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Genre Greats:
Up Against The Wall, Heinlein!
Bruce Sterling
profile by Patrick Hudson

Bruce Sterling is one of the most important figures in science fiction of the last quarter of a century. More than just a creator of superb science fiction stories and novels, he was a lightning rod for a millennial shift in the nature of serious SF that still resonates today. As the New Wave had taken inspiration from the counter-culture rock 'n' roll style of the 1960s and 1970s, Sterling's new group - called variously the Movement, the Nueromantics and the New Humanists before settling on the cyberpunks - looked to their musical counterparts in the punk and new wave musical revolutions. Like punk music - and punk culture - the cyberpunks were deliberately abrasive and lowbrow, celebrating nihilistic self-absorption over the worthy-but-dull good intentions of the genre. Sterling and his cohorts wanted to kick over the genre's idols, the lazy old men at the top end of the genre, plundering their back catalogues for inspiration.
Bruce Sterling

Before all this, however, Sterling produced an old-fashioned prog-rock-album novel of his own. Involution Ocean is a planetary romance published as part of Harlan Ellison's Discovery series in 1977, when Sterling was in his early twenties. It set on the world of Nullaqua, a desolate planet so inhospitable that humanity is restricted to scattered settlements in the dusty pan of a single crater just a few hundred miles in diameter.

John Newhouse is addicted to an exotic future drug called Flare, and lives in a household of similarly wretched addicts on a dingy street in one of the drab island-cities that are dotted around the dust oceans of the crater. Flare, or snycophine to give its more formal made up name, is distilled from the gut oil of the whale native to Nullaqua's dust oceans and, when the supply runs out, Newhouse is nominated by his housemates to sign on to a whaling ship and acquire a supply straight from the source.

What follows is a brutal, surreal whale hunt that takes in love, danger and obsession, part Dune, part Clark Ashton Smith, part M. John Harrison and part Moby Dick. Sterling demonstrates a keen eye for exoticism, and a heavy romantic streak, of the defeated, decadent, nihilistic sort like David Bowie or King Crimson.

Involution Ocean is vivid and convincing, but is an example of the sort of book he would very soon repudiate. It even had a map in the front, for heavens sake! It's a little like catching a glimpse of John Lydon in a feather cut and flared dungarees in his pre-Pistols days. Sterling said of the novel in an interview on Infinity Plus, "I wasn't skilled enough at that time to write a good typical pastiche. I was trying to pass for a hard-bitten, drug-soaked, New Worlds British New Wave guy, but I was a college student. College students really like that book. That's the book of mine you should read if you're nineteen. It has oodles of the cool, out-there stuff that interests nineteen-year-olds. Although I'm far more skilled now and have a vastly better idea of what I'm doing, I don't dismiss that first novel. Being a college student is an absolutely valid existential condition."

Sterling's second novel, The Artificial Kid was published in 1980, and while it also hews close the New Wave course, it shows the evolution of some of Sterling's distinctive traits. It follows the adventures of the Kid, a celebrity combat artist who broadcasts his exploits from the planet Reverie's Decriminalised Zone, established as an area where socially reprehensible acts can be broadcast to titillate the jaded appetites of the near immortal humans living in orbital habitats around the planet.

This far-future adventure novel has a torturous film noir-ish plot and displays the media, pop-culture savvy that has become central to Sterling's work. The Kid himself is like the hero of a manga comic - sexlessly pre-pubescent and hyper-violent, and his role as full-time performer, part professional wrestler part private-eye, part rock star that acts as a link between Moorcock's Jherek Carnelian from The Dancers At The End Of Time and the rocker heroes of cyberpunk stalwarts Pat Cadigan and John Shirley. Another key aspect of the novel, and one that is repeated again and again in Sterling's later works, is the generational conflict between the immortals and the upcoming new generation - as the Kid says "It's hard for someone two hundred years old to acknowledge the adulthood of someone eighteen." In this novel, perhaps it also expresses the frustration that young writers at the time felt in the shadow of the apparently undying Asimovs, Heinleins, Clarkes, Pournelles and Nivens.

These novels were Sterling's apprenticeship, well-received but generally lost in the flood of post-Star Wars SF revival that saw the old masters and their protégés once more dominate the market. Sterling was sickened by the sorry state of the stagnant genre and in true punk fashion there was only one answer: start a fanzine.

Sterling was the mastermind behind the polemical Cheap Truth, a free micro-press rant Xeroxed and distributed without copyright between 1983 an 1986, that attempted to bully and defame the genre into higher expectations. Cheap Truth took pot shots at the SF establishment, sneering at late additions to earlier work like 2010 and Foundation's Edge and their many sequels - "How many mediocre, unoriginal, boring books will a reader tolerate, and still keep buying, in hope of finding one to stimulate his imagination?"

