Bruce Sterling: Future Tense

November 27th, 1999 | Category: Interviews

Bruce Sterling

Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky let me run this interview in my book, Follow for Now. It was originally on Paul’s site,

“For if the Jazz Age is year for year the Essences and Symptoms of the times, then Jes Grew is the germ making it rise yeast-like across the American plain. . . . The letters after their names are their tommy guns and those universities where they pour over syllables their Big House.” — Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

“The city no longer exists, except as a cultural ghost for tourists.”
Marshall McLuhan, “The Alchemy of Social Change” from Verbi-Voco-Visual Explanations, 1967

First things first: It took me a zillion years (summer to winter 1999) to write this ’cause I didn’t know where to start. I think about Bruce Sterling’s writing and see a precedent that runs throughout a lot of American science fiction. It’s a tradition of writing where the future is far more of a barometer to measure the present than the past, and it’s the fracture points in the lines of thought holding it all together that his work explores. He, like J.G. Ballard, is one of those people who can peer deep inside the structures holding together contemporary society and weave together stories that somehow make past, present, and future blend in a way that is incredibly well researched and astute, not to mention excellent fiction as well. A difficult task indeed. Sterling has been on the writing scene for ages, and with his peers Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and in a more remote “hard science” fashion, Greg Egan, has sparked the imagination of people within both the arts and technological communities for the last two decades with science fiction created from stories and situations that would only be remotely possible in our world. A tape recorder, a geographically dispersed conversation that took place over several months, a chain of email corrections and file exchanges, and the article was done. The stories, like the conversation, are fractured and full of a strange humor — fluid but crisp, openly flaunting the kind of hypertext narrative drift that drives editors bonkers, but kept tantalizing close to the “reality” we inhabit. The thing that differentiates Sterling from many of his compatriots in science fiction is that he focuses on the everyday and uses his explorations (take that one literally because he travels more than almost anyone I know), as a platform from which to write about America and the world it finds itself in. Sterling strikes a fine-tuned balance between shear impossibility and “the real” to create milieu that are all too hauntingly familiar. Heimlich versus unheimlich, the familiar and its distortions and permutations, remote possibility and unerringly “scientifically possible” renditions of future worlds — what could be more relevant to today’s uncanny world of contemporary hyperreality?

To me Sterling is a writer working within a strain of American fiction at least as old as Edward Bellamy’s classic Looking Backward (Signet, 1960) — a story that predicted credit cards, politics based on pop culture, and an American Utopia based on technology and individual choice taken to societal extremes. But where Bellamy would write a “passion” that created an almost “palpable barrier” between citizens and the culture they constructed out of America’s dreams, Sterling explores the outer fringes of a culture that Bellamy could only dream of. “This passion for losing ourselves in others or for absorbing them into ourselves,” he wrote back at the turn of the nineteenth century, “is the greatest law of solidarity.” And indeed, Sterling’s latest fictions are an exploration of that theme inverted and remixed into an America fraught with technological disruptions of the human condition most previous writers — even in speculative fiction — would have barely conceived.

In his most recent novel, Distraction (Spectra, 1999), Sterling sets the scene in a mid-twenty-first-century America being torn apart by various economic, social, and political issues. I look out my window and think of the present moment as I write. My laptop monitor flickers to life as I, with the push of the “spacebar,” banish the looping images of Bart Simpson scrolling across the now blank screen surface of my computer. The word “cyberpunk” at 5 AM draws a relative blank for me, and my computer has responded by going into screensaver mode. I look out the window and see a swimming pool several stories below me, and wistfully gaze out over the parking lots and swamp trees surrounding the hotel I’m staying in. A series of convergences, open texts, and a hot summer night flash across my mind, the mental equivalent of the process my computer is going through. Tallahassee, Florida, and I’m on tour with a hip-hop MC named Kool Keith playing around the country to promote his album called Black Elvis to large crowds of kids dressed in all manner of costumes and from all manner of ethnic backgrounds. Basically it feels like the future is here now — but I realize it was never gone, it too was just another screensaver banished with the push of a button.

