Big Echo

Critical SF

The Future is Where You Go To Die

An interview with Bruce Sterling

Pablo Balbontin Arenas - Photo by Pablo Balbontin Arenas, published under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Pablo Balbontin Arenas - Photo by Pablo Balbontin Arenas, published under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Bruce Sterling is a deterritorialized public intellectual, a founding participant of the cyberpunk scene and a science fiction writer. Big Echo had an e-mail conversation with him in late August, 2017.

Is it possible to write about the future without fetishizing technology?

*If you don’t put a capital “F” on it, yeah, it’s possible to write about the future without trucking in the gizmos and hardware idols. Futurism is a big conceptual problem. It took until the 1600s for anybody to write any fictional narrative set “in the future.” Before that, writings concerning the future were religious and prophetic.  In the 1700s and 1800s they were commonly political stories of military invasion or utopian revolution. The hardware hangup didn’t show up until the American SF of the 1920s.

*If you look at what people choose to write on their tombstones, texts meant to be read by future generations, they’re very fetishistic statements. Sepulchral, stern and solemn. Every once in a while you hear of a tombstone that’s lighthearted, commonsensical, unpretentious and humane, but they’re always outliers.

*“The future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet.” Knowing that will help, but the writing of history is also quite “fetishistic.” Our history fetishizes technology quite a lot nowadays. Weʼll talk about the “infrastructure” of the Roman Empire when the Romans never had such a term.

What would you describe as the ideological content of the future as an idea? Who owns it? Who controls it?

*It’s a cliche to claim that the people who control the past control the future, but to the extent that it’s controlled at all, that’s pretty much the story-line. Confederate statuary is where it’s at in “past-control” in the USA during 2017. If you study what’s going on there now, it’s a kissing-cousin to what most other troubled societies do with their statuary. Renaming streets, renaming towns, re-designing the currency, redesigning flags; I’ve spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, so I’ve seen just a ton of this.

*People may imagine that they own and control the future, but they get old. The future’s where we go to die. We don’t control that process.

You invite a comparison between the US and Eastern Europe; I was hoping you might develop this comparison a little more. How do you see the differences in attitude to futurity or history in these two places?

*One might wonder what’s the big difference between futurity in the Balkans and futurity elsewhere. The distinction is that “the Balkans” isn’t just one place, the Balkans is a “shatter belt.”  You can go ten kilometers in the Balkans and find a violently different historical narrative. In fact, you don’t even have to move at all, because the secret of the Balkans is that people there are internally Balkanized. “Man, I really resent (ethnic group/religion/ideology), except for you, Mom.” That’s who they are.

Is it my imagination or are you preoccupied with the failure of language?

*Well, I do like neologisms and archaeologisms. You might say it’s a “failure of language” when some forms of language vanish or lose semantic meaning, but I wouldn’t say that I obsess about those “failures”. I’ve got creative issues with language that are metaphysical. They’re about the long-term relationships of language and time.

*For instance: suppose it’s 1947, and you tell your girlfriend, “I swear that I’ll love you forever!  So will you marry me?” And she replies, “That would be jake!” Then you get happily married and of course there’s no “forever,” because you both die 60 years later in 2007.

*Okay, she gave you a reply with that slang word “jake,” which sounded goofy and dated fast. But that wasn’t any “failure” to fret about, that was a big success in human language use, because you were a cool young guy in 1947 who needed a jazzy hep-kitten who knew what was happening.

I’m curious about your metaphysical issues with language and time. You provide a very clear, and I would say technical, example of how language changes over time, but I was wondering how you might characterize the theory or philosophy of time that underwrites so much of your work?

*Metaphysically, it’s the old question of how language maps reality.  In my special case it’s about “atemporality,” or how languages maps the changes in reality. What does language (or “media”) have to do with what is truly new and what is truly old, or what is apparently futuristic and what is considered old-fashioned?

*If your boyfriend asks you to marry him and share his future life, you might darkly reply with a “timeless” proverb from the Ancient Greek, such as “Call no man happy until he is dead.” But “That would be jake!” is a better human response. It’s more romantic, more enthusiastic, and also, it’s a lot more forward-looking.