He was particularly scathing about the supposed radicals of the golden age generation, the right wing libertarians like Pournelle, Niven and Heinlein and their mean-spirited utopias. Reviewing Job by Robert Heinlein, he wrote, "Every year Heinlein cranks out another volume of brain-dead maunderings; every year the sycophants cry 'Heinlein is back!'; every year they lie. Even if Job were a good book, or even a readable book, which I assure you it is not, why would anyone want to give this man a Nebula award? ... Political oppression breeds revolution. For every Heinlein that smites a Gibson, thousands more will rise in his place. The SF revolution is crying out for literacy, imagination, and humanity; it needs only a victory in the Nebulas to shatter the giant's terracotta feet. Up against the wall, Heinlein!"

There were familiar tirades against bookshops and the publishing industry, complaints about Stephen King's need of an editor, and lashings of the phobic attitude to stagnation that is a symptom of youth. It reviewed science and social science periodicals with the same keen eye for cultural influence, as when it covered SF and drew inspiration from rock culture and music videos - "Consider a work like Culture Club's Karma Chameleon, an irresistible alternate history where 19th century blacks and whites frolic together under the benevolent aegis of transvestite Rastafarianism. As social statement, this blows away the pallid efforts of modern SF's white-bread legions of feminists and libertarians."

Cheap Truth was equally strident in its advocacy of a new generation of writers who would revitalise the genre. It lauded the literary approach of The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Interzone over the moribund establishment of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and Analog. It favourably reviewed the first Gardner Dozois-edited Best Of The Year volume ("the book is remarkable for its lack of clunkers") and was equally excited when he took over Asimov's. It was enthusiastic about European and particularly Soviet SF, and championed Rudy Rucker, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Sterling himself, as well as New Wave authors such as Michael Moorcock, Thomas Disch, and Barrington J. Bayley, and over-looked classics from Robert W. Chambers and Clark Ashton Smith. Summing up the punk ethic of Cheap Truth, Sterling's mouthpiece Omnia Veritas states in the final issue; "The whole point of Cheap Truth was that anyone can do it. All you need is something to say, and a Xerox. You don't need a clique or a bankroll or PR flacks."

In 1986, Sterling edited Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, which crystallised the new movement in the popular imagination. It featured stories from many of the new generation of writers that he had been lauding in Cheap Truth: William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, John Shirley, Greg Bear and Lewis Shiner. These are stories of wilful decadence and dissolution, of the broken promises of technology and the style tribes and subcultures of pop culture. In the cyberpunk future, spaceships are cramped and smelly, and the people that live in them are weird and cranky. Humanity lives in the ruins of disaster, where technological accidents, economic meltdown or spiritual malaise has loosened the bonds of peaceful society.

Sterling's own contribution is two collaborations. Mozart In Mirrorshades and Red Star, Winter Orbit. The first story, written with Lewis Shiner is a pungent satire of corporate exploitation of the third world, as time travel enables Americans to steal resources and art works from the past. The figure of Mozart is central to the story, and in his introduction Sterling notes that he was somehow a resonant figure in the 1980s. For the cyberpunks, perhaps he is a proto-hacker, messing with the code of music on hi-tech musical gadgets like pianos and Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica, annoying the older generation like a petulant rock star. Red Star, Winter Orbit, written with William Gibson, portrays a Soviet space station on its last legs and its last inhabitant. Thematically it's not hard to see J.G. Ballard's derelict launch sites and stricken astronauts in this story, but rather than fracturing into madness, it ends on a much more positive note as a new generation of independent space colonists takes control of the dilapidated state-sponsored satellite. It's hard to imagine a more explicit exposition of the cyberpunk ideal.

At the same time as he was writing his polemics and acting as the lodestone for the cyberpunk compass, he was writing a series of stories that put his own version of the movement's philosophy into practice, and which formed the background for Sterling's third novel Schismatrix. The Shaper/ Mechanist stories revolve around the 'Cold War' between the Shapers (who believe that the future of humanity lies in genetic and biological enhancement) and the Mechanists (who see human progress coming through cybernetic enhancements), coinciding with the colonisation of near space, and early contact with interstellar races in the form of the inscrutable, reptilian Investors. At the heart of the Cold War is a generational conflict, with the increasingly dehumanised but long-lived Mechanists reacting against the youthful new Shaper technology.

