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Interview: Bruce Sterling Answers Your Questions 34

Last week you had a chance to ask "Chairman Bruce" about the state of sci-fi, dystopian futures, and the modern surveillance state. Below you'll find his answers to those questions, including who would win if he fought William Gibson and Neal Stephenson in a no-holds-barred battle.
Parallels ...
by gstoddart

Do you feel that a lot of what is happening right now is eerily similar to some of the "what ifs" which cyberpunk has been talking about for decades? Some days, it seems like everything is unfolding right before our eyes straight out of Orwell and Huxley, and people are embracing it as normal.

Bruce: Orwell and Huxley were never cyberpunks. Orwell was this armed Socialist antifascist journalist who hung out with the oppressed underclass, while Huxley was this wacky, posh brainiac satirist who ate Mexican mushrooms.

So obviously there's some genuine kinship there, but hey, the dates are all off. A lot of the sci-fi stuff in Orwell and Huxley, and cyberpunk too, looks "eerily similar to what's real" because it was built to look that way, on purpose. It was science fiction, but derived from events that were genuinely going on in real life. Only people didn't talk about them much in polite society. The readers hadn't caught on yet.

Then readers come along, periodically, some decades later, and they're like: "Hey! This comprehensive police-state surveillance is just like George Orwell's 1984!" It is, pretty much, except that "1984" is based on the real police state surveillance that George Orwell knew a lot about in 1948. In 1948, there was tons of surveillance and torture and doublethink going on. In Russia, mostly, but, well, not only.

Cyberpunks have been cyber for decades now. Our society is pretty much cyber-everything, nowadays. Some aspects of it are even post-cyber. That's okay, you get used to that process. "Normality" comes and goes for a sci-fi writer, but "eerie" you always have with you.

Re:Parallels ...
by doctor woot

Better yet, I'd like to know how modern day has differed from what they were expecting in the 80's.

Bruce: Well, for starters, Communism went away, and we've got a conspicuous lack of imminent nuclear armageddon. Now we've got a terrifying, major-league climate crisis that nobody talks about much, because oil companies and banks took over the world for a while.

The twenty-teens are about as different from the 1980s as the 1980s were from the 1950s. It's still the same civilization, just a different point in time.

Where you more pessimistic before, or now?
by 3.5 stripes

I get a bit of pessimism from almost all near future sci-fi, but I'm wondering if you feel more pessimistic about where humanity is, and is headed, now.. or back when you started writing?

Bruce: Y'know, some people use that word "pessimism" about cyberpunk writing, but none of us cyberpunks ever did. I mean, the people who consider us "pessimistic" are basically not clued-in at all, by our standards. It's like meeting Christian fundies, who are all like, "So, how does it feel to be doomed to perdition? Must be mighty dark there, outside our Church, huh?"

Frankly, I'm kind of a melancholic, like writers generally are, and I've got a sarcastic streak. But to be a "pessimist," you've got to be all personally crabby about not getting your own way about something. I don't have that problem.When I was all "before" as a writer, I was a college student writing his first novel in Austin, Texas. Today I'm a 60-year-old guy hanging out in Belgrade, Serbia. I can't be bothered to figure out if that's supposed to be "pessimistic."

Well, look at it this way. The year 2014 is the centenary of World War One. When you hang out in Europe like I do, you stumble over the rubble of World War One, quite a lot. Humanity was in a truly dreadful place, one hundred years ago. The world situation of humanity was truly bitter and hateful and and deadly, and, well, here we are anyway. That's the big picture.

There are a lot of times and places where "humanity" is headed in no place in particular. Those scenes interest me. Like, little European cultures with weird minority languages, who are just hanging around in obscure mountain valleys, making clay pots and singing, and knifing each other on Tuesdays. You might think that a chrome-and-matte-black science fiction writer would lack a cordial interest in penny-ante cultural scenes like that, but they have their merits. It's not like we all line up and dash like mad for some end-goal called "The Future." There's no victory-condition for being human. The future is just a kind of history that hasn't happened yet.

Re:Blade Runner
by GodfatherofSoul

What film best represents your vision of a cyberpunk or high-tech dystopian future?

