Your Favorite Writers Ask Bruce Sterling About Everything

…And he replies. Our thanks to fortykey for this look at the future…and at one of the science fiction writers who has helped create our current present:


 Cory DoctorowDo you feel that the world is, on balance, improved by technology?

Well, if you ask that question from the point of view of almost anything in this world that’s not a human being like you and me, the answer’s almost certainly No. You might get a few Yea votes from the likes of albino rabbits and gene-spliced tobacco plants. Ask any living thing that’s been around in the world since before the Greeks made up the word “technology,” like say a bristlecone pine or a coral reef. You would hear an awful tale of woe.

Matthew Battles: Concern for the future is a perennial human predicament; what (if anything) is peculiar about the modern fascination with futurity?

Well, for us moderns, this perennial predicament isn’t entirely in the charge of priests, as it generally has been for all history. Actually, there’s quite a lot of stuff that’s peculiar about our recent version of futurity. Number one is that we no longer know what “progress” is, so our “conservatives” have become our radicals while our “progressives” are our conservatives.

We’re also a lot keener on big data and social mapping than anybody ever was before, because we’ve got really large big data and we more or less just invented social maps. We’re alway excited by breakthroughs that haven’t bored us and become banal and useful yet.

Giuseppe Granieri: In LOVE IS STRANGE, Gavins says: «I may dress like a nerd, but I can read trends».
Could you pick 5 trends 
to watch in the next 5 years?

I can pick the trends, but you’ll only really watch them if they somehow capture your imagination. The number one trend in the world, the biggest, the most important trend, is climate change. People hate watching it; they either flinch in guilty fear or shudder away in denial, but it makes a deeper, more drastic difference to your future than anything else that is happening now.

Personally, I enjoy watching trendy developments in augmented reality, extinct forms of media, new forms of language within digital media, the Internet of Things and popular music trends in countries other than the USA. They’re not the world’s most important trends, but they are trends I cared enough about to study and more or less understand. That’s why they’re all categories on my weblog.

The world is full of “trends,” thousands of them, but you have to engage with one to derive any benefit from knowing that it’s happening. For instance, that trend of smoking cigarettes is going to damage your health. Everybody yells that at you, and it’s even written into law and right on the packages. So that “trend” is no big secret to you, but until the day when you can wake up to it and let it matter to yourself, you won’t be able to let your thoughtless addiction go. It’s a trend all right — you can watch it happening for years, as you light another, then another, and then another — but until you engage with it, that trend owns you, and you don’t own it.

Cory Doctorow: Will “electronic art” someday cease to be a meaningful distinction? Has it already become so?

Those terms are pretty elastic. When there’s a bidding war over classic paintings nowadays, people are commonly bidding worldwide while looking at jpegs of the canvas.

There’s one kind of electronic art that’s very publicly and self-consciously “electronic” — commonly it’s got snarled wires coming out of it, to demonstrate how electronic it is — and I’d guess that stuff’s gonna have a fairly short shelf-life. But it will be very hard to say when it’s over, as it is also hard to say when it started. When did “video art” start, and when will “video art” end? How about “device art” or “network art” or “software art”?

Asking if all art will someday be “electronic” is similar to asking if there will be a day when live theater is indistinguishable from cinema. I can imagine such a situation, I don’t think it’s impossible, but it would mean that the concepts of “cinema” and “theater” were both long obsolete, and a society like that would be very alien.

Paul Di Filippo: If you were attempting to start your career as a science fiction writer in today’s milieu, rather than in the 1980s milieu when you did begin, what would your strategy be for getting a toehold and getting your name known? In other words, where are the CHEAP TRUTHS of 2013?

That’s quite a tough question. It’s pretty hard to have a “career” doing any single creative thing nowadays. If you really make a stir as a “science fiction writer” nowadays, you’re likely to get swept up in all kinds of network-society fringe activities, such as blogging, going to conventions, comics, gaming, TV, movies, collectibles…. The days when you could be a “science fiction writer” and work exclusively on books and magazines seem to have vanished already.

I’m pretty sure that the best way to get a toehold in writing is to start writing work that you yourself want to read. Then, see who really cares about it, and try to understand why. Wasting energy trying to ace your way through collapsing industries is a drag. You should never be surprised if your most effective, most influential writing is writing no publisher will pay for.

