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The Interview with Bruce Sterling 95

We did the usual Call for Questions thing Monday. We didn't get quite as many as we've had for some other interview subjects here, but sometimes quality is more important than quantity, and we sent Bruce some beauts. His answers are of similar excellence, and are well worth reading even if you have never read any of his work or even if you despise science fiction. So click below, read, and enjoy!

Lemmy Caution asks:
A lot of your work recently has been on the Viridian project - a movement dedicated to innovative, practical, and far-reaching responses to environmental crisis. You've focused on the use of design and engineering to create a less destructive way of living on this planet.

You're doing so in a way that seeks to avoid politics - you'll name names, but seem unwilling to pitch battles. Is this fatalism, or an attempt to preserve consensus in a movement that includes both libertarians and communitarians?

*Mostly it's because I don't have 12 million dollars to get a Senator elected.

Do you believe that conscientious consumerism is going to be sufficient to avert continued environmental destruction?

*No, no, you're not getting it yet -- you've got to go deeper than that. If you have to be "conscientious" about it, that means that the system is malfunctioning. Being "conscientious" is just another term for letting morons with crap products steal your valuable attention. You are co-dependent with bad design when you're "conscientious." Piece-of-junk twentieth century technologies like coal-fired power plants shouldn't even *exist.*

Do you believe that "local minima" of the immediate benefits of good design will always win in the market?

*Well, it depends on how much the market sees fit to tell you about the reality of what you're buying. Suppose you had a Palm Pilot with a bar-scanner, and you ran it over a box of soap, and the readout said, "This stuff is dead cheap, but the factory gives your kid liver cancer." Suddenly it's an entirely different kind of marketing choice.

*"Making the invisible visible" is an important design principle. Everytime you hit a return key, there ought to be a puff of black coal smoke showing up on your monitor. That's the reality of today's energy market -- you're just never shown the truth about it.

Do you think lasting change will be possible without global regulation?

*Given the current political reality on the ground, global regulation is probably worse than useless. Global regulation is likely to set a bad situation into permanent legal concrete. I strongly suspect that as oil and coal companies start dying, and their oil suppliers start losing revenue, both oil governments and oil industry will try really, really hard to get a global regulatory board to throw a carbon-friendly Kyoto Convention, and write them into the industrial system forever.

And what do you think the most promising recent Viridian-positive developments have been?

*People do seem willing to buy clean energy, and not because they're scolded or regulated into it. They but it for the same reasons they buy decent plumbing, or maybe gourmet coffee. The rates of adaptation look really good. I got a brand-new solar panel system on my house right now, and it started pumping wattage into the city's grid yesterday.

Robert.Franklin asks:
I thought that The Difference Engine was one of the most offbeat and interesting takes on the cyberpunk (steampunk?) genre. Are you still in contact with William Gibson?

*Yeah, sometimes. Gibson's in Britain now, signing his new book.

Do you have plans to collaborate with him again?

*Nope, but ideas of the caliber of that Difference Engine thing don't come along very often. We discussed that concept for years on end before we started writing the novel.

G-Man asks:
I still remember early Cyberpunk, and then the early years of Wired, as times of being exposed to one "mind blowing" idea after another. The future, though far from Utopian, was going to be very interesting. Anymore, though, I see few ideas that make me sit back and say "Whoa...now *that* is cool."

Now, in a mundane world of spam and banner ads, the coming future doesn't seem nearly so thrilling. In trying to pinpoint the source of my apathy about new ideas, I can't quite decide if it's me, us, or you. That is, I can't decide if: (a) My personal perspective has changed, and I've learned enough that little suprises me anymore (b) We've all gotten better at predicting the future, so little surprises any of us, or (c) You folks (the SF writers and Futurists) blew out all the great ideas in the 80s and early 90s, and we'll just have to wait awhile for the next Big Thing.

So what I'm wondering is: Have you become at all jaded about technology and its effect on society? What do you think about our current state of predicting the future? Are there any ideas, authors, etc., that you've seen recently that make you say "Whoa..."?

Your answer is (a.) Except it's not just you that's getting older. The whole society is getting older, as a group. We're going to be living in cultures with more and more old people for as long as we live.

