|by Lon S. Cohen
I first set out to find Bruce Sterling, I thought that it
would never happen. Surely, a guy who has written
the seminal -punk anything book, whether it be cyber-, steam-,
or (I kid you not) monkey-, would have better things to do
with his time. Yet Bruce responded to my query immediately
with a casual, “What's on your mind?” Little did
he suspect that the mind can be a floodgate; before he knew
it there was a litany of questions that I’d kept pent
up ever since I first spotted the cover to “The Difference
Engine” on a library shelf in the early Nineties.
“I used to read the Matrix with great regularity
back in the Steampunk days of Xeroxed copies,” Bruce
told me in our first exchange and meeting. I mention that
we’ve since gone cyber.
We’ve come a long way over 50 years and in looking
back in this historical milestone anniversary year, we wanted
to do a series of themed issues featuring different facets
of science-fiction that have evolved during that time. So,
while not the first –punk book, or even Steampunk idea
in literature, “The Difference Engine” holds an
honourable place among many other great stories in the subgenre
– a term that is hotly debated in the science fiction
and which Bruce addresses in this interview.
So while I fiddled with my newly polished brass tube coffee
maker and Bruce made like the wordsmith that he is from his
flying machine somewhere over the Baltic, we spoke about all
Lon Cohen: First question, or course, is
about the seminal Steampunk novel, The Difference Engine.
Can you tell us of the inspiration behind that book’s
Bruce Sterling: The book's ‘story’?
It has a classic ‘steam grommet factory tour’
story, as Gardner Dozois would put it. It’s about an
intelligent machine – the ‘Narratron’ –
seeking out its own origins by mulling over historical data.
When it finds the transcendent mathematical concept that led
to its origin, the book ends.
That's what makes Difference Engine a book of the
1990s as well as the 1850s. Artificial Intelligence was sexy
LC: Are technological advances – in
the POV of this book – not always such a good thing,
especially if they come “before their time?”
BS: I don't believe that Babbage's early
computer failed because it was ‘ahead of its time’.
The machine was feasible and well financed. It failed mostly
because Babbage was Babbage. Babbage was a politician as well
as a technocrat, and it's his techno-elitist politics that
are adapted in Difference Engine.
Can you tell me how the collaboration with fellow author William
Gibson came about? How did you guys come together to say,
“Hey, let’s write this book together?”
BS: The topic of Babbage came up the first
time we met. As writers seriously interested in computers,
of course we were concerned with the origin of the phenomenon.
The fact that computing began with a spectacular fiasco is
of great literary interest. Computing as an enterprise is
full of triumphalism and signally fails to count its dead.
It took seven years for a book project to emerge, after we'd
had many discussions. It crawled from that compost-heap of
autodidactic data that science fiction writers generate by
Difference Engine was too ambitious a world-building
project to do alone. It's a very eclectic, encyclopaedic project,
but you should have seen the reams of stuff we ‘omitted’.
LC: I can see why the Steampunk movement
has such appeal in the science-fiction world (fans and writers
alike) because of the fantastically imaginative implications.
What do you think the appeal is?
BS: I think it's got a lot to do with the
death of Modernism. The population now lacks a reason to believe
that ‘history’ is ‘progressing’ in
any particular direction, so a mix-and-match, cut-up, splice-up
techno-aesthetic makes sense.
Of course Difference Engine itself was a work carried
out extensively along that line – it's full of digital
appropriation and collage. We were using word processors as
samplers. Alternate history is pastiche.
LC: Is Steampunk always Alternate-History?
BS: No. You look up "Steampunk"
on the net nowadays, you mostly find design hobbyists creating
amusing toys – computers with brass keys, that sort
of thing. It's a hobbyist's aesthetic. I'd imagine that contemporary
Steampunk fans don't know or care that Steampunk was originally
LC: Is Steampunk in literature an independent genre
that can be applied to another sub-genre, like, say, Space
Opera? Or Epic Fantasy? Is it a true sub-genre that must always
be based in a specific age? Or is it only a plot device?
BS: There are no ‘true sub-genres’.
One is pretty hard-put even to delimit a ‘true genre’.
It would be silly to talk about ‘Steampunk’ writing
without valorising Blaylock, Powers and Jeter, but that Californian
trio weren't big literary ideologues.
Tim Powers has a very interesting method of generating his
bizarre plots, but as far as I know he's the only guy in the
world who can write like Tim Powers.
I personally think "Steampunk" works best when
it has some historical rigor, but then again, I'm a wonk who
truly dotes on techno-history. If you overdo that it becomes
pedantic; the art drains out of it. Those who worship the
muses end up running a dusty Museum.