It’s the summer of 1999 and strange things have been happening. Reality as a Spike Jonze commercial. Reality as a Hype Williams video. Wars with small-time European dictators are covered relentlessly by the press while far more devastating situations in Asia and Africa are rendered into filler between “jungle” soundtracked automobile commercials (or even Macintosh’s “Think Different” celebrity branding campaign of the dead and the living). Switch channels, look at a different billboard and you might see a Chihuahua singing the praises of Taco Bell while hip-hop beats play in the background. Get the wrong email and you might even receive a worm virus that selectively deletes your entire address book by propagating itself through your friends and colleagues. Record-level droughts, an iceberg the size of the state of Rhode Island — twenty-four miles wide by forty-eight miles long — breaking off of Antarctica, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, genetically engineered crops, presidential politics as celebrity sports, etc., etc. I think you get the picture. There’s even stuff like the Black hardcore hip-hop MC DMX raising his hands at Woodstock in the symbol of an “X” above his head and yelling at the ocean of white people in front of him, “How many of y’all niggas don’t give a fuck? Put your hands up!” and the crowd putting itself into a sea of symbols — X marking the spot of their ethnic meltdown at a festival meant to celebrate the dying values of ’60s counterculture that ended in a rainbow riot of smashed cash machines and burning concession stands. A strange telemetry seemed to be the driving force of the summer’s events — the list goes on: presidents, prime ministers, the continuing break-down of the former super power known as the Soviet Union into all sorts of strange polities, white males going bonkers and shooting up kindergartens, high schools, and day-trading stock companies, etc. I could stop there, or I could mention the stunning popularity of movies like The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project that pointed to the psychological implosion of one of the prime American directives of the last two centuries — expansion at all costs — but that would be giving away the idea. Outer space in 1999 took a back seat to our own inner turmoil and fears and, in a sense, has created the backdrop to the kind of narrative milieu that Bruce Sterling inhabits and describes with ease. The signs are all there, but of course, they’re in real time, and quite, perhaps all too much, contemporary. I guess you could call it “Summer of Bruce.”

A long time ago J.G. Ballard, a writer that I feel is Sterling’s predecessor in many ways, wrote a simple statement that seems to drift over me like some sort of over-lit neon expanse, a Times Square icon hanging on my screen as I write: “above all, science fiction is likely to be the only form of literature which will cross the gap between the dying narrative fictions of the present day, and the cassette and video tape fictions of the near future.” In a world where Garth Brooks can create new recording personalities on a whim, and where during a flight to Japan earlier this summer, I realized that I was flying Air Nippon’s Pokemon jet — a vehicle done over to completely mirror the environment of the video game of the same name, I realized, yes, it’s definitely been a Bruce Sterling summer. Science fiction is a kind of psychological exploration of a fascination between science and technology, and in remarkable feats of prestidigitation, writers like Sterling, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Neal Stephenson (with bows to Octavia Butler, Thomas Disch, and Samuel Delaney) have always focused on the mutuality of science and the desires that it evokes and obeys. This century began with books like Olaf Stapledon’s classic Star Maker (1937), George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), and H.G. Well’s classics, and went from there to pulp fiction and Hollywood, only to close the circuit and arrive at the footsteps of people like Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Moorcock — introverts who live through the multiple (for lack of a better word) “operatic” agency of the serial-oriented stories they write, as an almost mandarin-like reflection/inversion of pulp culture. But where this crowd focused on the far future, or far past, the brand of sci-fi Sterling and Gibson pioneered was much closer to home. The loops holding the past, present, and future, were getting smaller, and their telemetry was beginning to go into narrow focus mode: Then this year we get Stephenson writing Cryptonomicon (Avon, 1999) from the contemporary past, Sterling writing Distraction (like he almost always seems to do these days) about a closer cycle of near future narratives, and Gibson remaining relatively mute while he still thrashes out the more Hollywood-oriented nuances of the genre in his All Tomorrow’s Parties (Putnam, 1999).