I don't "whoa" real easy these days, but there's (a) Dolly the cloned sheep, (b) Doogie the genius mouse, (c) MEMS microelectronic silicon engines on a chip, and (d) that weird crowd at Brandeis University, who are trying to evolve and grow artificial machines in a cyberspace, and then manufacture them as working gizmos in real life. They have little web-movies of those Karl Sims-style gimmicks just floppin' around in there. That's one of the most unspeakable things I've ever witnessed. Weirder yet, the thing they're doing in that lab is really close to the central gimmick of my Hugo-awarding-winning story "Taklamakan" (1998). That story came out just last year, and here they are trying to ship product already. Will wonders never cease!

boojumsnark asks:
Bruce: I remember reading an essay by you about Burning Man a while back; you hauled your daughter along. I thought this move, besides indicating that you were an incredibly cool dad, pretty much marked the end of Burning Man as a "dangerous" underground phenomenom. Similarly, a number of different forces are transfroming the web-centric Internet into something increasingly bland. I know you're a long-time user of the Well, which is now owned by Salon, the Newsweek of the web.

Which leads me to my question. Do you think it's possible nowadays to create a sustained, independent, and transgressive community (a TAZ, if you will) without it being co-opted by society at large? Some of your old Catscan essays (particularly the one on Jules Verne) hint at what your response to this question would have been in the past, but I'm curious to hear what you have to say now.

*If you want a sustained, independent and transgressive community that can't be co-opted by society at large, you need to get out of the boho art scene, and right into organized crime. I mean, stop pretending that Burning Man is "dangerous." You're not fooling anybody. Mardi Gras in downtown New Orleans is more "dangerous" than Burning Man. There isn't a casino in Vegas that isn't ten times more dangerous than Burning Man. My kids went to Burning Man and had a better time than they would at Disneyworld.

*If you're way-into rebellious danger, I can especially recommend drug smuggling. It pays great, it's super-dangerous, and it's kind of the ne plus ultra of unacceptable outlaw subculture. Huge bureaucracies have been invented to try to make you stop existing. You get ritual handshakes, tattoos, slang, gangster molls, fast cars, the works! You may end up spending quite a lot of time in prison, but prison subcultures are the true havens of the congenitally un-cooptable.

*Going into exile in a country with a different ethnic base should also keep you happy. Kyoto, for instance, is full of cool Zen hipster guys who are white. There is zero chance that they will ever be "co-opted" by the Japanese. If you want the straights to pay no attention to you, just go to a place where your skin is a billboard for difference.

webmaven asks:
One of the things that I found most intrigueing about Islands In The Net was the corporate structure and culture of the Rizome corporation.

Recently we've seen companies with radical new business models (such as Redhat and VA Linux) hiring developers to work on whatever they want, and corporate HR departments focusing on 'recruiting from within' to minimize employee turnover. Both these trends may be extrapolated to lead to Rizome type corporations.

So here's the question: What do you currently think future business entities will look like, and what can we do to make those future entities as human-friendly as possible?

*I think future business entities are gonna look like billboards for their shareholders. There will be business-entity churn, and corporations will appear on the shelf and disappear as rapidly as products. There's no sticking power left inside the "corporation." You'd be better off joining the cast of a Broadway road show, rather than imagining that a corporation is gonna look after you in the long term.

*I can't think of a single corporate entity that's truly likely to be around ten years from now. I mean, without being bought out, re-named, taken over, acquired, or re-engineered, or moving into a new net-based business model. It's over for corporate dominance, they blew it all in the downsizings. It's all about stockholder dominance now.

dmorin asks:
We're hearing lots about Neal Stephenson in the geek set these days. What's your opinion of the man, his writing style, and his choice of topics upon which to write?

*I think Neal Stephenson is a talent of the highest caliber. He's smart, he's ambitious, he's doggedly persistent, and he has got it going on in every single way that a science fiction writer should. The guy is the cat's fuckin' pyjamas.

tilly asks:
It is customary to ask people who their influences were. But I would like to turn that around. and ask a harder question...

Which new authors do you feel that you have most strongly influenced? What specifically makes you select them?