Bruce: I recommend this high-tech dystopian flick called "Aelita, Queen of Mars." "Aelita" was made by a crew of Soviet Communist-Futurists, and practically everybody involved in it was either rounded up by the secret police or forced into exile. Also, they had to stick a crap ending onto their sci-fi Mars movie, so that the Communist censor approved. Now that's a really "dystopian" movie, you know? The kind where the guys *making* the movie are in a dystopia. The rest of it is kid stuff!

As for the "cyberpunk" part, forget about "the movies." Abstract motion-graphics coded in Processing and posted on Vimeo, that's "cyberpunk." You don't wanna make movies that are about guys with computers. You want to use digital composition to seize control of the means of producing cinema. And then do it all yourself! That's "punk." Hollywood product is commerce, it's about fanboy culture.

Writing method
by schneidafunk

Do you use any formal method to writing, such as the snowflake method? Also, do you recommend any software tools for writing?

Bruce: Actually yeah, I'm kinda keen on formal methods for writing. But I don't stick to one in particular; I like to use them like fuzz tone boxes or wah-wah pedals. If you're big on this, you ought to read about the Oulipo Group, the "Workshop for Potential Literature." Italo Calvino used to work with them. They had all kinds of off-the-wall stunts, like writing novels without the letter "e" in them.

I've used a lot of software tools for writing. Outside of a basic work processor to help with the brute labor of typing, a lot of these "tools" just get in the way. Way too many value-add bells and whistles. Lately I'm thinking that turning off the wifi signal is a pretty good idea in writing.

Search engines are a major research aid for writers, but in the past few years, they've all been turning into surveillance-marketing engines. Now it's like trying to get some fiction done, while Google is all like, "So! Finish that Coke yet? Hey, how about a six-pack?" It's like Larry and Sergei are right in the room now, staring with Google Glass, and holding their breath.

Artificial Kid
by ninjagin

Have you had (or received) any interest in bringing the Artificial Kid to film?

Bruce: Well, Artificial Kid is a book about a guy who makes films, but no. Not lately. Holy Fire got optioned recently. It's about a chick who's a fashion photographer. Frankly, I don't pay much attention to the movie-rights people. I don't mind if they option whatever they want from the backlist, but I don't write movie scripts myself.

It might be cool to have Bollywood make one of my movies. I used to live in India, so I know quite a lot about Bollywood. Like, a Bruce Sterling sci-fi movie with Ram Gopal Varma as the director, Hritik Roshan as the two-fisted action hero, and Kalki Koechlin as the manic pixie-dream-girl romantic lead. Hey, I'd pay to see that movie.

The wacky Indian guys who made "Endhiran The Robot" could probably do an okay Bruce Sterling movie. You should see that flick. You'll thank me later.

Modern Law Enforcement
by puddingebola

Back when you were wrote the Hacker Crackdown, you described a world where ham-handed and overly zealous law enforcement and hacker culture collided, and predicted more of the same in the future. How has modern day law enforcement evolved in terms of its approach since that time, in what ways is it more savvy, and in what ways does it still strike you as draconian or clumsy in its approach.

Bruce: Man, the current generation of cops is scarily computer-literate. More so than straight people, even. You get busted for anything at all nowadays, and the cops are all over your computers. They're in your smartphone, your Dropbox, your Facebook. They can shovel you off into the slammer without even bothering to talk to you.

Even miserable credit-card coder-thieves are getting hit by RICO charges now. That means that if you're some hacker rip-off artist, and you've got a sock full of Bitcoins hidden somewhere, man, the cops are gonna come to your door with trucks and vans and confiscate every physical object you own. With RICO, they'll raffle that off, and keep the proceeds for themselves. They've got the legal precedents in place now to treat bad-boy hackers just like the Mafia and the Sinaloa drug cartels. Draconian? You bet! Clumsy? Not really.

Don't even get me started on the NSA, pal. Or Wikileaks, either.

Long time no see - have we gone away from hard SF?
by WillAffleckUW

Hey, Bruce. What is your current feeling on the current trends in fiction - in book form, manga, anime, TV, and film - have we gone away from hard SF towards science fiction focused on relationships and societies, or is this just a surface trend as we deal with the actual implications of reality and the near future?

Bruce: We've gone away from science because our whole society's gone away from science. We're in a science-hostile society now, it's politically dominated by Creationists and climate denialists.

