Date sent: Sat, 05 Oct 1996 23:48:37 +0100
From: Bruce Sterling <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Denise Caruso interviews Bruce Sterling for "The Site" on MSNBC September 1996, Berkeley CA
To call Bruce Sterling a science fiction writer is a little like calling Leonardo da Vinci a draftsman. Sterling is one of the most prolific and influential writers and thinkers in the digital world. Whether challenging the concept of intellectual property or riffing on the collisions of technology and pop culture, he's a whirlwind of ideas and black humor. From his cyberpunk novels to his genre-breaking Dead Media Project on the Net, Sterling's fingerprints are all over the new world culture. His latest novel, Holy Fire, is set in a 21st century where elderly medical technologists are the ruling class and where death shall have no dominion--for those who can afford the technology to stave it off. It's a wicked romp through a future of hypermediated experiences where talking dogs host talk shows and youth isn't wasted on the young.
Site Contributing Editor Denise Caruso caught up with Sterling at Dark Carnival Books in Berkeley for a wild interview that we present here in its unexpurgated form. We also have the Official Sterling Cyberpunk Reading List.
DC: Let's talk about cyberpunk first. This is a genre of science fiction that maybe a lot of people don't know exactly what it is. What's your definition of cyberpunk?
BS: I don't really have one anymore. I think we've subsumed everything in sight. We devour everything we touch. And if you don't know by now, you really shouldn't mess with it. You can't walk around San Francisco very often without seeing a lot of this. I don't know, I always felt "cyberpunk" was a lot like "science fiction," because it's a contradiction in terms. I mean, how can a "punk" be "cyber?" How can somebody who's a real techie, how can they not be a geek? How can they really be hip? And into pop culture? It's physically impossible, isn't it? What about science fiction? How can "fiction" be "science?" How can "science" be "fiction?" I mean, science is a method, an experimental method with verifiable results to establish.
DC: Yeah, but there's this whole group of people who when they started reading your books and Gibson's books had this like, come-to-Jesus experience where they thought, "Somebody finally understands who I am." So what is that? Is that the people who are coming out of this Internet, computer, geekie world, that's so heavily mediated that they know a lot about pop culture too?
BS: Well, I know computer geeks like to think that there's never been anybody like them before. This is like part of their internal legendry. But really, they're a lot like radio experimenters in the 1920's. Like the American Amateur Radio Relay League. That's the milieu that science fiction actually came out of. It was fiction for radio experimenters. So you know, cyberpunk is like fiction for guys with laptops. We're into computers and media the way earlier generations were into robots or rocketships.
DC: So how did you get into writing science fiction? How long ago did you start writing it?
BS: Oh, at about age 13. Seventh grade. My dad's an engineer actually. But he wasn't a writer. It was reading it that, like, just lit something. Like, there was just a level of voltage, and just sort of common, grungy, down-and-dirty, American pop culture science fiction, that just like grabbed me and never let go. I was a big Edgar Rice Burroughs fan when I was 13 years old. I used to read Robert E. Howard and Tolkien. You know, just absolute garbage stuff, but kid stuff. I was a kid. For me it was throwing open magic casements with the best. And now that I'm a degraded, jaded little literary guy, now I read like J.G. Ballard. But in the early days I just sort of fed on this stuff. And it was there, it was available, it really worked.
DC: And you first published when?
BS: Well, I sold a novel when I was 21. And I wrote it as a junior in college, and it came out I think just about after I graduated. It was called *Involution Ocean.* It was about a bunch of drug-addict psychos on this alien dust world. And it's about this sadomasochistic relationship between a junkie and a furry bat-woman. And it's got like guys fighting sharks with harpoons. And lots of set-piece whaling-ship battles. I still get fan mail about this thing, from guys who are 19. I really think that I have signed every copy of this damn thing that ever sold. It's like the Velvet Underground's first album. It's like, scarcely anyone bought it, but everyone that did formed a band. Well, in this case, it's like hardly anybody bought this Sterling novel, but they all bought everything I wrote since.