*I don't have any disciples. I see people pick gizmos and concepts and notions out of my works, every once in a while. That's a pretty standard thing in the SF field; we're always swapping notions, and I've thrown out my share. I think I probably had the most influence on people who were my contemporaries. If you take people seriously, and ask them to do their best, and suggest that new things and approaches are genuinely possible, it improves their morale. They do things they wouldn't have thought worth doing otherwise. And the world is a better place for it.

seesik asks:
First off, did Marianne Dyson get any NASA funding to help get your T1 trunk to Siberia? ;-)

Secondly, in your most recent book titled Distraction, you base a large part of the economic demise of America on the scenario of the Chinese government making all U.S. commercial software freely available on the net. While I am not deluded about the role and importance of many commercial products, how do you think the recent rise in availability and quality of free software would affect this scenario? How much consideration, if any, did you lend to the free software movement when writing Distraction?

*Well, I could tell you about that Dyson thing, but then I'd have to kill you.

*I have to confess the Chinese riff was kind of an ass-backward approach to economic collapse there. I wanted to write a book in which it was a given that America's economy had collapsed as badly as Russia's has. So I was looking for plausible excuses for that event to happen.

*So what happened to Russia? Communism collapsed, even though it had really brilliant rhetoric and a lot of pious justifications. Because, as a way of daily life it was hooey, and people just opted out. It didn't matter how many lectures you heard, at bottom there was always something fishy and unworkable about it.

*And you can say much the same about Microsoft and the Software Publishers Association, who really act and think a lot like righteous Marxist commissars trying to beat back "corruption." So if you're looking for a similar weakness in America, it's got to be the "New Economy." Frankly, I don't think the New Economy is any less sound by its nature than the Old Economy. After all, the Old Economy used to blow up and fall down all the time. Outside of the high-tech boom, America's Old Economy still looks about as sick as it did under Reagan.

*But it's easy for readers to imagine America getting really deeply invested into the "Information Economy," and then finding out that the whole shebang is built on sand. That may not be accurate, but it's plausible, and it works for readers. People felt the same kind of nervousness about abandoning the Gold Standard. "You mean I'm just supposed to *pretend* that this money is worth something? What are you, *crazy*?"

*I count myself as quite the fan of GNU/Linux antics. I don't program, and I don't have a GNOME box or anything, but I like the whole Free Software effort, just because it's a radically different industrial method. Society needs phenomena like GNU/Linux because it helps to prevent mental monoculture.

*Besides, I had Stallman in my house once, and he gave me this really wack Conlon Noncarrow CD. Noncarrow was this guy in Mexico who made insane experimental music by cutting holes in player piano spools. This generous act of Stallman's expanded my sense of possibility.

Robotech_Master asks:
I read, some time back, a Manifesto of yours dealing with dead (ie doomed or archaic or obsolete) media; it was a very interesting read.

If I'm not mistaken, the thrust of your manifesto was that a research tome on such media should be created, but since you were too swamped with projects, you hoped that people out there on the Internet who read it would come together and help to create the book themselves.

I was wondering if this has been very successful, and if so (or if not) what you have learned from the Manifesto and its consequences.

*Yeah. Well, Dead Media Project was kind of my Linux pitch there; "I got this cool idea, and here's the kernel, so why don't the rest of you guys do all the work?"

*I worked on it pretty steady for about three years, and I think we managed to discover pretty much every form of "dead media" extant. Now what's required is somebody to make sense of the whole phenomenon. And don't look at me, because even though I've probably thought about dead media more than anyone else, I don't have any solid conclusions to share.

Switch asks:
It seems that many modern science fiction authors see the future as a time when society gives up on "physical" community in favor of technology. (i.e ruined govt, city states, corporate martial powers, etc..) Do you see this as an amplification of the state of community in today's world, or is it simply a convenient literary device?

*I think the physical community was a "technology." Irrigation canals, harbors, army barracks, police stations, cathedrals, factories, clocks, forks, running water, that's all "technology."

