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Interview: Tom Cool and Bruce Sterling on “Hornet and Butterfly”

Tell us a bit about “Hornet and Butterfly.”

BS: It’s a futuristic warning about a Chinese catastrophe, which we wrote just before the latest Chinese catastrophe.
TC:  It’s a traditional hypersexual love story about assassins who identify as insects.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

TC: Bruce and I have been friends since the late 90s, when we both lived in Austin. After publishing a few SF novels back then, I concentrated on my computer science career, but I’m in the mood to get back in the game.
BS:  I was quite the fan of Tom’s highly unusual military SF, and I always wanted to write something like that, and now I have.


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “Hornet and Butterfly?”

BS: We used a “mood board,” which is a technique used by designers.  We collected and pinned-up graphics for world-building imagery, such as AI, security surveillance, Xinjiang re-education centers, refugee camps, militarized islands.
TC: Face recognition, neural experimentation with monkeys.  Ocean-borne cities and post-disaster hardware. I’ve seen hundred-thousand-ton aircraft carriers take grey water right over the bow, so that’s how the Raft inverted.


Can you tell us anything about the writing process for this story?

BS. The images on the mood board coalesced into scenes and settings. We volleyed a few plot outlines back and forth, inventing characters. Then Tom wrote a first draft and we just had at it tooth and claw.
TC: I’ve collaborated before, but this was like swimming with the great whites. Bruce weighed in so heavily that every draft felt like a transmutation.
BS: It was interesting to see more and more unearthly material arise, stuff that neither he nor I could ever write alone.


Why do you write?

BS:  I write a lot of material that publishers never see.  Prose helps me assemble ideas that would otherwise just be me silently staring out the window.  I’m a writer beset with ideas.  I have thousands.
TC: When I was a boy, I thought novelists were cooler than astronauts. In these times, I thank God I have my craft to focus on and to maintain headway. It’s a hard thing for a cyberpunk to survive into the future of his imagination. My first novel was INFECTRESS, so help me.


Who do you consider to be your influences?
BS: Well, I read all the standard cool guys you would expect a cyberpunk to read, Ballard, Burroughs, Pynchon, Bester, Delany. I used to hang out at the thrones of Harlan Ellison and Brian Aldiss.
TC: Heinlein. Wells. Orwell. “Doc” Smith. Herbert. Ellison. Farmer. Vonnegut. Sterling. Gibson. Stephenson. Ex-genera, Patrick O’Brien and Cormac McCarthy. Two great examples of transcendence of genre.


What are you working on now?

BS: These days, I like writing Italian-influenzed “fantascienza,” meaning science fiction that I would write if I was Italian.  I’m not Italian, but that’s why it interests me — it’s like I’m collaborating with an entire European peninsula.
TC: This morning, I submitted to DIA for security review a final draft of TESTIMONY, a book of essays on the nature of time, an occult God, who killed JFK, sex as data, and 66 other things. TRANSGENIC, a satire involving dynamically transhuman MDs, is on the market. I’m about to start on Sun Queen, the third STAR ENVOYS novel written on spec, where our heroes are invoked inside a billion-year-old Dyson sphere, and ROBOT LAW, a noir thriller set post-Singularity.


“Hornet and Butterfly” appears in the May/June 2020 issue of F&SF.

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