DC: This brings up this whole idea about being post-human. What evidence did you see in culture that spurred you to write this book? It's--
BS: Want ads in L.A. magazines. I mean, just open them up and look. It's like liposuction, eyelid tightening, tummy tucks. You know, sucking great wads of goo off your body. Crazily elaborate exercise machines. Retin A, alphahydroxy acids. Just reading the ads in Vogue. I mean, it couldn't be more obvious.
DC: Do you think this is going to happen soon?
BS: It's already happening, yeah. It's a major industry. It's just that it's all vaporware right now. Cosmetics are a major industry. It's just that they don't work. But imagine if they did. It's like: "Grow old gracefully? I'll fight it every step of the way!" Well, imagine if you started winning. Well, you know, it's the human condition. I mean, there are limitations on our activities, and our mental activities and our bodies. We age, and you know, it's just the human condition. Man is born to suffer. We rise as the ashes, it's a world of *mono no aware.* But we put up with it, because it's just considered a God-given thing. And part of human nature. Well, you know, human nature isn't any more invulnerable than all the other forms of nature that we've bulldozed and paved over. It's just very elaborate. It's very hard to do. But clearly, we're starting to make a little headway. In the book I assume that we get some major breakthroughs. It's like, there are breakthroughs in biotechnology that are as potent and as fast-moving as breakthroughs in information technology.
DC: Why don't you describe the process that the protagonist, Mia, goes through at the beginning of the book. What's it called?
BS: It's called Neo-Telomeric Dissipative Cellular Detoxification. Or NTDCD. I just thought, if this is going to happen at all, it would be retailed through acronyms. You know? It's like MS-DOS. Or TCP/IP. It's like you're going in and you get an upgrade. Some are more radical than others. And the really radical ones, you have to bet the farm on it. The others are just like going in for a facial, or going to the chiropractor. Or having yourself rolfed. But this woman basically has herself melted down. She's like put into a kind of giant jar of blood-temperature jello, and kept in there for like six months. And her body swells up hugely, and they do all this weird genetic stuff with her. Turn her lungs inside out and scrape out all her arteries, and remove a lot of toxic chemical build-up from her brain cells. And it's just sort of a very radical dusting and cleaning.
DC: Well, that part of it is pretty much how the whole stream of the book goes in terms of what happens to her. But the other stuff that was really interesting to me was the world that you painted around her. Right now we're doing a lot of fighting about medical information being private. And how do you keep things private? In your book, you just blew that completely away and said, all medical information is on the Net. Everything about your medical records is public information. What's that all about? That's pretty interesting. Do you think that's going to happen?
BS: Well, I don't think that's necessarily going to happen, but in order for my society to work, it had to happen. You're talking about extending people's lives, and there are other people who aren't having their lives extended. So very clearly it's a government which is in charge of a headsman's axe. People who are approved of by the government will live a long time. And those who aren't measuring up in some way are killed. Or left to die, really. Urged, urged to shut down. They're sort of quietly shunted aside. And you know, if you're going to pull stunts like that and not have a revolution, it was my feeling that you have to objectively prove why you're doing it to them. And the reason you're doing it to them, is that they're *not measuring up.* They're not taking care of themselves. It's a kind of gerontocratic meritocracy.
DC: So let's talk about a couple of the other themes in the book. The young people being the minority is an nteresting one. Let's talk about the talking dog, Bruce. What's the deal with that? There's a talking dog in this book.
BS: There are three talking dogs I can remember. There's a talking dog in the early scene, and there's the talking dog who has his own TV show. I feel we're going to have talking dogs. And I think I make it almost kind of plausible that they do. If we were going to invest all the trouble to create a talking dog.... Basically they do it with like artificial intelligence techniques. Right? The dogs don't talk. Yeah. The chips talk, and the dog is like a peripheral. They're like a cross, they're like an organic AI type thing. If you actually look at the history of medical research, everything that's done is done to animals first. It always happens to animals first. And anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. So if you want to know what's likely to be done to human beings twenty years from now, look at what they're doing to rats now. So you've got like mice with a human ear growing out of their bellies, getting a lot of coverage recently. There are cats walking around here covered with Borneo tattoos in this town. Even ritual scarification. I don't see why you can't have four or five ears. Just shave your head and have twelve ears on your head. Grown on site. They can't, they don't have like *auditory* ears.