But time waits for no man, and indeed all these different permutations of the American dream fade away when we see the huge sweeps of cautionary and speculative fiction in the form of videos and music albums laid out before us like some virtual feast that we can never leave, unsatisfied until the end of the cycle — you know, the “ctrl+alt+delete” for a forced quit/shutdown of your computer. But the screen will somehow, someway turn on again. Strange loops take us into the mix of literary elements, some have more force than others and, in a sense, you could say Sterling is probably, metaphorically speaking, about as strong as a black hole in this department. Like Pollack used to say, “it’s all in the process.” To describe Sterling’s work I really would like to use words like “autoreferentiality,” “metasignifier,” “narrative catalyst,” and stuff like that, but that would destroy the poetry of the words he uses. One of my favorite theorists of the kind of cultural and economic flux that Sterling describes, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, wrote in her recent book Critique of Post-Colonial Reason (Routledge, 1990) that “simply put, culture alive is always on the run, always changeful . . . it is an absurd denial of history simply to ask for its prohibition.” In other words, shit happens, and like Harlan Ellison said at the height of the disco era back in 1977 about Sterling’s first novel: “Go. Rush inside and marvel at this kid named Sterling, 0.995 fine, who writes like a cynical angel.” We owe it not so much to Sterling, but to ourselves, to make sure nothing gets in this man’s way as he tells us his stories. He enriches us. “Who am I to stand in the way?”

Paul D. Miller: Your work has everything utterly fragmented and involuted. Characters are extensions of a social reality where almost everything can be changed and attained. I think of the origins of sci-fi this century as opposed to the fictions of the past: unitary governments, reflections of imperial realities held together by the firm reigns of some centralized narrative, and basically at the end of the century, with your work, all of that has been thrown out the metaphorical window. What’s up?

Bruce Sterling: Well, you know, that’s a very interesting question, but it all went into the ether, because I couldn’t possibly repeat all of that. Let me see if I can rephrase it. Unless you wrote it down that piece of genius is lost to mankind. I think essentially what you were saying is how come my stuff is broken up into little pieces and is decentered and polyvalent, when if you read an H.G. Wells novel, it’s all about socialism is going to unify the world. Is this what you are saying basically? Okay, well my problem is I am a postmodernist, okay? I don’t believe in single, dominant narratives that have all the answers. I don’t believe in any kind of totalizing intellectual framework that offers an unchallengeable center to human affairs — corners and holes in the wall and fractal structure and places where things are seeming to obey and going their own way.

PDM: I think that your “zone” of sci-fi is far more open to how hybrid the world really is. It seems like America has been so frightened of truly realizing how intertwined it really is, that we’ve created fictions to hold out anything that couldn’t be assimilated. And that’s what, for me at least, makes your work have such a strong resonance with what’s actually going on. In Distraction the groups that create the fabric of the story have an almost cybernetic role — homeostasis, reflexivity — all of these issues are what Weiner and Claude Shannon would have described as parts of info theory. But for you they become narrative structure. Smart. Cool.

BS: “Mixed cultures, mixed codes,” he repeated helpfully. How do I see that as a narrative tool in my book? Moderators, regulators. Well, I’ve hung out with government people, military people, and cop people, and other sort of subcultures. And I think that every time; I mean they all present a kind of front as if they had all the answers and were in complete command and control. This is the impression that a soldier or a cop is very anxious to present to you. It’s part of what they call the atmosphere of deterrence. If you see a cop, all cops are like doctors or something. They are all in the state of total brotherhood and solidarity and they want to present a unified front to the outside world of Marx and criminals and dumb civilians and so forth. But once you are actually under the skin of an enterprise like this, you soon find that the stuff that cops are really upset about is rivalry with other cops. Like the Federal Bureau of Investigation hates and fears the United States Secret Service. Everybody despises the Internal Revenue Service. There are tremendous interservice rivalries. Then even if you get below that, you’ll soon find that there is stiff, internal competition among cliques within the FBI. Or, you know, there’s the Mormon Mafia within the FBI for instance, who were despised and feared by all other FBI agents.

PDM: Well, yeah, if you’re out in the world, you’d just think, well they have it all under control, and the situation is crazy ill. But then again, America’s ability to transform any culture is amazing. Politics and industry seem to get displaced in your work by biotech and America’s other main exports: entertainment and arms sales. But the internal policing of the U.S. is a whole different ballgame. I sometimes think of what J. Edgar Hoover must have been like — extreme fracture points there. But religion is such a wildcard these days. It’s really remixed America in ways we can’t even ascertain yet.