The stories (collected in Crystal Express in 1989 and Schismatrix Plus in 1996) paint the picture in broad strokes, introducing us to a world and people shaped by the conflict. Sterling is reasonably even-handed, portraying the Shapers as diffident and unstable, against the gradually dehumanised Mechanists, haunted by several lifetimes worth of bad memories and less and less human contact. The Cold War elements are, of course, by no means coincidental and it's hard not to see the rise of the Japanese economic powerhouse reflected in the destabilising effect of the Investors on the steady state of the Shaper/ Mechanist rivalry.

The novel Schismatrix, published in 1985, follows the life of Abelard Lindsey, social chameleon and conman extraordinaire, born on the moon and given shaper diplomatic trading. The novel follows him over nearly a century and half - from the early 23rd century to the middle of the 24th - as he tries to stay one step ahead of his former best friend and now rival Constantine, who becomes a devout Mechanist. Lindsey represents the quintessential Sterling protagonist: an entrepreneur and well-meaning conman with an anti-authoritarian streak and a heart of gold. Lindsey starts the novel as a bit of a punk, not that far from the Kid or John Newhouse, but develops into the sophisticated diplomat of later novels, notably Leggy Starlitz in Zeitgeist and Oscar Valaparaiso in Distraction.

Neither the Shapers nor the Mechanists are right, and neither side (and Lindsey swaps allegiances frequently) has a moral high ground. Unlike the Cold Wars in space of the 'old guard' - the USA/USSR apparently going on forever - Sterling is telling us that clinging to any outmoded belief, no matter how deeply felt is, is pointless. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is survival and the relationships we carry through life: ultimately Lindsey's story is driven not by the Solar system's conflicting ideologies but by the unhappy love affair that formed the origin of his animosity with Constantine.

The Shaper/ Mechanist stories are a huge influence on the current hard SF space opera and singularity-based work of writes like Charlie Stross, Cory Doctorow and Alistair Reynolds, and there's a direct line from Sterling, and Vernor Vinge, passing through Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod and Iain M. Banks to the newest generation.

On re-reading the Shaper/ Mechanist stories they actually appear far more prescient as regards the shape of the genre than the more standard cyberpunk near-future dystopian fare, but Sterling was also turning his attention to the nearer future. One early story, Green Days In Brunei, published in 1985 and collected in Crystal Express, is set in Brunei in the late 20th century, years after the oil has dried up plunging the once-rich nation into poverty, and leaving a Ballardian post-capitalist apocalypse landscape of defunct industry, post-technological peasantry and cities being re-colonised by the rural landscape they previously displaced.

The main character is Turner Choi, a Canadian Chinese computer engineer employed by the government of Brunei (the Sultan and his cabinet) to re-commission a robotic factory built in more prosperous times. After falling for the sultan's daughter, Turner gets wound up in local politics while having to deal with death of his corrupt Hong Kong policeman grandfather via telephone in Vancouver.

This story is an early glimpse of Sterling's remarkable talent for spotting technological trends. When this story was first published the Internet was in its infancy, the web did not exist and computer bulletin boards were like writing in clay tablets compared to the slick, web-based discussion forums that exist today, but the love affair conducted by Choi and Princess Seria via the medium could easily come from a chick-lit novel today. But the exoticism and gadgetry never overwhelm the intense personal drama at the heart of the story. One of Sterling's greatest strengths is his ability to see how new technologies will interact with the eternal realities of human existence - love, desire and the will to find a place where we belong.

This humanistic approach was even more in evidence in his next novel, Islands In The Net published in 1988. The main character Laura Weber is not a superhero of any sort, and is in fact something of a naïve when thrust into the underworld of the world she knows of 2020s' beneficent corporations that provide all the services of a State in return for employment. As the corporate motto of the 'economic democracy' Rizome states, "We don't have jobs here, just things to do and people to do them."

Of course, he's too much of a pragmatist to believe that it's possible to dispense entirely with humanity's ideological hang-ups. Instead, Sterling sees the world as a self-correcting system, given to wobbles now and again, but seeking moral and social stability by instinct. Essentially, it's a libertarian ideal that the world would be a better place if we just kept our noses out of each others' business but in Sterling, and as a cyberpunk trait generally, it is disconnected from the make-do, self-made-men of Vance or Heinlein. In the cyberpunk utopia, you're free to sit around listening to pop music and watching trashy virtual reality dramas, if you like, and the connection between achievement and reward has moved beyond old-fashioned concerns of cash and into issues of reputation and respect. His main characters, after all, typically have a wheeler-dealer lifestyle that's light on material goods and heavy on networks of friendship that spread across the world through technological alternatives to real-world space and communications.

