Bruce Sterling agreed to chat with me about cyberpunk, the 19th Century,
government-sponsored orgies during the Roman Empire, and technology in
general -- all this after a two-hour session in which he talked in front
of two dozen fans about his new novel, Holy Fire from Bantam Spectra.
Undaunted, he was in high spirits, making incredible leaps and
connections -- but what more can you expect from a Hugo winner?
You're probably going to go to your grave, and folks will identify you as part of the
first wave of cyberpunk writers, no matter what you've done after that period. How
do you see Holy Fire -- do you consider it cyberpunk? How would you
answer critics who claim it is just "another cyberpunk novel"?
I would answer them with indifference. I came to terms about being a
"cyberpunk writer" a long time ago. It's like asking William
Burroughs, "When they bury you, you're going to be a beatnik, aren't you?" Of
course. That's just how the phenomenon works. You can't be a beatnik now,
or even back in 1970. Even if you've read all of Kerouac, Ginsberg,
and Burroughs, and liked to wear black clothes and play the bongos -- you still
couldn't be a beatnik in 1975. You could be influenced by them, admire them,
be hip to what they were up to, even get to know them personally and hang
out with them, but you would never be called that "thing" no matter how
closely you imitated them or how much you admired their work. And I think the
same thing is true of cyberpunk. You can't be a 21-year-old cyberpunk
today--or at least not a 21-year-old cyberpunk science fiction writer.
What about Neal Stephenson? Isn't he part of the second-generation of cyberpunk authors?
Neal Stephenson is a really good science fiction writer.
I've talked to Neal, and he's a real simpatico guy, but he's about
seven years too young. He's a second-generation cyberpunk, of sorts.
But he's not a Movement guy--he's not in MirrorShades, he didn't write
for Cheap Truth, he doesn't know the secret grips and handshakes,
and he's not a million years old like the rest of us.
How can the fans differentiate between the piffle marketing category "cyberpunk"
and quality science fiction that happens to be cyberpunk?
There's no delineation. That's like asking who's a hippie, and who isn't
a hippie. "Did you have long hair?" "Well, yeah, once." The President had
long hair. "Did you smoke marijuana?" "Yeah, but I didn't inhale." "Were you ever
in the anti-war movement?" "Well, yeah." But he's the President of the
United States. You can't call Bill Clinton a "hippie." Well, I guess you can,
if you're Jesse Helms. It would sound stupid. But go take a look at a photo
of Clinton from 1971 -- he has a big bushel-basketful of hair, he's hanging
out with dopers, and he's in the anti-war movement. He was a leftist
peacenik. So when did the day come, that he was no longer a hippie? Was
it the day he cut his hair? The day he decided not to smoke any more
marijuana? It's all shades of gray.
If you went back and asked Kerouac about beatniks, he would have said it was
something the press made up. Likewise, cyberpunks didn't call ourselves
cyberpunks--we didn't invent it. It was a name that was put on us. We were
just movement SF writers. We wanted to write commercial science fiction,
or at least stuff that would pass for it, with a generational voice in it,
a new sensibility to it.
When did the New Wave SF end? Who was the last New Wave SF writer?
You can't be a New Wave SF writer today. You can recite the numbers of
them: Ballard, Ellison, Spinrad, Delaney, blah, blah, blah. What about a
transitional figure like Zelazny? A literary movement isn't an army. You
don't wear a uniform and swear allegiance. It's just a group of people
trying to develop a sensibility. I think the cyberpunk sensibility got
well-developed, and history moves on. Is Holy Fire a cyberpunk novel?
Well, sure, I'm a cyberpunk SF author. You're right, that will probably be written on my headstone.
What is it about the 19th Century that fascinates you? I'm thinking now
of your work on Difference Engine and references to T.E. Lawrence in Islands in the Net.
