Bruce Sterling: The Complete Interview

04 Oct 2010 in international | questo post è lungo 2739 parole

Bruce Sterling

_A conversation with Bruce Sterling _by Rhys Hughes

A shorter italian version was published by La Stampa: Lo scrittore e i tempi moderni

Rhys: Let me first simply declare that in the world of science-fiction you are a demigod, a true master of the form. This is a statement of fact. How does it make you feel?

Bruce: It is a melancholy feeling. I worry about "the world of science fiction." It's a precious world to me, but it's small and I know that it is threatened. These are dark times for all forms of printed literature, in every genre, in every nation. I'd go farther, and state that they're dark times for any form of culture that isn't native to a computer screen.

Rhys: You live in Turin, the same city where Nietzsche had his famous breakdown. Before he went mad he said, “I would have never thought that the light could make a city so beautiful.” What aspects of the city appeal to you, assuming that at least some of them do?

Black Swan - Bruce SterlingBruce: Legend says that writers who go to Torino go mad or commit suicide. In reality, I go to Torino to find important  reasons to be sane and to thrive. Nowadays,  New York, the center of American publishing, is the city that makes writers want to jump into rivers and die. The Turinese are a quiet, reserved, and disciplined people. They are cynics about themselves. They personify the Risorgimento, but during most centuries, the Turinese never realize that. The greatest mystery in Turin is that the Turinese are such a mystery to themselves.

Rhys: The first novel I read of yours was the first novel you ever wrote, the hugely enjoyable Involution Ocean, and I read it because Harlan Ellison recommended it so highly. In my mind it’s almost a fable rather than an orthodox novel and doesn’t give any clues as to how your work would subsequently develop. How do you regard that novel now?

The Parthenopean ScalpelBruce: Harlan Ellison was my literary mentor. He commissioned that book from a college student. That novel of mine would never have been written without his guidance and his sponsorship. When I think about that book in hindsight, I think about the importance of literary mentors. Publishing can't function like that any more. It's like receiving some important royal heirloom, and then realizing that you live in a republic. Harlan Ellison is 76 years old now, and he's ill, and he says publicly that he cannot last much longer. People who read my first novel probably never know that.  I know it, and I feel it. Literature is not about one's personal effort to push the pen on the page. Literature is all about heritage and futurity. I learned that truth from Harlan Ellison. I must find some effective way to act in modern circumstances.

Rhys: You are a widely travelled man. Do the cultures in which you move influence your writing to an appreciable degree or is there a division between the environment of your life and your work?

The Involution OceanBruce: I'm a keen student of other cultures. I am tolerant and forgiving. I do not judge or condemn. But I write through them, instead of writing for them, or with them. I'm not a warm, sympathetic writer who can enter fully into the life of an alien people. It's all about futurism for me. I need to know their possibilities. I need to know the deep, driving forces that distinguish them from other cultures. That's a cold interest. It's remote, abstract, and scientific.  So the influence is sometimes there. The division is always there.

Rhys: You are well-known as an advocate of technology as the optimum solution to future environmental crisis, primarily through ultra-efficient design. I believe that this approach is called ‘Bright Green Environmentalism’ as opposed to the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ green variants, which place stress on individual consumer responsibility and government programs. Were you always ‘bright green’ or did you ever have any faith in ‘light’ and ‘dark’? Indeed, are these three solutions mutually incompatible?

Cisne Negro - Bruce Sterling

Bruce: Incompatible things can exist within the same world. I'm a "Bright Green" ideologue, but  I don't want to repress  other means of thought and action.  The world's situation is severe. It's not about shallow tricks of today's "technology" solving "the environment."  It's  about an old, huge, growing threat to world civilization: the climate crisis. That is a two-hundred-year-old planetary problem. It spares no one.  No verbal maneuver can escape the science there. It's a worry we will surely share with our great-grandchildren. It's a huge, persistent, global calamity. The "solutions" we might offer today are like people in 1910 "solving" nuclear warfare. We don't endure the worst of the crisis now, and we don't understand the solutions. I have always known that the Greenhouse Effect was a major threat. I was writing about that in my first books and stories, thirty years ago.  The Greenhouse will get worse and worse, every year, until my lifetime ends.  Then it will get worse yet.  No denial will make any difference.  Most affirmations have been worthless, too. I can tell people that the climate will get worse, because that's the truth.  But I'm not a politician, scientist, engineer or financier. I'm just a visionary novelist. I can advocate some things and maybe  increase some public awareness of things. Practically speaking, I am not a major actor in this old, colossal, dreadful story. I am just a talkative artist,  someone who can smell that future coming.  I do smell it. I smell it every day. It smells like your home, on fire.