BS: Yeah, the Mormon Mafia; there are a buttload of Mormons in the FBI — for some reason the Bureau attracts Mormons. It’s not a politically correct thing to say, I’m sure, without trying to make any religious allegations here. I can just say that it’s a matter of common knowledge in the FBI that the thing’s full of Mormons.

PDM: Wow. Well, that’s in tune with a lot of your critique of ethnicity in the U.S., and it’s not a negative. It’s difficult to get a grip on how that affects law enforcement, but I would think in one way or another it does. It would make an incredible story, but it’s not something you would check out unless you were another law agency or a science-fiction writer, eh?

BS: Yeah, well, why would you? Why should you have to? It’s not like you can exploit that knowledge to help yourself in any way. But within the FBI, this is just something that looms large, right? So I just don’t believe in the central thing. I mean, there is no quote government unquote. I mean, there’s an image of a government, but once you’re behind the image of the government you see it’s really all about bureaucratic in-fighting and interservice rivalries, and so forth and so on.

PDM: Polyphrenia, eh?

BS: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think it is just more accurate to describe it in that way.

PDM: Fact and fiction blur in such a weird way these days. That’s what I love about your work. It looks at different cultural trajectories and extrapolates them in such a way that we arrive at some pretty wild places. But then again, who would have thought we would be able to land on the moon a hundred years ago, eh?

BS: I suppose it just reflects reality in a somewhat more exaggerated way. Yeah.

PDM: Is that what made you intrigued by the science-fiction medium?

BS: What made me become a science-fiction writer? Well, you know, I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Really, that is pretty much the answer there. I mean I thought of . . . I got a degree in journalism, just writing. I mean there are things you can do to earn a living, science fiction isn’t high among them, generally. Like other forms of creative endeavors, a few people on the top are making millions, and then there are tons of people who are, you know, just trying to scrape the rent together, or they have day jobs. But, you know, I looked at other ways of earning a living, and I just didn’t care for any of them very much and, I don’t know, I just think it suits me pretty well. It really is kind of my métier.

PDM: Coming out of journalism gives you a way to explain things in a concrete way, and it gives your work a resonance with events that happened historically and create new situations out of totally different situations. You just have a great frame to bounce the events off of. That whole 1960s “New Journalism” thing gets a serious reworking, eh?

BS: I guess so, but I just think that my own personality is well-suited to this line of work. I couldn’t really make it into sciences, per se, because I can’t concentrate long enough. I can write journalism, but I don’t really have that kind of nose for news that a top-flight journalist has to have. A real journalist is a kind of guy who can go over to your house when your child has died in a car wreck and ask you for a photo. You know? And that’s really what’s required. There’s a toughness of mind there that a top-flight journalist has to have. You know it’s like being in the army or something. You just can’t flinch when there’s blood all over the floor, and I don’t really have that. As journalists go, I’m like an art critic, just one of these kind of epistolary-style, essay-writer guys.

PDM: I think that’s what makes travel so amazing in a lot of your stories. The reader is really given an “overview” of the situations and geographic contexts they live and move through. I think it’s cool.

BS: Some critic pointed out, I think it was Paul DeFillipo but it might have been this other guy, he said that I was obsessed with mass evacuations. And that hadn’t occurred to me. Somebody wrote that like five years ago, and I thought, yeah, I am obsessed with mass evacuations, and Distraction is full of places that have been evacuated. There are sort of postdisaster zones, or places that were wiped out by giant tornadoes, or places where everybody picked up and left. And another obsession of mine, which somebody else pointed out, that bugged the hell out of me, ’cause I hadn’t been aware of it, was my early obsession with submarines. It’s like almost every book I wrote up till 1990, had a submarine in it at one point or another. And if it didn’t have a submarine, it had a hot-air balloon, which when you think about, is kind of the functional equivalent of a submarine, right?