"Science fiction" was created in an American 1920s society that had heaps of fiction and a little bit of science. Now we're in a society that's increasingly indifferent to both its fiction and its science. The core audience of techie guys who might like "hard science fiction," they wouldn't have a lot of spare time to read print nowadays. They're in Maker spaces, they like Kickstarters. They don't read any 1920s Hugo Gernsback paper mags about scientifiction and crystal-radio sets. They read Slashdot.

I don't blame 'em. That's just how it is. I saw that happen, year by year. The trend has been very obvious.

The other stuff, about "focussed on relationships and societies," that's a code term for noticing that women are the major creative figures in fantastic print fiction nowadays. Dude, you bet they are. Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, man, that stuff made an absolute mint. Those huge commercial successes by women writers are practically the only things keeping bookstores open nowadays.

In a fight between...
by RDW

In his Slashdot interview back in 2004, Neal Stephenson told us about epic battles that he, William Gibson and you were fighting:

"One of my psi blasts kicked up a large divot of earth and rubble, uncovering a silver metallic object, hitherto buried, that seemed to have been crafted by an industrial designer. It was a nitro-veridian device that had been buried there by Sterling. We were able to fly clear before it detonated. The blast caused a seismic rupture that split off a sizable part of Canada and created what we now know as Vancouver Island. This was the last fight between me and Gibson. For both of us, by studying certain ancient prophecies, had independently arrived at the same conclusion, namely that Sterling's professed interest in industrial design was a mere cover for work in super-weapons. Gibson and I formed a pact to fight Sterling. So far we have made little headway in seeking out his lair of brushed steel and white LEDs, because I had a dentist appointment and Gibson had to attend a writers' conference, but keep an eye on Slashdot for any further developments."

So, can the story now be told? Who was the eventual winner?

Bruce: That Slashdot piece was one of the funniest things Neal ever wrote. He wins, really, flat out. Gibson and I, we can't compete with Neal in that arena. Gibson's too busy making clothes for some Japanese fashion outfit, and I'm playing culture-critic at some electronic art-fair.

So, let peace break out -- that's my philosophy.
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Interview: Bruce Sterling Answers Your Questions

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  • Dates (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Monday December 23, 2013 @01:16PM (#45767709)

    So obviously there's some genuine kinship there, but hey, the dates are all off.

    If the dates are off then don't eat them.

    But seriously... 1984 should have been named '84. Totalitarianism will always be a threat to be guarded against. Making sure it is always on the mental horizon would probably be useful. 2084 is coming.

    • Re:Dates (Score:4, Informative)

      by magic maverick ( 2615475 ) on Monday December 23, 2013 @07:06PM (#45770541) Homepage Journal

      1984 was written as a mirror for Orwell's times, so yeah, '84 as opposed to '48 when he was writing.

      People keep thinking he was writing about Russia. But he wasn't. He was writing about Britain. Having worked in the propaganda dept. during WW2, he new all about propaganda from the state. He wasn't writing about Russia at all, what would be the point? There were plenty of others who would write about that part of the world. No, he was writing about his own country. He was writing against fascism, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism in his own country.

      He would recognize the shit happening from the NSA, and he would nod, and say "I warned you". That book was written because he knew too well how "liberal, democratic" countries could turn bad.

      I suggest everyone go and read Why I Write []: "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it."

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        He was writing about Russia but bringing it home so that people could understand that the same things could happen at home. A lot of it was a reaction to other socialists that were excusing Stalin and Mao because those totalitarians gave lip service to socialism.
    • I feel a disturbance in the Force, like if a thousand hypocrites screamed their lies with the full force of their lungs... Oh, wait! It's just old cold fjord. Nevermind!

  • What I don't get (Score:4, Interesting)

    by 50000BTU_barbecue ( 588132 ) on Monday December 23, 2013 @01:17PM (#45767715) Journal
    is why it's called "science" fiction given how little science there is in there. It should be called "social" fiction, or so-fi (lol), since everyone is always saying "sci-fi" is trying to analyze how societies or individuals react to technology. The human element is constant, but the "science" and technologies are almost always wrong. Doesn't prevent me from enjoying reading 50 year old sci-fi that is more fantasy than science.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Because it's called science "fiction". If they knew how to create what they wrote about...they would go create and/or do it.

    • It's called that, because trying to spell Speculative Fiction would make the brains of the masses explode.

