?

BS: I tend to take my cue from Vaclav Havel on that issue. He said once that of course he's Czech, and there's no denying he's Czech, but he has no patience with chauvinist demagogues who are professionally Czech. There is in fact something of a distinct Texan approach to writing literature, which is rooted in folklore studies and has its grand themes in frontier stoicism, Southern-Gothic angst, and the rural tradition of fathers, sons and the land.

That stuff bores the living daylights out of me.

I've written science fiction novels set in Texas, but if I were ever classed as a Texan regional novelist, I would consider it a professional catastrophe.

NG: It's been observed that, although you're labelled a cyberpunk writer, your fiction writing covers an enormous amount of additional ground, from planetary romance to space opera to Third World politics to the European demimonde. Why this restless versatility?

BS: Actually, I've always found versatility to be a lot more restful than consistency. It's just a character trait. Anyway, who are these mythical "observers" who think that cyberpunk doesn't get to cover all that ground? Cyberpunks cover more ground than anybody in the business.

NG: At the same time: would it be reasonable to say that however your subject matter varies, your themes remain the same?

BS: No, even the themes are different. I think it's the extrapolative technique that's the same. Different worlds, different characters, and never much in the way of plots, but very similar tracking shots, close-ups and camera angles.

NG: Your novels do seem to follow the pattern of employing their characters as viewpoint devices affording the reader tours of the technological, economic, and cultural landscapes of the future: the exhibition of invention and transformation takes priority over plot. This is a tradition in SF going back to Hugo Gernsback and earlier. Why do you so consistently follow this approach?

BS: I follow it because it works. If you're going to ditch something to make room for the necessary exhibition of invention, it's far better to ditch plot than the customary SF victim, characterization.

NG: Your first novel, Involution Ocean, was a planetary romance ebulliently endorsed by Harlan Ellison. How do you regard it now? Was it, in its self-conscious romanticism, a typical Seventies book, or was it an initial development of the trends you'd help foster in the Eighties?

BS: Well, it's not a "typical Seventies book," because I wasn't skilled enough at that time to write a good typical pastiche. I was trying to pass for a hard-bitten, drug-soaked, New Worlds British New Wave guy, but I was a college student. College students really like that book. That's the book of mine you should read if you're nineteen. It has oodles of the cool, out-there stuff that interests nineteen-year-olds. Although I'm far more skilled now and have a vastly better idea of what I'm doing, I don't dismiss that first novel. Being a college student is an absolutely valid existential condition.

NG: Then came The Artificial Kid, which (being another planetary romance), has been described by William Gibson as rather like a Jack Vance novel, with rock-'n-roll elements and a nineteenth-century affect thrown in. Is there anything to the Vance analogy, in Kid and in your work in general? And is the "Kid" himself a Delany protagonist being readied for the new culture of the 1980s?

BS: Well, when I wrote the book, I hadn't actually read much Vance or much Delany. I'd seen a lot of Asian chop-socky cinema product. I think Artificial Kid reads rather like a Larry Niven book, but with more biotech, and fewer know-it-all engineers.

NG: The linked stories collected in the first section of Crystal Express, and Schismatrix, their culminatory novel, delineate a future Solar System dominated by the rivalry of the cyborgising Mechanists and the biotech-oriented Shapers. What led you to conceptualise their schism in those terms?

BS: It's been very hard to miss the profound technological advent of cybernetic systems and industrial genetics. All you have to do is watch the business magazines.

When I did the short stories (which came first) I wanted to write about a very high-tech civilization with a Cold War. We were having a Cold War at the time, and of course the Cold War is over now, but I think that Cold Wars are inherently interesting and well-suited to fictional treatment. They're not melodramatic like normal wars, but they are deep. Being based in economics and ideology, they're more intellectually engaging than hot wars, where nations can lose their tempers and begin flailing at rivals over almost any lame pretext. I wouldn't be surprised to see newer and more advanced forms of Cold War popping up in the future, like, for instance, a Taiwanese-Chinese hacker infowar, or a Pakistani-Indian nuclear-biological arms race. And if your ideology and economics are based in posthuman transformation technologies, well, why can't these schisms be as deep or deeper than any other?

NG: Schismatrix, having liberated humanity from the constraints of life on Earth, sets the species on a dizzying course of expansion and radical change. Is the novel an evolutionary utopia? Is your faith in the promise of the posthuman future as deep as Schismatrix implies?

BS: I hate utopias, and I never bother with faith. As for liberation, it's the consequences of living with liberation that interest me, not the moment on the barricades. I'm into history. I'm pretty well convinced that we have a lot of history ahead of us. Only it isn't any, shiny, mylar, stage-set, NoPlace "utopia." The future is this place, at a different time.