We are all mired in historical circumstance. Some of us are knee-deep,
and some of us are neck-deep. If you want to think seriously about the
future, you have to think historically. There isn't any other way to do
it. Otherwise you'll mistake the accidents of our current situation for
some iron-clad law of the cosmos. You need to be aware of longer-term
trends, how things play out. History never repeats itself, but it does kind of rhyme.
We're living controversies now, like in the former Yugoslavia, that clearly
have roots that are centuries old. Certain issues come up over and over
again, there are certain trouble spots that flare up, and there are certain
weaknesses in Western society that come up with regularity.
If you don't study history and try to get a grip on these things, you'll never get anywhere.
The best laboratory model for the 20th century is the 19th century.
It's also an industrial society undergoing a technological revolution.
You don't see that phenomenon in the Roman Empire or Ancient China, except
really, really slowly. The thing that differentiates us from the Victorians
is that things happen to us in ten months that took ten years to happen to
them. In the 21st century that may telescope further, to ten hours. I
wouldn't be surprised at all to see a situation like the following: the
Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina has renamed itself the Republic of Bosnia,
until midnight tonight, when a new constitution goes into effect -- but that'll
only last until Tuesday. And why not? If governmental processes were sped up
to match communication, why couldn't you have governments that would expire?
There are built-in expiration dates anyway, with Congressmen who are elected
for two years, and the like.
In 1993 you gave a speech to the National Academy of Sciences warning that
those people who didn't show up on the Internet within the next century would
"not matter anymore." You were especially concerned with getting children hooked
into the Internet, but without selling them off to the big corporate conglomerates
with their own revenue-generating agendas. What's your spin on how
commercialization is affecting the Internet?
I just read the outgoing speech by Reed Hunt of the FCC, in which he
said, "Look, the Internet is the local phone company. And AT&T is going
to rally the troops in Congress and crush you." AT&T couldn't run the
Internet anymore than the railroads could run the information highway
system. They're just too screwed up, they just can't make the
transition, they just won't make the transition. Just like IBM wasn't
able to rally and devour Microsoft. They rallied and devoured Lotus
at the last possible minute, killed it off. AT&T bought up NCR, but
sold it later. IBM and AT&T couldn't do anything with their
acquisitions. They don't have the talent.
You don't think, then, that companies could take over the Internet?
If they did, there wouldn't be an Internet. It would all be Prodigy. Prodigy
had everything you wanted, with flying ad banners -- there was commercialized
cyberspace up and down. And designed for your grandmother. All
point-and-click. But that model has already been tried, and repeatedly
failed. Now commercial websites are failing everywhere. Nobody pays
to see anything on a website. No one will ever pay to see anything on
a website. Ever, ever, ever. Sure, you could spool ads in front of people's
eyeballs, and hope that it picks up some sales. But at best,
all you'll have is a niche market.
I used to worry about the Internet spiraling out of control. That happens
in the new book I'm writing, and it leads to a generalized social breakdown
in the U.S. I think that's a realistic scenario, but only about 15% realistic.
In point of fact, most of the people who complain about the Internet point
to online pornography being menacing. This is an absurd scarecrow.
There's never been a society in the history of the world brought down by
"too much pornography." Look at the Roman Empire, where there were people
ripped apart naked by wild beasts. The government would have orgies. The
government would go drink themselves stupid and then vomit.
They'd have giant wife-swapping, and it was the government! We're nowhere
near that. That's just a sad, sick, psychic projection. I think the Internet
is proving to have surprisingly benign effects. I just don't worry about
that technology being bad. In fact, I think it's much, much better for us
politically, morally, ethically, and technologically than broadcast
television. Broadcast television is about monopoly propaganda, and produces
a facade of unanimity in our society. You have soap operas where the same
soap is sold to everyone at the same time, national franchises, the three
networks -- it's so Soviet. It's too Soviet. It was bad for us.
Copyright © 1997 by Thomas Myer
Thomas Myer is a technical writer by trade, a dog lover by default, and a schmoozer by
necessity. One day he hopes to actually complete an intelligent, linear thought.