PDM: Depth psychology or something like that. But again, it really works and conveys a whole sense of culture on the move, and that’s what I see as being the “core” issue of “cyberpunk,” a term I think you coined, eh? But is there a narrative strategy? Could there be another layer of meaning? Networks, displaced peoples, and nation states on the verge of being consumed within larger trading structures are also a recurring motif.

BS: Why? I can’t tell you. It’s like why is J.G. Ballard obsessed with empty swimming pools? I do travel a lot. When I was a teenager I was an oil-company kid; we were on and off of aircraft all the time. I went around the globe, I don’t know, it must have been six or eight times before I turned twenty. And I think that world travel had a very formative influence on me. And even now I log a lot of mileage. Like in the past three weeks, I have been in Turkey, Cyprus, Georgia, New York City.

PDM: Post-Soviet/Russian federation Georgia?

BS: No, Georgia, USA, Atlanta. Yeah. Almost as exotic a place as Georgia, Russia, really. And I’m not even on tour or anything. This is just something I was doing in order to, I don’t know, amuse myself, or pick up some loose change.

PDM: I think that’s what makes a lot of your work have such a gravitational pull, they’re almost like an extended dialog about how stories arise out of conflict. Dialog as dialectics or something like that, but done with great flair and the highest attention paid to detail. Hey, even the word jazz comes to mind sometimes, and it’s derived from the French verb “jazzer” which means to “have a dialog.” Definitely a central motif in Distraction.

BS: Yeah. Well, it’s talkier than a lot of other books, because politicians talk a lot. They are always on tour and giving speeches, and there is always a message, and you’re on message for the day, right? I see this book as part of . . . it’s a linked series of books. It’s like Heavy Weather (Bantam, 1994), Holy Fire (Bantam, 1996), and Distraction are three books which are written with a very similar technique. They are very different from one another because they examine different aspects of human life. Like Heavy Weather is an ecodisaster novel in which everybody is dealing with the consequences of some terrible catastrophe, or expecting one, or, you know, trying to come to terms with it. And Holy Fire is about things like life-extension and cosmetics. And Distraction is about politics and science. But they each have starring characters who personify the problem at hand, and then sort of go on a tour of fields of data, where they are behaving as our binoculars to examine the problem. So they are very different books and have very different settings, and are not formally linked in any way; they’re certainly not a trilogy, or any of that nonsense. They are related works. I am using the same techniques in each one. So I haven’t done these three books in fairly short order, plus the short story collection. I wanted to get a lot done in the ’90s. I really felt that I had a pretty good hold of how I was working these things out. I was pretty well up on the mountainside there and I wanted to drive a big set of pitons in there. But, now I think I am going to write some nonfiction here.

PDM: You’ve also written nonfiction, again, with that hyper well-researched flair you always bring to bear on whatever topic you choose. Your new stuff is on historical computer stuff, eh?

BS: It’s been ten years since I had a nonfiction book out. So every once in a while I like to sort of take a breather, go back, refresh myself, brush up my chops, and then come back. Yes, that’s right. I’m trying to sell my Dead Media book now. I am doing a book on obsolescence in media. And I want to talk about media that are no longer used. You know, it’s a very hot thing in the DJ line of work. You see all these guys who are into analog synths, and there’s like this weird black market in like thermeotic valves and vacuum tubes, right? Because they are “spankier sounding.” They’re like “hard to get” now. There are these digital guys who have these names now like DJ Black Ninja Electron, you know, as if they’d come from the twenty-third century. And you actually look at the stuff they’re using, and it’s like this weird, flaking crap out of the mid-’70s that’s held together with duct tape.

PDM: It’s definitely a kind of “back to the future” type situation in the DJ scene. I can tell ya some stories sometime, but I gotta finish my own books before that happens. But the whole obsolete equipment issue is definitely going to be a bugged-out reflection of culture in the early twenty-first century, ’cause class, social hierarchy, and info access seem to move so quickly but are all mutually reflective. It’s a situation that the industry creates for its own built-in time frames, and it all just filters down into the other zones of contemporary culture.

