Festival of the Imagination 1996 July 1995 Newsletter – Bruce Sterling

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Bruce Sterling


Sean McMullen

When I open a magazine and see Bruce Sterling’s name in the contents list I go to that story first. Whenever he has a new book published I buy it, unseen and unreviewed. Okay, this might sound like the blind dedication of a devoted fan, but that’s not really the case. Because I work full time as well as writing SF, I have no time to waste reading stories that turn out to be turkeys, and I have found that Bruce Sterling never produces a turkey. His writing is entertaining, imaginative and perceptive, yet easy reading as well, and working through his collected works could be a pretty good course on writing science fiction.

I have been asked to do a piece on “The A to Z of Bruce Sterling’s writing”, so let’s start with the obvious bits first, like Does Bruce Sterling = Cyberpunk? Well, it’s partly true, but there is a lot more on the left hand side of the equation than most people realize. Sterling was certainly one of the dominant influences in cyberpunk’s development, yet he is also a scholar, science populariser and prophet of the Age of Networked Information — there is a lot more to his science fiction than cyberpunk. Apart from winning the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1989, he has had 15 Hugo and Nebula nominations — that’s over seven times more than all Australian authors have ever notched up.

Sterling’s first story, “Man-Made Self” was published in 1976, the year that he graduated with a BA in journalism. He was then 22 years old. The following year he sold his first novel, Involution Ocean, which is set aboard a ship on a dust sea on a waterless planet. In 1980 his second novel, The Artificial Kid appeared; a fast-paced, high-tech, martial arts harbinger of the cyberpunk movement which was then just stirring into life (although William Gibson’s benchmark cyberpunk story, “Johnny Mnemonic” was still a year in the future). After a string of successful short stories his novel Schismatrix was published in 1985, chronicling the transformation of the human race as part of his Shaper/Mechanist saga. Around this time Sterling changed his approach to writing from literary fantasist to literary technologist. His SF now featured much sharper, harder detail, and was even more firmly based on both known science and informed speculation.

Even in fantastic settings his increased emphasis on detail and scholarship is apparent. Whether it is the distant past or the future, Sterling’s writing has a way of putting you right there in the time and place. His short story “Dinner in Audoghast”, published in 1985, is set in a medieval Islamic city in the Western Sahara, and is crammed with rich detail that brings the lost city to life. This was also the year that he edited Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, providing in the preface one of the most clear, concise overviews of the nature of cyberpunk that one is likely to find. The fiction itself is mostly slick, paced very fast, yet founded on a sharp-edged, streetwise culture of the future. For contrast, his 1987 story “Flowers of Edo” (nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards) is set in Nineteenth Century Japan during the transition from feudal state to industrial superpower. True to the promise of Hisaki Yasuda’s cover art, the young heroes chase and battle a demon living within the wires of the new electricity network while the city burns around them.

Islands in the Net won Sterling the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1989, and is a convincing statement of his vision of the near-future. It is both a thriller in a futuristic setting and an odyssey through a near-future global society dominated by information and communication. Traditional political institutions are being forced to adjust to the fact that national boundaries no longer really matter, yet there are still concentrations of political power wielding the very traditional weapons of intrigue and terrorism. Overall it is a convincing statement of where we might be going in the century to come, and Sterling’s future world genuinely has a lot going for it.

1989 also saw the publication of Crystal Express, featuring 12 of his best short fiction works. If anyone ever ever wanted a crash course in writing SF in the late 20th Century, this collection would have to be required reading. Seven of the twelve stories are his Hugo or Nebula nominees to that time, and five are Shaper/Mechanist stories. In 1990 Sterling’s story “Dori Bangs” collected both Hugo and Nebula nominations. The sharp-edged and stylish yet sensitive story is a study in fate and determinism: where would we be if the pivotal decisions of our lives had turned out better, and would it have made much difference at all? Note also that I said sensitive. Anyone can turn out technogrunge thrillers, but there is a lot of thought behind what Sterling writes. To me, Sterling is about as good a role model as any aspiring SF author can hope to find. His imagination is backed up by his scholarship and attention to detail, and all of Sterling’s settings are realized down to a very fine level on both the technical and social level.

When William Gibson was in Australia in 1994 I asked him what it was like to collaborate with Sterling on their Nebula nominee novel, The Difference Engine (1990). Gibson replied that in his opinion Sterling had done enough research for three or four books, yet wanted to leave it at one. The Difference Engine is set in an alternate Nineteenth Century, one in which the Babbage difference engine was brought to perfection and by the 1850s became as much a cornerstone of industry, politics and society as the steam engine. Again, the prospect of national barriers crumbling before an onslaught of computer control and freely flowing information is raised, along with logic bombs and even a hint of mechanical AI in the future.

Sterling has been said to be one of the most globally orientated of the American SF authors, and his 1992 collection Globalhead demonstrates this at least as effectively as Islands in the Net. Here we see his well-researched views of English, Russian/Soviet, Indian, Islamic, European, and even American culture. One of my favorites is “Hollywood Kremlin” (originally in Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1990), which is an accurate statement of how the Cold War was really won by the west.

It was during the writing of The Difference Engine that Sterling and Gibson increasingly found themselves invited along to scientific and technical conferences and meetings. Through their SF they had become identified as gurus of the real world’s version of cyberspace and global networking. It had taken barely a decade for technology to at least partially catch up. To some degree the readers of Neuromancer and Islands in the Net (ranging from hackers to systems administrators to company executives) liked much of what they saw, and decided that most of the technology was already good enough to support the networked-cyberspace of SF literature. Sterling’s non-fiction book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Order on the Electronic Frontier (1992) is not just a collection of horror stories of electronic intrusion, but an informed attempt to map out the immediate future of our new electronic infrastructure. In his column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Sterling ranges over wider scientific and technical topics and issues, but in just the same readable and entertaining way.

I have just finished reading Heavy Weather, his most recent book, and the future setting has a lot in common with Islands in the net. Here Sterling warns that the greenhouse effect is not about gradual increases in temperature, while the sea gently laps a little higher with each tide, it is about large-scale atmospheric instability and catastrophic storms. This is, of course, in line with current climatic model predictions, but he also postulates a Twenty First Century where disease control, civil order and general prosperity are by no means assured, even in industrially advanced nations. Well, I don’t like it, but I have to agree. The Twentieth Century is probably as good as it’s going to get for us, and we made it that way by spending up big on the resource and environmental credit card. The Twenty First Century is going to be a big lesson on living within our means.

Back in May 1985 I bought the latest Asimov’s magazine, saw the fantasy-style cover with Bruce Sterling’s name on it and thought “Damn, is nobody proof against the lure of the fantasy boom?” Well, that story was “Dinner in Audoghast”, it was not fantasy, it was not even cyberpunk, yet it was fantastically good. Anyone who can write as well as that just has to be worth meeting, and when I found out that Sterling was to be the GoH at the 1996 National SF Convention in Perth I booked my tickets at once. If you have read his work, you will not be able to stay away either. If you have not, keep reading …

Recommended Reading section likely way out of date. Google for it.

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