As the digital world of the cyberpunks began to intrude on the real world, cyberpunk hit the mainstream. In the early 1990s, the Internet was beginning to make the news, the web was just around the corner, computers were slowly infiltrating all corners of business and government, the state was shrinking, corporate power growing and all things Japanese were considered the sin qua non of futuristic chic. In comics, movies and pop music videos the cyberpunk future was everywhere when in 1990 Sterling and William Gibson co-wrote The Difference Engine set in 1855.

However, the 19th century of The Difference Engine is very different from the one we know. In this alternate world, Charles Babbage perfected his calculating engine (for which he produced complete designs and theories, but never constructed a working version) and kicked-started the information age a century and a half early. It tells the story of the Modus, a mysterious set of Babbage engine punch cards created by Ada Byron (daughter of Lord Byron, and in reality a gifted mathematician and associate of Babbage) that passes through various hands before falling into the possession of Edward Mallory, a scholar who has gained notoriety after discovering the fossilised bones of a brontosaurus in America who is then pursued by revolutionary elements who want the Modus for their own dark ends.

The novel is far more than a collection of anachronistic gags (although it is that, too), but a commentary on the social phenomenon of cyberpunk that Sterling and Gibson had helped create. The old political order has been replaced by a technocratic political faction called the Rad Lords whose manifesto mirrors the ascendant technocratic class of the late 1980s, the bohemian clackers mock the Mondo 2000-style hacker counter-culture, and Captain Swing explains the eventual collapse of authority in London in terms of catastrophe theory. It picks out similarities between our times and the 19th century, when heavy engineering promised to produce utopia in the same way computers did in the 1980s, and still do today. In fact, its sideways-in-time setting makes it fresher than much of the cutting-edge cyberpunk published around it.

In 1992 Sterling published The Hacker Crackdown, a non-fiction book examining the rise of the culture of computer hackers and phone phreakers, which became a key work for real-world cyberpunks. His central theme, among the straight reportage of an entirely new class of crime and law, is that the uses to which the Establishment put technology are much less interesting than the way that it is used on the frontiers. The Hacker Crackdown, and Sterling's second non-fiction work Tomorrow Now: Envisioning The Next Fifty Years (2003) demonstrate some of the thinking behind his exquisitely imagined futures. Since the mid-1980s, he seems to have been occupying a time several decades ahead of his own, preternaturally aware of the threads in the modern day that lead to the futures of his fiction. In recent years, it is almost as if the world has caught up with Sterling and his fiction has increasingly been set in contemporary times - the Starlitz sequence, his most recent novel, the post-9/11 thriller The Zenith Angle and the story Code in his most recent short-fiction collection, Visionary In Residence, all drop the metaphor and stare at the future of today full in the face.

Losing this metaphorical detachment gives some of these non-SF (strictly speaking) works a didactic feeling missing from his more playful fantastical work. The Zenith Angle, in particular, seems to occasionally lose its focus as a thriller and slip into straight editorialising on the nature of the Internet and society's apparently inevitable inability to control it. However, Sterling's firm grasp of the uses and potential of technology have opened more than literary doors. He is a frequent speaker on technological issues, and in 2006 was appointed to the staff of the Art Centre College Of Design in California to deliver lectures on technology and design.

In the same year as The Hacker Crackdown, his second short-story collection Globalhead, demonstrated that Sterling's stories are at least as important as his novels, and perhaps he is one of the last generation of writers for whom the short form is not just an apprenticeship, but also a parallel career to his novel writing. Globalhead features extraordinary work - the equal of any of his novels - in stories such as Jim & Irene, We See Things Differently, The Moral Bullet (with John Kessel) and the magisterial, show-stopping Dori Bangs. A Good Old Fashioned Future (1999) includes gems such as Bicycle Repairman, Maneki Neko and the Hugo award-winning Taklamakan.

It is also important to understanding some Sterling's longer work, as several novels have used existing characters and settings from his stories. The Shaper/ Mechanist stories of the early 1980s eventually led to Schismatrix, and Globalhead sees the beginning of the adventures of Leggy Starlitz, that lead to the novel Zeitgiest in 2000. The Starlitz stories explore the cyberpunk fringe of our own times, how the world of gadgets, global communications and all pervasive media manipulation has changed the pace of life. Sterling casts his searching gaze over crumbling fringes of the nation state, especially as it wears thin around the falling Soviet empire and in the supra-national causes of radical religion and politics.