LC: Lou Anders (Managing editor at PYR)
in a comment thread about Steampunk proposed “However,
one thing that I’m curious about is if anyone has written
any alt history about the 20th or 21st century, but set in
‘the future of Steampunk’. In other words, is
there any fiction out there set in a future that extrapolates
forward a century or more from a Steampunk past?” What
do you think?
BS: There's about a million unsung versions
of ‘Nazipunk.’ That's because the Nazis were ritually
obliterated and thereby became prematurely exotic.
Science fiction needs a certain gaudy sense-of-wonder element
before it gets intrigued by any historical period. I'd be
guessing we get some Atompunk once the baby-boomer generation
is safely dead and the facts are sufficiently muddled.
LC: Can you parallel the Steampunk movement
to the Cyberpunk movement? Why is one related to the other?
Or why is it not? (Of which I believe you may have a unique
perspective being ob the bleeding edge of both at the birth
of those genres!)
Well, if you believe that subgenres are crucially important,
this surely seems like some kind of amazing accomplishment
on my part, but frankly, it's dead easy. I could write a story
tomorrow about the Antikythera Device instead of the Difference
Engine, and invent ‘ancientgreekpunk’. I'm
one of the primal sources of all things hyphenpunk.
It doesn't take me any particular effort to generate SF subgenres;
I'm a critic, I know how that game is played.
The unique thing about Difference Engine is that
it's a Gibson-Sterling collaborative text. If you read a page
of one of my historical fantasies, and compare that to a page
of my SF work set in some hypothetical future, it's dead obvious
that I'm doing the very same thing. There's no ‘parallel
movement there, there's no major generic departures, it's
the same speculative enterprise. "The future is just
a kind of history that hasn't happened yet." Those who
understand that fact do have a unique perspective; but it's
not just a ‘perspective’, it's the truth.
LC: What is your personal (not professional)
attachment to Steampunk? Why does it appeal to you as a genre?
Is your affection for industrial design and innovation a direct
parallel to your Steampunk writing? I can see how finding
beauty in objects can lead one to explore the craftsmanship
in machines that are before their time, when machines were
fascinating and many designers put the extra shiny brass onto
their machines to make them appealing in the Victorian world.
BS: Basically, I'm keenly interested in
history because I'm a futurist. Futurism is prediction in
the way that history is retrodiction.
The nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution was epochally
important. It was a major shift in culture to rank with the
Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Brass steam engines can
be nifty set-design, but if that's your major interest, you
ought to write about design.
Of course, I do write about design. Rather a lot. Gibson
has an honorary doctorate in design.
LC: Do you think Steampunk has a longer
future or a longer past?
BS: I wouldn't get too permanently attached
to any enterprise with the word ‘punk’ in it.
‘Punk’ is a generational signifier for people
who are now well into middle age.
Young people can call themselves ‘punk’ today
if they like, but it's become somewhat pretentious, like calling
yourself a ‘beatnik’.
LC: So, what are you working on now?
BS: Oh, the usual. Blogging, tech and design
conferences, occasional journalism, researching a new novel;
I might be doing a little design teaching. I spent most of
the day cleaning the house.
It's all grist for the mill. Even if I were doing something
very Steampunk, I certainly wouldn't call up my agent and
editor in a frenzy and tell them I was writing ‘Steampunk’.
That wouldn't make a bit of practical difference.
Ascendancies was released last year. I read that
it tracks your range from far future to forgotten past. Can
you speak about the choices and stories in this collection?
BS: Well, Ascendancies one of those
doorstopper author-retrospectives. If you've got to have one
Bruce Sterling fiction book, that's the tome to own. It's
got all the decent, dignified, critic's-darling stuff one
would expect, while pruning out all the off-the-wall, self-indulgent
pranksterism that I myself really enjoy. It's also adorned
by an exceedingly witty Karen Joy Fowler introduction.
LC: Do you plan to write in the Steampunk
Well, I can promise you there will never be a Difference
I'm not the kind of guy to repeat myself; I don't write trilogies,
I rarely pick up my loose threads. Lately, I've gotten more
interested in cross-cultural things rather than cross-temporal
things. Some globally minded science fiction written from
an Italian or a Serbian perspective, for instance; I could
likely get into that.
My feeling about science fiction is that it ought to expand
the scope of things that are possible to think. When Steampunk
succeeded it did a little of that. If it's just costume-drama
or a merchandising tag, that's not the end of the world, but
it's not a pursuit of a lot of use to anybody. Wells’
War of the Worlds reads in a very Steampunk way now,
but if you dote on that book because the technology clanks
and clatters so much, you're not appreciating Wells; you don't
understand the gift he offered us.
LC: Bruce Sterling, thank you for your time.