    • by doom ( 14564 ) <> on Monday December 23, 2013 @01:38PM (#45767905) Homepage Journal

      ... why it's called "science" fiction given how little science there is in there. It should be called "social" fiction, or so-fi (lol), since everyone is always saying "sci-fi" is trying to analyze how societies or individuals react to technology. The human element is constant, but the "science" and technologies are almost always wrong. Doesn't prevent me from enjoying reading 50 year old sci-fi that is more fantasy than science

      No, no, seriously you don't want to go there. Do you realize how many efforts have been made to re-name "science fiction" into something that might make more sense? (Just consider, for a moment, the sheer wasted energy of decades of pedantic nerds standing up for the sacred honor of "Science"...).

      In any case, Sterling's tossed-off "explanation" for why science fiction is no longer popular rings far more hollow than usual. No one cares about science, no one cares about fiction? *Bzzzt*. Many people care about both. More to the point: people are scared about thinking about the future. American Science Fiction was originally an underground literature for people interested in grand visions of where things might be going, during a period when the mainstream culture was enamored of a steady-state return to normalcy, "ah, now we can all just relax"-- Now, no one is relaxed.

      The idea that technical progress is radically socially destabilizing is so stunningly obvious, SF isn't needed for the primary role it used to play.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The origin of science fiction was the question of 'ok, so what does this claim really mean?' Sometimes they'd change a detail because it sounded more fun, sometimes they'd use the (since disproven) model of the day and adhere to it perfectly, but the point was to extrapolate down an identified science/technology progression when shaping the setting.

      Sci-fi is a setting, much like historical fiction and fantasy are settings. You don't get good books when the focus is on part of the setting, you get good boo

  • Oh well, I missed the call for questions on this one... but maybe it's just as well-- I've been a Sterling fan for some time, but most of my questions wouldn't exactly be polite. I might've tried something like: "Many of the characters you've written about are huckster-types, expert social manipulators-- is that something like your own self-image? I mean, this business where you're playing Futurist for design school mavens-- have you really done a BOFO transition, or did you just decide it would be a good

  • by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Monday December 23, 2013 @02:03PM (#45768071) Homepage Journal

    His nonchalant "we were just writing about how things already were" is quite on-point and flies in the face of all the doomsdayers. I like this guy even more now.

    "Well, look at it this way. The year 2014 is the centenary of World War One. When you hang out in Europe like I do, you stumble over the rubble of World War One, quite a lot. Humanity was in a truly dreadful place, one hundred years ago. The world situation of humanity was truly bitter and hateful and and deadly, and, well, here we are anyway. That's the big picture. "

    He is so exactly right. The world is an increasingly safer, more reliable place thanks to, in part, improved technology and communication. Just because we are watching each new technology become part of the bureaucracy/corporatocarcy shouldn't surprise anyone in the least; it isnt going to change itself and it isnt going to keep its dirty paws off of the latest technology just because it sounds "wrong".

  • And all this time I thought Stirling, Stephenson and Gibson were the same guy.

  • by Danathar ( 267989 ) on Monday December 23, 2013 @02:45PM (#45768449) Journal

    "There's no victory-condition for being human"

    Bruce should license that to thinkgeek for a T-shirt. He could make MILLIONS!

    Or...err....some money at least.

  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Monday December 23, 2013 @03:53PM (#45769075) Journal

    I think Science Fiction does occasionally let us all indulge our inner nihilist, with a sort of dystopian future-template somehow graven in our minds by modern culture.

    As a counterpoint, though, I'd like to offer [] which sums neatly the fact that we (as humanity generally) are far more likely on the track of a UFP than a Dark Stellar Empire.

    I believe it was in that sense that Iain Banks connected a relatively "hard"-ish science fiction (depending on which of the umpteen definitions you prefer) with a rock-solid core of optimism. His stories could be absolutely bleak on a personal level, with an overlay of brutal, naked realpolitik on a political level, yet he somehow managed to convey that ultimately we - as humanists, as small-l liberal enlightened thinkers, "won" as a species.

    We will dearly miss you, Mr Banks.

  • Probably a typo, but just as readily sounds like one of his coinages.

    I often think back to an interview or article where, in re: Schismatrix, Bruce said he was no longer bothering to set stories in outer space, as, contrary to most people's expectations, you could conjure up just as weird or weirder scenarios in a place like Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Solutions are obvious if one only has the optical power to observe them over the horizon. -- K.A. Arsdall