Zeitgeist begins similarly as a broad parody of pop and geo-politics: Starlitz has assembled G7, an international girl band modelled on the Spice Girls and their many imitators, and is marketing across the third world to young women desperate to buy into the glamorous lifestyle of the wealthiest nations. The idea isn't to sell music, of course, but accessories - bags, bangles, clothes, perfumes and mementoes. The book has a strong millennial flavour - Starlitz states that the gig has to be over by 2000 - but it's a personal apocalypse that Starlitz experiences when his runaway world of deals and wheels is crashed by the arrival of his daughter Zeta. This is the child hinted at in the story Are You 486? - but Zeta's radical lesbian separatist mother Judy is now on the run from an unhappy marriage and a drugs bust, forcing Starlitz to face up to his parental responsibilities.

Starlitz is perhaps the purest expression so far of Sterling's wide-boy lovable rogue protagonist. Sterling has said that he is "a non-linear descendant of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius" - he occupies a similar place at the tail end of an old world and the beginning of a new one, and the title of Starlitz's novel would be fitting for both characters.

Sterling has also written a loosely connected series of stories with Rudy Rucker, although the connection between them is sometimes a little opaque. In Visionary In Residence, the story Junk DNA is cited as the continuation of series begun in Storming The Cosmos (from Globalhead), and continued in the wonderful Big Jelly in A Good Old Fashioned Future. The two most recent stories are set in near future biotech equivalent of Silicon Valley, dealing with new tech - in Big Jelly a biological jelly that spontaneously forms floating jellyfish and in Junk DNA slightly gross pets manufactured from human DNA. These stories both feature Tug Mesoglea and Revel Pullen - the leads in Big Jelly and older supporting cast members in Junk DNA - and a direct content connection of the manufacture and marketing of biotech products.

Storming The Cosmos is a different animal entirely, telling of a Soviet expedition to the site of the 1908 Tunguska explosion during the early days of the Russian space programme and the discovery of an alien star drive. Presumably, Vlad Zipkin in Storming The Cosmos is related somehow to Veruschka Zipkinova in Junk DNA, but apart from this slim morsel, it's a little hard to detect the relationship between the two later stories and the first. Perhaps that will become clearer if the future stories promised by Sterling in Visionary In Residence come to be written.

Sterling followed The Hacker Crackdown and Globalhead with three novels that show him at the peak of his form with a confident, authoritative prophetic voice born of a deeply learned understanding of the changing world around him. Heavy Weather, Holy Fire and Distraction form a loose trilogy, which skirt the key issues of our technological age that have to be addressed.

Heavy Weather, published in 1994 focuses on a band of scientists, adventurers and techno-hippies that pursues huge storms in the near future American Mid-West, turned into a meteorologically turbulent dust bowl by escalating climatic change. Holy Fire is the story of 94-year-old Mia who undergoes a treatment to revert her body back to its 20 year old condition, following her adventures in a late 21st century world of material plenty but no opportunities for the young as the older generations hang on to their assets and their positions in society. Distraction examines politics and science in a world where the old funding sources of government and military are drying up, and pure research is disappearing when commercial and political interests pay for everything.

The quality that elevates these novels above writers with an equally sure eye for future tech and social issues is Sterling's deft human touch. Heavy Weather is as much about the relationship of its brother and sister protagonists Janey and Alex as about climate change, and Mia's story is one of personal transformation as she realises that she is a new person and the old Mia is no more. Distraction is also the love story of Oscar Valapraiso and the uptight chief researcher, Nobel Laureate, Greta Penninger - as well as all the social and scientific speculation, it's a romantic comedy, the sort of thing you expect to see starring Matthew McConaughey as the suave Valapraiso and Jennifer Aniston in a bad wig as the ugly-duckling scientist.

Zeitgeist shows that Sterling is absolutely aware of what he's doing, manipulating the structures of narrative that reach back thousands of years and control stories and, in Zeitgeist, our lives in the real world. Some of his short stories have shown a similar postmodern awareness of fictional context - The Little Magic Shop, Jim & Irene, and almost all of the stories in and Visionary In Residence (perhaps none so much as The Scab's Progress - with Paul Di Filippo, the very title of which suggests a very formal plot structure). At his best, Sterling is able to look beyond the generic aspects, into the heart of the ancient plots and the human urges that drive them.

His heroes aren't supermen or super-spies: in fact, he clearly hates and fears such characters. His stories of everyday futures celebrate the heroism of real people. Modest, fallible and generally self-serving, Sterling's underdogs always rise to the occasion despite their manifest failings. Against the post-holocaust clichés of the cyberpunk era and the cynically hip ideals of the punk movement in general, Sterling bashes through the shiny chrome facade of technocratic hard SF triumphalism to reveal a world where humanity endures without losing too much of its soul and where love always finds a way.

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