BS: Well, I think these issues are going to come up pretty strong. I mean, there are a lot of guys like Bureau of Low Technology. I think the history of electronics, the fact that a lot of electronics is old, and kind of fallen off the edge of the table. Time is on my side when it comes to the dead-media thing. And by the time the book comes out, I would expect this to be becoming an issue. Dealing with the legacies of this sort of frenetic electronic explosion we’ve had.

PDM: Blank memory space filled with potential: think of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s “Difference Engine” and the whole steam-engine calculating scene. I think it’s great that you work with so many other writers and have created a forum that is pretty much a group of people who are all open to issues that a lot of other sci-fi writers can’t hold a candle to.

BS: I have written things with Gibson. The defining moment: What did Gibson, Sterling, and Neal Stephenson have in common? Okay, well, the thing that Gibson and Sterling have in common is that we are more or less, kinda the same age, and that we spend a lot of time sending faxes to each other. So, we share the same research material. Uh, Neal Stephenson, I don’t know, he read my stuff, he read Gibson’s stuff, but he’s seven years younger than I am, and I’m seven years younger than Gibson. We certainly didn’t have to bring this guy up by the seat of his pants; he just burst on the scene all by himself. I’m on good terms with Neal. I was over at Neal’s house during my most recent signing tour, and I respect him very much, but there really isn’t like a mafia linkage between us. The thing is, he is just looking at the same things we are, and drawing the same conclusions. Cause if you look hard, it’s hard to miss. I would have to say that the world, and especially the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union, Russia, looks incredibly like the world William Gibson was describing in 1984, in Neuromancer. I mean, I remember when Neuromancer came out, people were saying, “You know, how could this society possibly survive? There aren’t any honest people in this book. Nobody ever goes out in daylight! There’s no working stiffs!” It just seemed improbable and cartoon-like because every single person in Neuromancer is some kind of criminal. You know, they’ve all got some agenda and some hustle, and they just despise the government and the law enforcement agencies, utterly and totally. These sort of formal public entities just have received absolutely no respect whatsoever from the population. Right?

Well, that’s what Russia is right now, right? Everybody is a criminal and all the real activity is going on in these sort of large, spooky, mafia-style organizations, which aren’t corporations exactly, but they’re clearly behind the scenes pulling the strings. And the ability of the common Joe in Russia to get a handle on, let’s say, Boris Berezovsky’s media empire, is just as distant as, let’s say, Automatic Jack in a Gibson story trying to raid Mitsubishi Genetech, right? I mean, it’s really a very, very, very Gibsonian milieu. And it’s not the United States. But, hey, it is a former super-power. So, if you look at other science fiction that was being written at the time, and you try and compare Neuromancer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a great science-fiction movie and everything, but, hey, it’s almost 2001, right? We ought to be on a Pan Am clipper to the moon by now. We should be wearing Velcro shoes and contacting aliens and monoliths. You seen any monoliths around lately? You seen any zero-gravity stewardesses with Velcro moon boots? No, you haven’t seen any of those. Have you seen, like, down-and-dirty guys in lofts who are making their living by like assembling big pieces of semi-legal electronic equipment? Yeah, you’ve seen plenty of those guys! Haven’t you? They’re kind of like pirates and, you know, they’ve got MP3 websites where you don’t have to, like, pay for other people’s music and shit. How many of those guys do you know?

PDM: I know a lot of those types, but like you say, a lot of people don’t . . .

BS: Can you even count the number of guys like that that you know? You know, probably not. And every one of them looks like a character out of a Gibson novel. They’re hanging around in their shirtsleeves; they’re buying used equipment down at the junk store. There’s a whole class of these characters! They don’t necessarily break into banks, or steal data by penetrating the black ice or any of that kind of shit, but they certainly look a lot more . . . I mean the world of 1999 looks a hell of a lot more like a William Gibson novel than it does like an Arthur Clarke novel. It’s that simple. And why? Because he was looking at things that Clarke wasn’t looking at. Clarke was spending all his time with Wernher von Braun, and Gibson was spending all his time listening to Velvet Underground albums and haunting junk stores in Vancouver. And, you know, it’s just a question of you are what you eat. And the guy had a different diet than science-fiction writers that preceded him.