Ted Striphas: Have you adjusted your writing style, or the substance of your writing, in light of new digital systems for producing, distributing, and communicating about books? If so, how, and with what consequences?

I’d say that my writing career has been a constant struggle with that issue since about 1980. I do a lot of writing for digital systems, “writing” that’s got nothing to do with “books.” It’s hard to say what the consequences of this struggle are, but I can guess. I frankly think it damaged my prose style — because I never had the chance to fully master the methods by which I express myself. But it also kept me flexible and alert in other ways. It’s likely similar to the effect of digital music on contemporary musicians — they can make a lot of weirder noises, lots faster, but they don’t become virtuosos.

It changed my work profoundly when I realized I could talk to a global audience on the Internet, although I was legally limited from doing that by national publishing systems. The lack of any global book market has much reduced my interest in publishing books. National systems don’t “publish” me, but rather conceal me. This especially happens to writers outside the Anglophone market, but I know a lot of them, and I’ve become sensitized to their issues. It’s one of the general issues of globalization.

Ted StriphasJohn SundmanSome have suggested that the age of the long form novel is nearing an end, and that shorter, strung-together narrative chunks represent the future. How would you respond to this claim?

I’d suggest trying to imagine somebody in the year 2062 sitting down to read “the best tweets of 2012.” Does that prospect sound at all plausible to you? I’m a blogger and I’m very keen on randomly-assembled narrative chunks, but I’ve always known that blog content has a short shelf-life. It’s like doing stand-up comedy.

Ted StriphasLike many science fiction writers (or, like many of the best science fiction writers), you’ve introduced several neologisms into the English language—words and phrases like “buckyjunk,” “major consensus narrative,” “spime,” and a host of others. Beyond the fact that neologisms can make for lively writing, why push the limits of language this way?

I know that can sound like “pushing” language, but from my point of view, social change reveals gaps in language. For instance, the idea of an “Internet of Things” leaves, to my eye, an obvious verbal hole for a “thing” that’s created specifically to exist within an “internet of things.” What kind of “thing” is that “thing?” “Spime” is not a great word, but it’s there if anybody needs it.

If there’s an issue that needs discussion, but there’s no way to discuss it without some clumsy workaround, then why not just make up a word for it? Thousands of slang terms are invented in many dialects of English every day. The English language isn’t going to buckle and collapse because I made up the term “buckyjunk,” which prophesies the pollution problems involved in making items from semi-indestructible “buckminsterfullerene.”

Some people think I made up other colorful terms such as “blobject” and “junkspace,” but I didn’t, I was quite happy just to find these neologisms and do my part to spread them around. Where is my downside? I’m a science fiction writer, I’m not going to get arrested for using new words.

Matthew Battles: What are some of the more unexpected ways our things might outlive us?

Actually it’s mostly the past’s things that will outlive us. Things that have already successfully lived a long time, such as the Pyramids, are likely to stay around longer than 99.9% of our things. It might be a bit startling to realize that it’s mostly our paper that will survive us as data, while a lot of our electronics will succumb to erasure, loss, and bit rot.

If we’re like most civilizations, we’re going to leave some of our most effective clues to ourselves in our garbage. We’ve got plenty of it, too. We’ve got Pyramids of garbage.

Richard Nash: I once heard you note that they only thing you knew for certain about the future is that we were growing older. What would you say are the key changes in culture from the increase in life expectancy?

That future’s here already in today’s retirement communities. Genoa is one of the “oldest” cities in Europe, in terms of Genoa’s aged population. You can see that reality in little things in Genoa, like how long the buses dawdle at the stops as the aged passengers climb painfully on and off. There are elderly in the cafes, the cafes are quiet and solemn, the customers don’t yell, gesture or move around much. Kids in Genoa seem to instinctively gather in self-protective packs. There are a lot of little old ladies in Genoa — as lifespans extend, the gender balance changes.

An older world is not a shocking difference, but compare Genoa to Moscow, where the people have a lousy life expectancy. Moscow is pretty tough, loud, sexy and raucous by comparison to Genoa.

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