NG: There seems to be a division between your work up to the mid-Eighties--usually set off Earth or in the past--and your output since then, which concentrates on the near future and the socio-cultural realities engendered by the information revolution. Was this a deliberate change in direction? What motivated it?

BS: Mostly I had a lot more information, and rather less imagination. Thanks to the Web and my work in journalism, I have tremendously good research material now. I can't go to the moons of Jupiter, but if I hear of something odd going on in Turkish Cyprus, I can easily pull some strings and go to Turkish Cyprus. Compared to Ganymede, it's a remarkably engaging place: trees, buildings, food, heroin smugglers, genocidal war crimes, it's more fantastic than one might give it credit for.

And you've got to keep in mind: I'm 46 years old. Rocketing flights of world-shattering fancy tend to be a young guy's game.

NG: Islands in the Net is a long exploration of a burgeoning World Wide Web, as you in the Eighties saw it developing. How do you think Islands' prognosis has held up? Do you still see Third World countries adapting to the threats and opportunities of "the Net" as you then portrayed them doing?

BS: Well, Islands in the Net has Soviets wandering around in the year 2020. If you're wondering if the Net's around in the Third World today, yeah, it is. I don't think we've gotten to the point yet where pariah nations enrich themselves by pirating and advancing outlaw high-tech (as they do in Islands in the Net), but offshore money laundries and offshore software piracy are flourishing businesses today, in some very peculiar, out-of-the-way places.

I don't think any SF prognosis can hold up in sharp detail. But I would bet that if you took a broad list of near-future 1980s science fiction novels and looked at them in the 2020s, Islands in the Net would seem far less ludicrous than most.

NG: The Difference Engine, with its astonishing vision of a Victorian England transformed by a premature revolution in computing, is a very complex work. How did you and William Gibson divide the labour of its creation?

BS: Well, there was a lot of labour; we tried it just about every which-way, for three long years.

NG: There's a lot of literary borrowing and pastiche in The Difference Engine (for example, the use of characters from Disraeli's Sybil). Why did you take this approach?

BS: The cool thing about historical novels is that all the primary documents are out-of-copyright. Besides, if I'm re-writing William Gibson and he's re-writing me, we might as well both be re-writing Disraeli, Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Charles Babbage while we're at it.

NG: John Clute has remarked on the exclusion of Dickens as a presence in The Difference Engine: he's not a character, his literary creations don't really feature. Does his absence deliberately signal the deficit of social conscience in Babbage's Britain?

BS: Actually there's at least one large chunk in that book which is a direct steal from Dickens. That book has got plenty of the scary, hard-times, hard-grind Dickens. It just doesn't have any of the warm, fuzzy, Bob Cratchit, Mr Micawber Dickens. The world of The Difference Engine is basically a malignant one-party state run by revolutionary cadres. Those don't tend to be tender-hearted, conscientious places.

NG: The structure of The Difference Engine --"Iterations" culminating in the coming to historical and self-consciousness of an AI of the Panopticon variety--is a compelling narrative strategy. Why (broadly) are the experiences of Sybil, Mallory, and Oliphant so crucial to the AI's development?

BS: The "Narratron" (as the unnamed machine narrator is named in our notes) is following the genesis of a program. That program, the Modus, contains a mathematical breakthrough that will enable the Narratron to achieve machine consciousness.

The Narratron is going through its extensive documentation, breathing life into long-dead figures associated with this "Modus" program. Radley writes it; Sybil steals it; Mallory accepts it and hides it; Oliphant pursues it, and so on. The Narratron, with its "iterations", is even more obsessed with this MacGuffin than the characters are.

NG: In the Nineties, you've often written in the capacity of journalist, notably in your book The Hacker Crackdown and in your articles for Wired. Is this a separate career, or does it strictly complement your work as an SF writer, advancing the same arguments, employing the same literary style?

BS: Oh, I see my nonfiction as very much in the orthodox tradition of Clarke and Asimov. I do rather more travel journalism and rather less pop science than they did, but globalization is a crucial trend at this historical juncture; it's a lot easier to do roadwork than it used to be.

Journalism editors tend to blue-pencil my literary style. As a journalist, I'm more into the simple-declarative.

NG: Heavy Weather deals with a future of meteorological apocalypse. Do you think the Twenty-First Century world will indeed have to adapt to such conditions?

BS: Heavy Weather is not apocalypse. Apocalypse is banal. The people in Heavy Weather are living in a society that is a lot more pleasant than most of Eastern Europe today, even though their weather has been wrecked. If you're asking me if the Greenhouse Effect is a real phenomenon with some highly unpleasant consequences, the answer is yes. And the Twenty-First Century had better do much more vigorous counteraction than it does adaptation. There's no way in hell to "adapt" to the consequences of ten billion people burning coal.

