by David Jay Brown
Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and social satirist who helped to create the “cyberpunk” genre, and has had a large influence on computer culture in general. He has written more than ten bestselling science fiction novels, and three short story collections, but, more importantly, he helped to establish a cultural movement that has a deep and lasting effect on how people interact with technology. Sterling appeared on the cover of the very first issue of Wired magazine–an indication of the essential role that he has played in the development of digital culture–and he continues to write a monthly column for the publication.
Sterling grew up in Texas, and, as a teenager, he lived in India, where his father worked on a fertilizer plant project. He began writing at the age of twelve, and he graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Texas in 1976. The same year he also sold his first science fiction story “Man-Made Self”. A year later his first novel, Involution Ocean, was published. The Artificial Kid was published in 1980 andSchismatrix in 1985.
During the mid-Eighties, under the pseudonym Vincent Omniaveritas, Sterling also began writing and editing a small ”zine” called Cheap Truth, in which he and several other writers mocked the science fiction establishment, and called for a more culturally relevant approach to the genre. This viewpoint, and the fiction associated with it, eventually grew into the cultural phenomenon known as “cyberpunk”–and Sterling became one of its most prominent voices.
The cyberpunk culture produced the first wave of computer users–who were not part of the scientific community or the military establishment–that set out and explore the cultural potential of the internet. They created the first digital subcultures, an explosion of online communities, that shared an interest in cutting-edge technology, chemically-enhanced intelligence, and personal freedom. This cultural impact of the movement–particularly on the development of the World Wide Web, and as the inspiration behind such films as The Matrix–can barely be understated.
Sterling edited the book Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology in 1986, which is considered to be the classic collection of the cyberpunk genre. Some of Sterling’s other science fiction novels include Islands in the Net, Distraction, Zeitgeist, Schismatrix Plus, The Zenith Angle, and his dark tale of a global-warming future, Heavy Weather. Some of his short story collections include Globalhead, Crystal Express, and A Good Old Fashioned Future. Sterling has also collaborated with a number of other writers, such as Rudy Rucker and John Kessel, on a variety of short stories, and he co-authored The Difference Engine with William Gibson.
Sterling is also the author of two nonfiction books, including The Hacker Crackdown: Law And Disorder On The Electronic Frontier, which explores issues in computer crime and civil liberties. The book was inspired in 1990 after the U.S. Secret Service began raiding people’s homes and offices as part of a nationwide “hacker crackdown”. After publishing the book in a conventional format in 1992, Sterling released the work in free electronic form on the internet–as “an act of citizenship”–where it was widely disseminated, and can be found on hundreds of web sites around the world today. Sterling’s most recent nonfiction book is Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years, which contains his thoughts and speculations about the future.
In 1996 Sterling published a novel about life-extension technology and outlaw anarchists called Holy Fire. His research for the novel sparked an interest in industrial design, and as this interest grew, in the late 90’s, it merged with Sterling’s growing concern about global climate change. This inspired Sterling to start the Viridian Design Movement (www.viridiandesign.org), whose goal is to advance environmental awareness through revolutionary art and design. The movement’s most recent accomplishment is that Austin, Texas–Sterling’s home base–has officially declared itself to be the Clean Energy Capital of the World.
Although Sterling travels around doing public speaking quite a bit, he spends most of his time in Austin, where he continues to write fiction and magazine articles, and he regularly updates his web log “Beyond the Beyond” (blog.wired.com/sterling). I interviewed Bruce on December 15, 2003. Bruce has a sharp mind and a quick wit. He’s got an imagination that certainly goes over the edge, but he’s also very practical, and very funny. I got the impression that any concept that was more than a few years old seemed like ancient history to him. We talked about the difficulty distinguishing between satire and reality, corporations of the future, the Dairy Product Theory of Dead Media, and how a permanent state of disequilibrium can be a very creative place.
David: What were you like as a child?
Bruce: My father always told me I was quite solemn and silent as a small child. I didn’t speak until I was three. I was quiet and observant, not very boisterous–an unsmiling, round-eyed child. I spent a lot time staring at ant hills, apparently.
David: What inspired you to start writing science fiction, and what inspires you to write it today?
Bruce: Well, I read a lot of it. It was my favorite reading matter. I was very influenced by it as a youngster. Then, in my college days, I actually fell into bad company–people who were ambitious to write science fiction–and I learned something about the industry that way. I just taught myself how to do it, and hung out with people who were doing it. I was always very interested in the subculture. I’m interested in all forms of subculture really. It just turned out that I had a knack for it, and I couldn’t find anything else better to do. And that’s still the case.
David: How has your interest in science and technology influenced your fiction?
Bruce: My father was an engineer, and there are a lot of oil and gas people in my family. An uncle of mine is an entomologist. So there was science and engineering in my family background. It was not some kind of alien thing. It was how we ate, really. I mean, that was our industrial base there. So I never felt alienated by it. Or surprised by it. It was just a normal thing for me. I’m still very interested in the oil and gas industry, although I rarely write about it. People like to call science fiction “science” fiction, but the more time I spend with it, the more I realize that it’s not primarily concerned with science. You get your best effects out of areas that are better described as engineering or industrial design.
David: How has satire played a role in your work, and why do you like to mix real facts with your fiction?
Bruce: Well, people call that stuff satire, but I like to think of it in the terms that H.G. Wells did. He said that if you want to write about the future, you need to the triple the phenomena that you’re writing about–not because things always triple, but because if you double it, people think you’re merely exaggerating. And if you quadruple it, nobody can tell what the hell you’re talking about. So if you take some small phenomenon, that looks like it’s going to become a great common place someday, you start extrapolating it. You could blow it up to three times normal size, and point out that it may have a much stronger effect than it seems to be having at the moment–and that effect looks satirical.
It looks and smells like satire, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be humorous. It may well be a rather accurate description of what’s likely to happen. If you live in a growing town and the traffic triples, you will have big traffic jams. If you anticipate this in print, it may sound quite funny, but it’s not very funny when you’re actually in one. (laughter) It’s not at all uncommon for traffic to triple in some places.
David: You’ve collaborated with several other writers–such as Rudy Rucker and William Gibson–on short stories and novels. Can you talk a little about this process of collaboration, and how you go about writing something with another writer?