DC: A lot of people are taking this stuff really seriously now, and in fact a lot of people are looking to people like you and William Gibson to talk about sort of the present as it becomes the future. And I remember you told me and I saw in Gibson's website, that you testified before Congress?
BS: It was Edward Markey's telecommunications subcommittee. They were having a computer crime hearing. Gibson didn't testify. Gibson's a Canadian. That was the National Academy of Sciences gig. That was an entirely different thing. I mean, since the Southern yuppie reptiles seized power four years ago, I have been to Washington a lot. Like four days ago, I was touring the Defense Intelligence Agency. I've got like a really nice Defense Intelligence Agency sweatshirt now. I might hang out with these infowar characters. They're like real serious, too. And I'm like, I'm trying to convince them not to take tactical and strategic advice from science fiction writers. If this ever happens, then the populace should just head for the hills. People make these demands of us. Of course we go. We go because it's good material. It's amusing and it's weird. But we don't owe anybody a damn thing. We're not elected. We don't have tenure. We're novelists.
DC: It's kind of amazing, really. What do they think you're going to tell them?
BS: I'm not even sure. All I can say is that anybody who goes to cyberpunks, like self-declared cyberpunks, like actual, original, no kidding cyberpunks, asking them for anything -- they deserve whatever they get. It's not like they haven't been warned, okay?
DC: I know that you've got some pretty strong feelings about intellectual property. What are some of the most disturbing issues that you see are unfolding now in the world, in the technology?
BS: I'm an anti-commodity guy. Way too much stuff is turned into money. That basically, retail is the curse of the earth. I like deeply and viscerally resent advertising, for instance. I think it's really bad for us. It's worse than porn. Well it's like car porn. Like when somebody's selling you a car, they're always telling you the little story. Yes, here's the attractive woman. In *Holy Fire,* advertising is banned. So street grafitti says things like, "To buy a new car would make you sexually attractive." It's a subversive thing to say, under the circumstances. But it *is* subversive. It's playing on people's emotional weaknesses in order to make them consume. The Ad Busters people up in Vancouver--they're very big on this. They know that watching television is work. And the product is you. You're being assaulted by thousands of commercials, and even kids are assaulted by thousands of commercials. And larger and larger aspects of human lives are turned into cash-on-the-barrelhead propositions. And I just think this shrivels people's souls.
I've hung with people who are professional advertising people and PR people and even, you know, political manipulator people. Aiming at the demographic is becoming a science now. But there's something very cruel about that. There's something cruel in the way that like casinos are cruel. Republicans go to casinos now. People take their kids into these things, and women in polyester stretch pants are losing their rent money on these one-armed bandits. They're all over the place. And this is something that has crept up on us, year by year. It's like throwing away the money, or the sensation of being robbed and defrauded, has become pleasurable to us in some, some disgusting way. I just feel as somebody who's business it is to be a culturatus, as it were, that I should resist this. And I feel there's a process of resistance. And the way to resist it is to give things away. To make gifts.I've given away a lot of different stuff. I gave away my one non-fiction book, and I've given away texts of speeches and all kinds of critical material. "Information wants to be free" is an old cyberpunk slogan. And I still hold by that, because I'm amused by the way it really irritates people. You know, breadheads are always losing it over this proposition.
DC: But Bruce, you're a writer for a living. How are you going to make money if all information needs to be free?