NG: Also in Heavy Weather, you present characters who pursue extreme weather events, revelling in them. Are they in fact hackers, only ones preoccupied with Chaos in the physical world instead of the complexity of the virtual one?

BS: Well, sorta; they obviously derive their ethos from a cybernetic counterculture of some kind. I like the idea of a rootin-tootin' gang of nomadic math freaks.

NG: Holy Fire is a denser, more demanding book. Is that a reflection of its predominantly European, and therefore duly "complicated", setting? Are the novel's Continental avant-gardistes closely modelled on subcultures and people you've encountered on your travels?

BS: Well, I know a lot of complicated arty Europeans and I'm perfectly willing to pay sustained attention to them. But I wouldn't want anyone to think I was writing a roman-a-clef. The book's flavored by my acquaintance with groups like ISEA, DEAF, nettime, Syndicate and the Neo-Academists, but if you're going to extrapolate the art world, you really have to extrapolate it, just as if it were engineering. You can't just drop your artist friends unaltered in a funhouse-mirror future world; if they'd grown up in that world instead of this one, they'd necessarily be profoundly different people and profoundly different artists.

NG: Distraction is a very amusing political satire. What, generally speaking, does it satirize? The American political system? The foibles of the Deep South? Yuppiedom? All of these?

BS: "Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous." Voltaire

NG: In Distraction, and in most of your more recent short stories, including all those in A Good Old-Fashioned Future, your style has become exuberantly comic, wisecrackingly slangy. This is the case in your non-fiction as well. Have you found a vocation as a humorous writer?

BS: Frankly, I think I'm just having a better time of life lately. It's hard to be all sour, guarded and paranoid when you're rich and famous. Besides, my advancing years have led me to feel differently about the human comedy. After spending years hanging out with scary, sober people like cops, government and the military, I've come to realize that many areas of life that seem really dour and impressive are complete pretences and fronts: they're one phosphor-dot thick. Step behind the screen and it's a circus, a lot more like Rube Goldberg than George Orwell.

I live in a country which had a failed coup d'etat over a guy getting a blow-job. It's really hard to stop laughing at this. Life is a lot more antic and ludicrous now than it was in the heyday of cyberpunk, when nuclear annihilation was one sweaty finger-jab away. We should be wearing our jesters' motley now and trying to enjoy life more. We'll only regret it later if we miss this chance.

NG: Why is Distraction so titled?

BS: Well, it seemed to work for Holy Fire. People in Holy Fire have the holy fire, and people in Distraction are very distracted, but what is the holy fire and what are they distracted from? Nothing in particular, and everything in general. It's their existence that's under study in those books, not some particularity.

NG: Your next novel is Zeitgeist. Can you say anything about its content and its concerns? And when do you expect it to be published?

BS: This is the novel-length treatment of a series of stories I've written over the years about a raffish global hustler named "Leggy Starlitz." Zeitgeist is the first novel I've ever written set in a contemporary milieu; it's set in 1999. It's a technothriller with fantastic elements. Leggy Starlitz is a nonlinear descendant of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius.

NG: The Leggy Starlitz stories are "Hollywood Kremlin" and "Are You For 86?" from Globalhead, and "The Littlest Jackal" from A Good Old-Fashioned Future. How are you revising them? Have any details had to be altered, given rapid changes in, for example, Azerbaijan?

BS: No, these stories stand as written; Zeitgeist is a complete stand-alone Leggy Starlitz novel.

NG: Finally: how do you see the present state and prospects of SF? Are you optimistic for the genre?

BS: I'm optimistic about the genre and its ways of thought and expression; I'm not too sure about the SF marketing category and the SF publishing industry. The economic underpinnings there look really shaky. We may be going through a transition soon like the extinction of the dime novel and the death of the pulps. When economic change breaks your rice bowl, people often feel that they've been personally repudiated and their core values have been blasphemed and profaned. But that's not what it's about; mostly, it's about distribution systems and the price of ink on paper, not one's deathless literary values.

The most important science-fictional enterprise today is the stock market. It is very clear that the capital-owning population is willing to risk everything on industries that don't yet exist. They're not in some utopian wonderland, marvelling at superscience wonders; they'll reach right in their wallets. They'll make public idols out of techno-geeks. That's a strange development.

Mind you, it wasn't investment professionals doing this; it was a popular movement, Stockholder Nation. They're far more interested in anticipating the next Net Economy than they are in a prudent rate of return selling soap, bricks and bubble-gum. It's Sci-Fi Capitalism, and it bears the stamp of sci-fi even more strongly than Reagan's space-age Star Wars.

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© Nick Gevers 6 May 2000