*There are a lot more ruined governments right now than there are sound ones. That's not a literary device. Go try living under a ruined government. Moscow right now -- it's about the most William-Gibsonian landscape you are ever likely to see.

yoshi asks:
Some authors consider collaborative writing projects to be rather painful and counterproductive. The Difference Engine , however, was a wonderful piece of writing and seemed to truly be a product of both your and Gibson's styles. My questions:

  • Did you enjoy the challenge of working with another author, especially one with such a distinct style?
  • Do you think that sci-fi is, as a genre, particularly conducive to collaborative projects? If so, why, and if not, any opinion on why they are so common?
  • Do you have any advice for aspiring collaborative writers (other than the key "don't kill your partner")?

*Yeah, I do a lot of collaboration. I get a lot out of it. It never bothers me much.

*It depends on what you want out of writing. If you like to speculate and play with ideas, then collaboration is great. If you want to write some revelatory material which is deeply felt and reflective of your personal experience, write it in your diary first. Don't tell a soul.

*My advice in collaboration would be to try to put aside your tender ego boundaries, and really strive to understand how the other person thinks as an artist. Ideally, he's got something going-on mentally that you are unable to do, and would be of real use to you as a writer. Collaborative work often fails, and looks goofy even when it works, but it's worth the effort if you expand your composition process and pick up some new chops.

chromatic asks:
Rereading "Islands in the Net" recently, I was struck by the observation that the humble DVD rendered some of the early scenes almost obsolete (only in a speculative sense).

With that in mind, are there any technological or cultural developments in the past few years that have caused you to rethink your speculations/predictions/opinions about the near future? If so, what are they?

*I wouldn't be betting on the DVD being around very long.

*When the 2020s come around, I'd bet that ISLANDS looks a lot more like the reality on the ground than most other novels written in the 1980s. But Islands in the Net has got the *Soviet Union* in it.

*So what? I don't have to worry about "failed predictions." Selling predictions isn't my stock in trade. I don't have to migrate in a crystal ball in the year 2020 and look back; that's impossible, and not required to do the job. I don't have to read the future in tea leaves. I just have to stand a little closer to the trends than most of my readers do.

*The job of SF is not to reveal your destiny. It's to expand the spectrum of possibility and refresh your thinking.

sugarman asks:
We are starting to see parts of the future that you, Mr. Gibson, and others in the cyberpunk genre have predicted come true. Items such as the Mirrorshades are closer than ever to being a reality (the recent work by IBM on body portables being an example).

Are you surprised by how much what you forecasted has or has not come true? Is there anything you thought for sure was going to happen but didn't?

And though hindsight is often useless, in what ways would the current situation (cultural/political/technological) change the stories that you have written? Part of the trap with writing speculative fiction set in the near-future is that as the future date approaches, unless you are dead on with the predictions, the story will move into the realm of wild fantasy. John Carpenter's 'Escape from New York' serves as an example. In the end, it all comes down to the story. How well do you think your stories (and cyberpunk in general) will stand up in 20 years time?

*I'd have to refer you to my earlier answer. I can tell you that I expect the year 2000 to be a pretty lively time. It's a good opportunity to shed a bunch of the old approaches and to think science fiction through from first principles again. Next time I write a science fiction novel, I hope will be a book which could only have been written during the 21st century.

*The part about it "all coming down to the story in the end" is completely bogus. "Escape from New York" is a great piece of pop futurist cinema, but it has no "story" in it. A guy goes on a quest with a time-bomb in his neck. That's not a "story." It's just a wind-up spring to get you through the ensemble cast and the set design. And the dialogue, which is great "Snake -- I heard you was dead." The movie works because it's a spectacular head-trip, not because of its so-called story-telling.

ucblockhead asks:
Would you reconsider revisting the world of systems crackers and the like "The Hacker Crackdown" was a damn good book.

*Aw, everybody and his sister knows about computer crime now. The world is full of journalists who can cover computer crime issues. Back in the Pleistocene when I was writing HACKER CRACKDOWN, the whole concept of "breaking into computers" was so out-there that it required a science fiction writer to do it. But turning science fiction writers into everyday reporters is a total waste of time. Let somebody else handle that now; I've got to be farther out-there.

Next week: John Carmack.

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The Interview with Bruce Sterling

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