Is SF dead? Is all literature science fiction now?

*People in American science fiction always worry about that. Personally, I’ve seen the behavior of small, vulnerable literatures in minor languages other than English. You see SF appear and die off quite a lot within those minor-language situations. Literature is always imperiled there.

*SF tends to come back, though, whenever a workable niche appears. Something large and terrible happened to American SF when the pulp magazines disappeared during the paper rationing of the second world war. The pre-war fan culture was almost obliterated. The successor SF thing that revived post-war with cheap paperback novels, that wasn’t the same as pulp SF.

*We have a similar death-of-print cultural issue in the USA now. “Game of Thrones” as globalized digital video is a very different thing than the Ace doubles that George RR Martin used to praise in the 1970s.

I was struck by the phrase “minor language” and it raised a whole host of questions for me, most having to do with colonial and postcolonial situations and I was hoping you might say a few words about science fiction, or more precisely small science fictions, subgenres, or “minor language” science fictions, and their relation to the dominant institutions and traditions against which they are defined. 

*Of course no writer is keen to have their own language called “minor,” but in the long run we’re all “minor.”  Chaucer wrote in English and his Middle English is extinct. Also, science fiction isn’t a “literature,” it’s a genre. At the moment, SF a much bigger form of expression than Chaucer’s long-form epic poetry. It’s pretty hard to become a major poet in English nowadays, but if you’re a contemporary poet in a “minor language,” you can get a lot done that way.

*You need a strategy to write work that matters to people.  You can’t just pity your own oppressed situation and think, “Oh well, I’m HG Wells, a weird, poor kid from a shabby background, so until universal justice arrives, I must be silent.” Give your readers a break, they’ve got problems, too.

What has happened to the local? Is it still there? What does it mean? How should we be thinking about it?

*That’s a good, healthy, contemporary question for literature. People in all societies and languages have deep issues with the local and the global nowadays. Literature can be of profound use in grappling with that.

*I’ve said for years that I wanted to write a “regional novel about the Planet Earth,” but I don’t think I’ll ever do it. It’s more of an aspiration that puts some calipers on the scale of the problem. The late Brian Aldiss once wrote a book of essays called “An Exile on Planet Earth.”  That’s a good SF approach to the peculiar nature of local and global. He was “Britain’s Oldest Young Turk,” Brian Aldiss, a smart, well-travelled guy with useful skills at paradox and oxymoron.

How would you characterize your political or ideological origins? How has your political trajectory changed over time? Would you characterize your project as revolutionary?

*I’ve hung out with people who were revolutionaries. I can write pastiches of their rhetoric and I can even think politically, but in politics, I’m best “characterized” as a “fantasist.”

*I fantasize. I have no burning need for justice or high office. I don’t want to govern the state. If I saw myself running for office, I would never vote for myself. I’d have a look at the curriculum vitae, and I’d say, “This guy’s a fantasy writer. He’s got no power coalition, no particular agenda, and no administrative skills.”

*If there’s a “trajectory” there, it’s that I’ve learned to think about people in politics with some empathy. Most politicians direly hunger for a slice of the public pie. They’ll kill for power, they get killed for it. That’s their duty maybe, it’s their reason-of-state. I don’t cruelly scold politicians all the time, because I pity them, or, to frame it in a way they would like much better, I have some solidarity with them. Their condition is tragic.

There is a religious tenor to a lot of your work, a hint of the medieval or apocalyptic, and youʼve used the phrase never make a decision out of fear.” Are you scared? If so, what of?

*I can promise you I’m not scared of a medieval apocalypse.

*People are mortal. I’m a guy from deep in the previous century.  I’ve seen a lot of death among my intimates. I lost family when I was young. So I wouldn’t state that I’m exactly “scared” about burying people who are dear to me, but grief is a fearsome matter.  Every day is a gift.  Life is frail and contingent.  As a writer, that morbid awareness is a kind of blackwash on my stretched canvas.  I wouldn’t sketch out a Dance of Death every time I sit down to type, on the contrary I tend to be quite comic or even whimsical, but when you sense the “religious tenor” in my writing, that’s probably what you see.


Beyond the Beyond – Bruce Sterling's blog at Wired