BS: No, I was a writer before I made any money. And not only that, I'm going to be a writer after I'm dead. Where exactly am I supposed to be generating revenue then? Over the longer term, information is always free. It becomes public domain eventually. Because the economics move on, but the information's still there. You take somebody like Bill Gates, for instance. A guy who's like, really upset about Chinese software piracy and so forth. It's like, tell me how much Windows 1.0 is worth now. If you saw a copy on the sidewalk would you bend over and pick it up? How much is that worth? Is it free? No, it's *worse* than free, because it's *trash.* You're going to want to throw it away. I've got books in print that I wrote in 1985. I've got, I've read books that were like really interesting. They were written in 1785. And they're of worth. How much is a Bible worth? A Bible is "information," right? It's ASCII in print. But you can go steal one out of any hotel in America. It says "Gideon" right on the front, and you can get it for nothing. So how much is it really worth? But suppose there were no Bibles in the world, they all vanished in a mysterious cataclysm. How much would you pay to have one back? You had the only Bible. It would be worth plenty all of a sudden. So you know, the economics is rubber. It stretches in all kinds of differentiations. And not only that, but "worth" and "value" are not the same thing.
DC: Well, it's kind of the irony of the information age that it almost costs nothing to create and distribute it, but it's supposed to have all this economic value.
BS: People leap up, and they really feel... They react as if their lives were being menaced. And they get just tremendously upset by stuff that is really a truism. I actually don't feel bad about this. I've seen many, many people attempt to commercialize networks, and attempt to commercialize ones and zeroes, basically. If the Internet were going to turn into a giant shopping mall, there would be no Internet. There would be Prodigy. That would be it. Because Prodigy was it. It's IBM and Sears, you know. And that would have been it. A perfect little mall, and everything is censored, and things are for sale. You pay a little bit here and you get your Dear Abby column. And it's well policed, and there's no kid porn, and no cyberpunks, and no hackers, and no weirdos, and it's kind of nice, and it's for middle America. It makes sense, and you put in your dimes, and you get out your ones and zeroes. That is just not a workable model. It's just a silly idea. Nobody is going to pay anything for ASCII. And when they pay for software, they're not really getting anything. They're renting something. Just look at the seal on the outside. It doesn't say that you own it. It says *they* own it.
DC: Well, okay. Let's just assume that your model is right. There's a whole universe of people who are spending a lot of money to balkanize the Net, to make it absolutely impossible for information to be free. Do you think that their efforts are going to be futile?
BS: Anybody can balkanize anything. You and I can balkanize English. That happens all the time. People speak slang, or they speak technicalese. And that's really a way to reduce English to a balkanized subset that only a small number of people can use. But we don't call that a "market." We call it criminal jargon, or argot, or gobbledygook, or bureaucratic speak, or technicalese. And I think that stuff like that will always happen on the networks. There are always going to be sections that, either somebody has like gathered it in and they're sitting jealously on top of it, or else a group of people are just doing their own thing for the sake of the signifiers. Just to be different, to mark out their own thing. But the idea that there will be nothing but malls and no common space on the Internet, I think basically has already been tried and failed.
In another generation no one will have heard of Compuserve, and no one will have heard of Prodigy in probably pretty short order, sad to say. But I would not be surprised at all in fifteen years if no one had heard of Internet. It will be just known as Web, or, just, "It." Or just communication, or talking. It will be talking. It's like you're talking. If you happen to have your cell phone open and you're talking, that's like a slightly different thing than talking in a room without any gizmos in it. It's clearly got a long way to go. People who think they can tame it, or that they're going to appoint themselves the commercial mandarins of cyberspace in the 1990's, are just living in a total dreamworld. These guys have no connection to reality.
DC: I don't see any lessening of the commodity trend. So given that that's happening, is there anything going on in the world that gives you hope?
BS: I'm actually having a really good time. Ever since 1989. I mean, I was from a generation who generally expected to be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. You know, come 1977, I would have said the chances were 50 to 1 that we were just going to lose it big time. That there would be no future, and that our cities would be radioactive craters. So to me, like the 90's, I'm having a really good time. This is my favorite decade in my life. It's like a carnival. I just can't believe what I see. I can't believe what people ask of me. I can't believe that I'm sent to these places, and that people show up. And just, weird, off-the-wall developments. It's a circus. It's like they've *lost it* somehow. The control mechanisms have blown out. It's just, it's.... it's orgiastic. And it's really amazing.