Bruce Sterling (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Sat, 5 Oct 96 23:15 MET

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nettime: Interview

Bruce Sterling

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
Q: 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
A: 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.
Q: Oh come on, Bruce.  Give me a clue.
A: Well, 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. 
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: So how did you get into writing science fiction?
How long ago did you start writing it?
A: Oh, at about age 13.  Seventh grade. 
Q: Did you have scientists or engineers in the family?
A: Yeah, 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
Q: What's the one that you remember from back then?
A: 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. 
Q: And you first published when?
A: 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.
Q: That's really annoying.  You wrote your first book
while you were still in college?
A: Well, I wasn't working real hard, so I had a lot of
spare time [LAUGHING].
Q: What was it called?
A: It was called  *Involution Ocean.*
Q: What was it about?
A: 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.
Q: Where can you find it now? Is it still in print?
A: No, you'd have to look in used bookstores.  I bet
they've got a few here.  It's around.  You know, 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
Q: And what year did that get published?
A: '77. Year of Talking Head's first album.
Q: Set point.  So, okay, so since then you've written
Islands in the Net.  Which--let's just be general about
it--is about global networks, electronic-cash data
havens.  Way before it was hip.  You wrote a book
called Heavy Weather about a cult of tornado chasers,
which I believe you wrote years before Michael
Crichton's movie. 
A: About two years. 
Q: Yeah, but who's counting?   You have The Hacker
 Crackdown , which was your only non-fiction book, right?
A: Yes. 
Q: And that was sort of at the beginning of the
publicity about the war--
A: Years before Tsutomu Shimomura, yeah.
Q: So you've snagged some trends pretty early on.
Now you have this new book, Holy Fire : if you have
the money, technology has basically solved the aging
A: Yeah. 
Q: Um, brings up this whole idea about being
post-human.  What evidence did you see in culture that
spurred you to write this book? I t's--
A: 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.
Q: Do you think this is going to happen soon?
A: 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.
Q: And so that brings about this whole idea about
being post-human. 
A: 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.*    You know, the cherry blossoms,
blah blah blah....
Q: And it's really annoying that we get old. 
A: Yeah. 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
Q: Why don't you describe the process that the
protagonist, Mia, goes through at the beginning of the
book. What's it called?
A: It's called Neo-Telomeric Dissipative Cellular
Q: Yes, and what happens--
A: 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. 
Q: Right.
A: It's like you're going in and you get an upgrade.
It's an upgrade.
Q: But it's a pretty radical upgrade.
A: Well, 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
Q: And she comes out as, how old is she?
A: She comes out looking about 20.
Q: And she starts out 94, 95?
A: Yeah, she starts out 94, 95.  But she starts out as a
94-year-old who looks about 50. 
Q: 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. 
A: Yeah.
Q: I mean, 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
A: Well, I don't think that's necessarily going to
happen, but in order for my society to work, it had to
Q: Why is that?
A: Well, 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.
Q: Right. They're not taking care of themselves
A: They're not taking care of themselves.  So why
should *I* pay for *you?*
Q: Right.
A:  It's like, you know, it's an argument.  It's a kind of
gerontocratic meritocracy.
Q: Because at this point there are millions of old
people who are basically running everything.
A: Yeah, that's right.
Q: And the young people are in the minority.
A: Exactly. 
Q: So let's talk about a couple of the other themes in
the book.  The young people being the minority is an
interesting one.  Let's talk about the talking dog,
Bruce.  What's the deal with that?  There's a talking
dog in this book.
A:  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.... 
Q: Oh, right.
A: Probably doing a better job than you, actually.
Q:  Thank you so much for sharing.  Thank you for
A:  I always feel that when I'm out doing my celebrity
thing on book tours, like this, that I basically come
across like a talking dog.
Q: Oh, I just wish that I could wag my tail or perhaps
bite.  But I'll have to hold back on that for the time
A: 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. The
dogs are...
Q: The chips talk.
A: Yeah.  The chips talk, and the dog is like a
peripheral.  They're like a cross, they're like an
organic AI type thing.   Right?   And you know, not only
that, but if you actually look at the history of medical
research, everything that's done is done to animals
Q: Ah.  Interesting.
A:  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. 
Q: Ooh.
A: So you've got like mice with a human ear growing
out of their bellies, getting a lot of coverage recently.
Q: That would be attractive.  I think I saw something
like that in Archie McPhee's catalogue. 
A: Yeah, well you know, 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, you know? I mean,
just shave your head, and have twelve ears on your
Q: Attached or not, it doesn't matter?
A: Grown.  Grown on site.  I mean they can't, they
don't have like *auditory* ears.  But you know...
Q: Right.  Well, ears aren't that attractive.  Isn't there
something else we can pick?
A: Tattoos aren't that attractive either.  You know?
You'd be doing it for  good and sufficient reasons.
Q: Of your own knowledge.
A: Or you know, whatever.  Liposuction isn't
that attractive.  Breast augmentation isn't that attractive
to a lot of people.  But who's to say that if
you could grow an ear for $12.50, that you might
not want one?   Just on your shoulder blade or
something.  You know.
Q: That would be nice.
A: Well the possibility is there.  It's clear that the
possibility is there.  Somebody's likely to
exploit it.    That's the history of technological
development, really.  People always coming up with
stuff.  They think it's a solution to something, and then
the next guy to come along doesn't bother to read the
rulebook.  And he's the guy who discovers what it's
*really*  for.
Q: There you go.  Lasers.  Everything else. 
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Q: Well, so all this stuff that's happening, the Net stuff
being so popular now--has this changed the way you look
for material?  Is there anything material changed for you as
a writer?