Rhys: I believe that you were once asked to state the major difference between the methods of research you employ as a writer now and the methods you employed when you began your writing career. You responded with the single word, “Google.” This might seem a perverse question, but do you think there are any perils for a new writer in the fact that research has now become so much easier?

Cigno Nero - Bruce SterlingBruce: That's not a perverse question.  It's obvious.  It's a simple matter to examine almost any contemporary text and see that Google was used to compose it. Contemporary writing is loaded with strange little details of erudition that used to be expensive and difficult to research. For instance, let's consider an obscure, dusty figure like, say, Massimo d'Azeglio.  Or rather, Massimo Taparelli, Marquis d'Azeglio (October 24, 1798 – January 15, 1866), the author of the Italian historical novels, "Niccolò dei Lapi" and "Ettore Fieramosca."  No American should properly know anything about this man. It took me 57 seconds to research that on Google, and that included cutting and pasting the text here. The peril comes in thinking, as a modern writer, that you can truly understand something about Massimo Taparelli in just 57 seconds. No, you can't. To access facts is not to understand them. The Marquis d'Azeglio was an intelligent, creative and cultivated 19th century aristocrat. He was deep and broad and subtle and human, and very alien to us moderns. Modern writers may fail to understand him in this sudden electronic blizzard of  bland facts about him.  We may  know less of him because we seem to know  more of him.

Rhys: The great Italian writer Primo Levi, who was an accomplished chemist, came to believe that research for the sake of research was fundamentally immoral and that individual scientists should remove themselves from fields of inquiry that might prove potentially hazardous to the human race. Is such a moral approach even possible?

Bruce: Not really, no. That's not practical. Individual scientists have no ability to remove themselves from their sources of funding, and to remain scientists. Governments, academies and major corporations fund their fields of scientific inquiry.  Individual scientists do not have any veto power there. When American politicians told scientists that stem cell research was immoral, the scientists grew  indignant. Stem cell research is indeed potentially hazardous to the human race. It's a fact, but scientists don't like to be told that. They launched a counter-campaign to establish that the ban itself was immoral.  These scientists were not being cynical.  There are good moral arguments for conducting stem-cell research. Scientists have never been morality experts. Scientists are naive about morality, no better than other technicians such as programmers or engineers.  Philosophers and theologians are our cultural experts about morality. These moral experts can argue for or against almost any moral stance, convincingly. Two moral philosophers in a room will always quarrel.  Two moral theologians in a room will kill each other. They would kill Primo Levi, if they could capture him.

Rhys: Connected with the former question, and your interest in theoretical design, do you ever worry that your ideas might be twisted or corrupted by those who adopt them and utilised in a manner inimical to your intentions?** **

O bisturi Napolitano - Bruce SterlingBruce: I accept that problem as an occupational hazard. I don't allow myself to obsess about it. I simply compare my work to the work of many other, better writers.  Other writers told me important things that might be twisted or corrupted.  I was glad they did that for me: that they trusted the discretion of the unknown reader, who was me. For instance, Nietzsche was never a National Socialist. Some of his fans were. His ideas were likely far more dangerous than any of my modest ideas. I would not urge him to stay silent.  On the contrary, it encourages me that a poor, exiled scholar with a broken career could tell the world as much as Nietzsche did.  Knowledge cannot advance when the reader is treated as a child.  If you "protect" your reader, your next step is to lie to your reader.  That is evil. With that said: there are many things I know that I do not choose to publish.

Rhys: Why are you so intrigued by obsolete technology? Is it a merely a case of what Borges called the “pleasures of idle erudition”? Or there is something more significant behind it?

Bruce: It's impossible to understand technology without understanding obsolete technology. All technology becomes obsolete eventually. We live in a society that is fixated on technologies that might create wealth in the future.  But that is not what technology really is. That is merely what certain people are paid to publicize.

Rhys: A title with deep philosophical resonances, ‘Black Swan’ partly involves the exploitation and trade of secrets. Are secrets the ultimate capitalist commodity?

