Friday, November 28, 2003

Bruce Sterling's good stuff

Bruce Sterling is often referred to as the other father of cyberpunk besides William Gibson. I don't think that this is in some ways really really accurate, as his work often has strayed far from what is usually described by that word, but maybe it once was. (That said, it is relatively easy to forget that he was perhaps more important as an editor than a writer at the time, particularly if you came in to cyberpunk late). Cyberpunk caught a brief glimpse in the early 1980s as to just how strange the future would be, and while the other cyberpunk writers mostly seemed to keep in touch with that future as it grew less strange, Sterling seems to have let go of that future and instead kept in touch with that sense of strangeness. Although his cyberpunk contemporaries are still in several cases writing good stuff, it feels conventional, as the world has come to resemble the cyberpunk vision of 1982, while Sterling's stuff does not. Sterling seems to have an unending desire to travel the world chasing things that are technology based as well as trendy and hip in a certain way, which is perhaps what keeps his work fresh. In any event, he is one of those writers who I find enormously refreshing to read, simply due to being so smart that I know whatever he has to say on anything is going to be mentally stimulating. (Virginia Postrel is someone else evokes the same reaction in me). Even though there are some things that he writes about with which I substantially disagree (most notably he is far more pessimistic about the consequences of global warming than I am) he always has interesting things to say. And in a world containing so much bullshit, that is a great relief.

Sterling has been writing features for Wired Magazine since it began (and he has always been on the masthead, so maybe they have been paying him a salary all along), but the current editorial regime seems to have rather sensibly ramped up his involvement. He is now writing a monthly column for the magazine, and they are also paying him to blog. He already had a blog somewhere else, but it seems to have moved for financial reasons and hopefully the volume will now increase. This is not to say that Sterling's volume has ever been low, precisely. As well as columns, non-fiction features, short stories, and about a book a year, he also is self-appointed "Pope-Emperor" of the Viridian design movement, which is nominally a movement to solve the world's environmental problems based on the belief that people will solve the world's environmental problems if you provide technological solutions that are really neat and have great design and fashion sense. (The name comes from the fact that "viridian" is a shade of green that is not found in nature, the point being that the viridian movement consists of pro-technology greens). Sterling operates a mailing list of "Viridian notes", which are sent out every now and then (perhaps once a week or two on average). These manage to stay on topic about half the time. the rest of the time, they are simply about whatever is on Sterling's mind. If you go back to what I said about finding just about anything Sterling writes to be interesting and refreshing because he is so smart, you will realise that I find this fine, or indeed actually good. (Sterling also has a tendency to invite readers of the Viridian notes to parties in his home in Austin, Texas from time to time. I really must contive to be in Texas at the right time one of these days).

In any event, I tend to think that if I ever become famous, this blog is going to look something like Sterling's, which is full of thoughts as to what is on his mind, links to things that he has written and that have been published, tantalising references to things that have not yet been published (His new book The Zenith Angle is out in April (although I don't yet know what it is about, other than that someone myseteriously invents a super weapon that attacks US spy satellites, although that sounds like something out of 1950s sf, apart from the satellites), links to interviews he has given, and more. (When I am famous, my blog might have an FAQ list like this, too. (Scroll down a bit) He even addresses the great religious issue as to whether you should use "target=new" to make your links open a new window, a point on which I disagree with the mighty Samizdata editors, but I digress). Like this interview for instance.

At one point Sterling is asked his favourite of his own novels, and his answers are that his readers seem to most likeSchismatrix and Holy Fire, but that he likes a lot of his short fiction. I will agree with him. I love his short fiction. And unlike many science fiction writers who for financial reasons stop publishing short fiction after getting novels published, he continues to write it.

The two novels listed are both good novels - Schismatrix is sort of (in both plot and mood) Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination retold in the computer age, and Holy Fire is set in a world in which demographic trends, medical tehnology, and a certain type of puritanism have been taken to logical extremes - but they are not actually my favourites of Sterling's work. These would be Islands in the Net and Zeitgeist. You could call both of these post September 11 novels in a way. Islands in the Net was published in 1988, but is set in a future world of failed states, multinational corporations, NGOs, organisations that are sort of blurred as to where they are on the continuum between corporations and NGOs, missing nuclear weapons, multinational police/spy organisations with arbitrary powers, and organisations preaching weird mixtures of idealism and terrorism. But despite all that, it's an optimistic future. Sounds weirdly familiar, although I am not always optimistic about the one we are living in.

Zeitgeist, on the other hand, is a (present day) roam around the marginal and somewhat decaying states of South Eastern Europe mixed in with a lot of shady Russian and Turkish crime figures, omniscient (and not) security organisations and a lot of girl band pop music. (Sterling has noticed that in real life, dubious military warlords and manafactured girl band pop singers who belong to some Turko-pop or Serbo-pop movement that would seem very tired in London but is somehow very exciting still in Belgrade or Nicosia seem to go go together somehow). And this is all mixed in with a lot of French deconstructionism. Sterlings readers were divided between those who found the book puzzling and those who found it hysterically funny. The book was written pre-September 11, but there is somehow something very post September 11 about it. (Think of the photos a week or two back of Jessica Lynch and Britney Spears together). Whereas William Gibson wrote a (excellent) post September 11 book post September 11, and Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon wrote what was perhaps the quintessential novel about the tech boom of the late 1990s, Sterling wrote his post September 11 novel pre- September 11, and maybe pre 1990.

Which makes me wonder what he will write next.

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