PDM: Like I’ve said earlier, the whole thing reminds me a little of how different themes pass from author to author, and then on through to the audience. Have you checked out Jack Womack’s Let’s Put the Future Behind Us (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996)? Like you were saying, Distraction is about a fallen U.S., Let’s Put the Future Behind Us is kind of a fallen Russia story. Great piece of fiction, by the way.

BS: Yeah, I know him. He’s a good friend of Gibson’s. They spend a lot of time together. He lives up in New York, a Kentucky guy. Wrote a pretty good Russian novel. Spent some time in Russia. That’s a very good book. It’s really like a Bulgakov novel. It’s one of the best Russian novels a Russian never wrote.

PDM: I’m really into the way you use art to highlight technology. Very few sci-fi writers do that. What makes a lot of your work a powerful description of tools we use to create imaginary objects that don’t even exist yet is that I think you explore the psychology behind tool use. And that’s what made cyberpunk so interesting when it first hit the scene. I think that Holy Fire‘s characters’ interaction with art is some of the best stuff I’ve seen outside of Samuel Delaney. And I’m a huge Delaney fan.BS: Holy Fire is my art novel. It is kinda my valentine to the electronic arts crowd. Engineers have no taste, right? And science fiction is mostly written by and for engineers. That’s really about gizmos and, like, “how do I get my hand on this gizmo?” But there are many things that are intriguing about art, and I take art very seriously, but the forms of art that I myself find most exciting are machine-mediated forms of art, like photography, which is an art form you can’t do without a gizmo. And now there’s all types of computer art, web art,, which are all gizmo-oriented. So, in a way, art is very technosized now. It’s all about the equipment, right? It’s all about the return key and so forth. So this makes it possible to technically speculate about art. You can think about art the way an engineer would think now. And that’s an exciting thing for me. I am interested in design, and I’m interested in areas in the crevasse between the arts and sciences, or between art and engineering. And I think that’s where our society has kind of hidden all the oxygen. Now it’s in that paradox, that paradoxical area between C.P. Snow’s two cultures. There’s a kind of ontological outlawry there. It interests me to see what artists choose to put their mitts on. So my experience there is that whenever a device falls off the back of a truck and kind of falls out of engineers’ hands, that’s when artists appropriate it. It’s like guys who collect old medical instruments. You wouldn’t want to go and collect modern medical instruments because, hey, they’re for a doctor. But Victorian medical instruments, which are now kind of obsolete and mysterious, suddenly become very aestheticized. Their beauty becomes apparent because they no longer have any use. It’s like a dental instrument hasn’t actually wrenched a bloody molar out of a guy’s head in about a hundred years, so now the leather case is pretty, and the fact that you no longer know what certain devices are for, lends them a kind of mystery now, and they become kind of romanticized. I think that is an important phenomenon: things moving from the realm of the medical or the industrial or the engineering realm into the realm of the poetic, the abstract, and the arty. In a way it shows that the arty is carnivorous. In a weird kind of way it is stronger than the engineering because it gets to feed on the leavings of the other one. I mean, engineering doesn’t feed on dead art, but art can feed on dead engineering. So there’s something very provocative going on there. I mean, the strength of art is underestimated. So I think about art seriously, and I like to think about the future of art — the long-term future of art — like what might art be like 200 years from now. There’s never been a time when we were without it. There are tremendous cave paintings from 20,000 years ago.

PDM: Art is just another code, and those paintings were all ritual based, just like contemporary culture: different time, different tools. But they are amazing works.

BS: Yeah, you know, fuckin’-A! They’re good. So, I think that although the rhetoric of art changes over the years, the urge to do something arty is an enormously powerful, almost sexual urge, and that’s something I take very seriously. My question is why do I write novels instead of just going out and getting a job at Dell? I mean, I could do that. Dell’s the guy. Bill Gates is almost exactly my age. We’re a few months apart. I’m of Gates’s generation. Why didn’t I go and join a tech startup and have an initial public offering and try and become a computer guy? The whole reason is because I am a fucking artist, okay? You know, that’s what I want to do. That’s what gratifies me.

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