matrix: the news and media magazine of the british science fiction association
Issue 188
July 2008
- home
- guest editorial
FEATURES
- bruce sterling interview
- snatched moments
- steaming celluloid
- the sound of steampunk
- true brit
- best sf movies ever!...1950s
- seduction of the innocent 10
- ...friend or foe?
REVIEWS
- kung fu panda
- doomsday
- outpost
- 10,000 bc
- in the name of the king
- the happening
- the incredible hulk
- indiana jones
- Iron Man
NEWS
- And the Winners Are…
- zombiecon
- BSFA and SFF AGMS
- the sunny side of science fiction
- ken slater honoured
- arthur c. clarke awards, 2008
- world of science
- It's All a Question of Endings
EVENTS
- gencon oz
- london film & comic con
- denvention 3
- FrightFest
- Mecon
- Kumoricon
- ...all events
DVD RELEASES
- spiderwick chronicles
- batman begins/gotham night
- national treasure
- the orphanage
- doctor who s 4
- stargate
- ...view all
BOOK RELEASES
- the digital plague
- house of suns
- kethani
- iron angel
- first born
- ...view all
MUSIC RELEASES
- coldplay
- mostly autumn
- offspring
- judas priest
- motley crue
- seth lakeman
- ...view all
ARCHIVE
- Matrix 187 - Mar 2008

 

 

FEATURES: Didactic Chat: Bruce Sterling
Alongside William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, and Pat Cadigan, and others, Bruce Sterling is considered one of the founder of the cyberpunk movement.
In the July 1989 issue of SF Eye, he was the first to use the word "slipstream" to refer to a type of speculative fiction between traditional science fiction and fantasy and mainstream literature.
He has a fondness for Bollywood films.
by Lon S. Cohen

Bruce SterlingWhen 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 things Steampunk.

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 story?

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 back then.

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.

William GibsonLC: 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 their nature.

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 literary.

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!)

The Difference EngineBS: 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.

AscendanciesLC: 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 genre again?

Well, I can promise you there will never be a Difference Engine sequel.

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.

StarShipSofa Pantechnicon Science Fiction Foundation