In the 1980s, Bruce Sterling became a leader of the "cyberpunk" revolution -- a literary movement that combined the artistic ambition of science fiction's 1960s New Wave with the hard-core speculation associated with Verne, Wells, Heinlein, and Clarke. Cyberpunk's chief theme was the way technologies evolve us even as we evolve them, and its influence can be seen in almost every science fiction writer of note today, from Ken MacLeod to Alastair Reynolds to Cory Doctorow.
Neuromancer author William Gibson may have been the best-known of the cyberpunks, but the movement's chief theorist and propagandist was Sterling, whose writing covered far more territory than that of his peers. Sterling's books from the period -- Schismatrix, Islands in the Net, Crystal Express -- range so widely in settings and characters that it's hard to talk about them collectively. What they have in common is their author's willingness to stare uncomfortable truths in the face. His 1989 story "We See Things Differently," for example, eerily predicted and captured the jihadic Islamism of the 9/11 era.
In the late '90s, Sterling launched another movement: the Viridian Greens. This one focused on how industrial design could be used to respond to global climate change. "Our society runs on fossil fuel," he wrote in an early manifesto. "We have a substance-abuse problem with carbon dioxide. This is a seemingly abstract issue now, but it's going to get very, very much livelier once we start having evacuation camps and dustbowls and so on. At that point, anyone who isn't talking about the Greenhouse Effect is going to seem very twentieth-century and extremely old-fashioned."
That proclamation in itself might sound old-fashioned -- not entirely out of place in a Greenpeace pamphlet -- but Sterling went on to classify his new cause as an art and design movement. He also gave it a built-in expiration date (2012). He named the movement the Viridian Greens because, as he puts it, "there's something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green." Sterling's rhetoric is not the renunciatory language of back-to-the-land communal farmers or febrile eco-terrorists. We've made this problem, Sterling tells us, and now it's up to us to design our way out of it -- not by denying ourselves modernity but by embracing a more intelligent version of it.
Sterling is no one-note activist. His mind buzzes with ideas about history, technology, art theory, politics, global cultural trends, and more. The best introduction to the scope of Sterling's interests is his recent non-fiction book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years (Random House). The book is to typical futurist prognostications what jazz is to a symphony: Sterling riffs on what the present tells us about the world our grandchildren will inherit. But like all the best futurists, Sterling has his eyes set on the past as well. That may explain why, even as he describes the book as "an ambitious, sprawling effort in thundering futurist punditry," he frames it on a set piece from Shakespeare -- "The Seven Ages of Man," from As You Like It. Perhaps surprisingly, the Shakespearean trope works rather well as a way of outlining the oncoming histories, comedies, and dramas we're staging for ourselves.
Contributing Editor Mike Godwin talked with Sterling last summer, in the sprawling house the author designed for himself and his family in Austin, Texas.
reason: Not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you wrote a cri de coeur about how the attacks signified the end of a belle époque, during which the government is relatively technocratic, competent, and bland -- providing basic services but otherwise uninteresting -- and the rest of the world is peacefully progressing, partly as a function of technological advance. Are we going to see that kind of era again?
Bruce Sterling: It depends on who "we" are. For the U.S., the belle époque is over. It lost its steam under this tremendous necromantic thing that bin Laden pulled, and also it's over because this huge surge of energy that was in the dot-com world failed at the last mile. Socially, policy makers have made a series of choices very similar to what preceded the collapse into World War I. There's the same kind of massive gung-hoism for acts of violence and the same kind of irrationality. We're in a very dark time. It's dark enough that it cannot lift overnight.
reason: You were upbeat about the Internet bubble. You don't think it was based on irrational exuberance?
Sterling: I don't think it was an irrational exuberance. Some of it was irrational -- clearly there was a lot of embezzlement going on, buddyism on Wall Street, your basic Enron shenanigans. But computation and ubiquitous sensors and ubiquitous communication offer the opportunity to reform the industrial base along cybernetic and post-industrial lines. Should that be allowed to happen, it will bring a lot of prosperity.
But I think we made really serious missteps in 2000 and 2001, and we've really turned our backs on a world that could have been pleasant, delight-ful, peaceful, and technocratic. Now we face a world that is religious, narrow-minded, fundamentalist, and violent.
reason: We're still seeing technological progress, at least in terms of tools. Some of us have DVD burners in our laptops, when not too long ago we couldn't imagine burning CDs. Content providers are freaking out about this because people are able to make their own product, or duplicate other people's product.
Sterling: I'm not really all that interested in what Hollywood does with its stuff. I mean, they're only the size of the porn industry. I think the real revolution is in industrial production. It's about manipulating factory processes, it's about mass customization, it's about a revolution in industry that gets the toxins out of the air and is more efficient by, say, a factor of four than what we had. When that happens we'll have a genuinely new world. Playing movies off handhelds, that's not really that big of a deal.
reason: Still, the content industries are significant enough to start the kind of moral panic you talk about in Tomorrow Now -- moral panics that drive irrational social or governmental responses. Computers keep empowering people and keep surprising people with what they can do.
Sterling: Well, they used to surprise people. Now they alarm people. You can tell it's a moral panic when people start doing really dirty things that have no effect on what's going on. And that's a classic example -- this culture war where you put out fake MP3s that have cursing on them.