Bruce: I'm inclined to think that the ultimate capitalist commodity is money. Some minor things are true secrets, yet there are many hugely important things that are obvious, and yet no one publicly admits to them. People methodically shelter themselves under hypocrisies,  delusions, faiths,  ideologies. Those are much more important than any mere secrets. Evolution is a blatant fact of life, but Darwin kept his idea of "natural selection" secret for 20 years. Then he published his secret in 1858, fearing that Wallace, is rival, might reveal it.  Today, people still attack evolution. They attack it with more vigor when it becomes more obviously true.

Rhys: The ‘Internet of Things’ is a truly startling concept. I seem to remember that you once described it as “inconceivable before the 21st Century”. I find the prospect of everything in the world being linked together as alarming rather than uplifting, a threat to liberty. Are my concerns naive?

Bruce: I would agree that the privacy risks are always the first issues to strike thoughtful people. As people become more engaged with the many startling possibilities of the Internet of Things, they understand that those first concerns are primitive.  They are not wrong, just simplistic. Il Bisturi NapoletanoIt's like learning about the railroad, and immediately thinking that it means that foreign spies will come to your town on the railroad.  That is true.  Yes, foreign spies really are a threat to your liberty, and they will use railroads. But railroads are alarming for many good reasons other than mere foreign spies. The worst concern about a railroad is this:  if a rival town gets the railroad, and your town doesn't get that railroad, then your town dies. You will live a dead town. Posed in the rhetorical terms of the Internet of Things, this would mean a frightening "Internet of Things Gap." This would be something like yesterday's famous "digital divide."  When no one has it, then it might be bad to have it. When others really have it and you don't, that deprivation is terrifying, unjust, evil.  This would crush all your intelligent and skeptical reservations because it would reframe the debate in a way you could not counter. The Internet of Things is indeed startling. It is also dangerous. But that's just theory. To to have no real Internet is worse. To have no Internet while others do have it can be lethal.  The Regione of Piemonte understood that problem, and that's why I am able to type this to you on some very nice state-supported  broadband.

Rhys: I announced on Facebook that I was hoping to conduct an interview with you and I asked if anyone had any questions for you. I did this as a feeble attempt to harness modern technology to the old-fashioned interview process. The first person to respond is a fan of yours by the name of Bob Lock who asked, “Are we all 'punked-out' at last? We've had cyberpunk and steampunk but do you foresee even more sub-genres emerging using the punk suffix; can we expect bio-punk, wood-punk, plastic-punk or has the 'coolness' of the word reached its pinnacle?”

Bruce: The suffix -punk is not cool any more. People use that term from a lack of constructive alternatives. "Bio-punk" for instance is not a futuristic term. "Biopunk" was an important school of Czech science fiction in the mid-1980s. The term "-punk" doesn't mean that people are historical counterculture punks, musicians with razor-blades and torn clothing.  It means that people are using modern social networks to route around established disciplines, so as to appropriate technical knowledge for their various street-level purposes.  That practice is not old-fashioned.  That practice is intensifying.  It will go on no matter what names it has. The process you used in generating this question is called "crowdsourcing." That term was invented by Wired magazine journalist Jeff Howe in 2006.

Rhys: What does it mean to you to be a Texan? Are you a Texan?

Bruce: I am indeed a Texan. I am very aware what it means to other people that I am a Texan.  Europeans don't know very much about Texas. They all know that George Bush, father and son, were Texans, and that Texan presidents love to shoot people for oil. And I know that. For me, personally, Texas, is about the cloudscapes and the landscapes. When I stand on my own two feet in my homeland, I am in my true, original place. No other part on our planet will ever make me feel that way. However: I am no chauvinist about its human institutions. Texas politics have taught me a useful humility.  Because they are bad, so I sympathize with those who have bad politics. Which means, most people in the world. If you judge us Texans by absolute moral standards, we are disastrous. We are a young, multiracial people with severe ethnic, political, economic and religious problems. Most of those problems were not of our own making. We also suffered the terrible "curse of oil," which has radically destabilized societies older and better than ours. I don't want to indulge in special pleading for the many faults of my native society. We  Texans are, frankly, pretty crude and bad. That is our nature.  We are unlikely to rapidly improve. But --  I would urge this --  consider our neighbors. It's cruel to say this, but it's fair.  The neighbors of Texas are Mexico, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.  These are our peers.  If you ask these people about Texans -- and they know Texans better than anyone else -- they respect Texans. They think Texans are organized and relatively sensible.  They see Texans as a beacon of regional civilization. Texas will never be Luxembourg.  But, then, Luxembourg will never be Texas.

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