|Bruce Sterling (by way of Pit Schultz <email@example.com>) on Sat, 5 Oct 96 23:15 MET|
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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 List. 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 cyberpunk? 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 go. 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 since. 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 problem. 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 technology. 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 Detoxification. 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 cleaning. 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 happen? A: Well, I don't think that's necessarily going to happen, but in order for my society to work, it had to happen. 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 which... 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 that. 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 being. 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 first. 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 head. 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?