by Michael D. Pederson
I recently had the wonderful experience of listening to Bruce Sterling read from his latest novel, The Zenith Angle. He is an amazingly energetic reader and—don’t let the gentle Texas accent fool you—quite a powerful speaker. Bruce was gracious enough to sit down with me for a few minutes after the reading…
ND: During the reading I noticed that you alternately described yourself as a novelist and a journalist. Do you consider yourself more one than the other?
BS: Well, I’m a novelist and a journalist. I think the two feed on one another pretty well. I was trained as a journalist in school, I have a degree in journalism but I never actually went to work as a full-time journalist until twenty years after because I made the tactical error of selling a novel in school. As a journalist I have something to contribute so I’m happy to work in that field.
ND: You have a reputation of being a very technology-oriented author, computer tech particularly. Did your cyber-interests come out of your research or were you already well-versed in the field?
BS: I do write a lot about computers because they have basically affected every area that I’m interested in, but I also write travel journalism and industrial design journalism. I’ve been known to write essays about architecture. I’ve never done any biography. Yet. But you know, one does get tempted. One of the reasons that computers tend to pop up in my work a lot is that I use them for research. So if you’re going to use the internet quite frequently, you know, you research Prague on the internet it’ll be anxious to tell you about every internet site in Prague. For people of my generation computers have their role the way that hot air balloons did for Jules Verne. I don’t idolize them, I just consider them an interesting technical phenomenon in this epoch. I’m not a computer guy, I’m a technology guy.
ND: So, what kind of system do you use?
BS: I’m mostly working on Mr. Laptop here. I’ve got a Mac G4 now. I’m a Mac guy—artists are Mac guys—I’ve always been a Mac guy. I bought a PC once, it was so badly broken, just as a designed object that I had to give it to my daughter so she could play games. I’m very taken with my digital camera now ’cause I’m spending so much time web blogging. I’m no photographer but I like web blogs and their multi-media aspects. I like putting my own graphics on my web logs instead of just cutting and pasting other peoples’.
ND: Did science fiction have a big influence on you as a kid?
BS: Oh, yes. Very much so. I was a devoted science fiction person from the age of thirteen.
ND: Favorite authors?
BS: Well, when you’re thirteen you like Edgar Rice Burroughs. But who doesn’t? I really think the weirdest thing… the most influential part there was not Burroughs or Andre Norton or Heinlein juveniles but the fact that I was sort of stumbling over J.G. Ballard and Italo Calvino at age thirteen. I can remember reading Ballard and being utterly confused and hugely excited because there was something going on there that I didn’t understand, could not get my head around. It was mind boggling. And it’s not really fit reading for a thirteen year-old but that was the very thing that most intrigued me about it.
ND: Ballard would be great for really opening up your mind at that age.
BS: Well, somebody said recently that one of the signatures of my kind of writing is “unholy glee.” It didn’t occur to me until recently but Ballard is absolutely chock-full of unholy glee. So he’s a fellow spirit in some important ways I think.
ND: Let’s talk a little about your current book.
BS: I had a guy comment today that he hated the villain and the villain was really no good. He was hissing the villain which was kind of nice. My books generally lack hissable villains but this one has got a villain.
ND: Have the science fiction reviewers turned on you for writing a techno-thriller rather than a straight out SF novel?
BS: I don’t thinks so. I’ve got three short story collections, I’ve got eight other novels. They’re all unimpeachably science fiction things. I never make any bones about being a science fiction writer. I quite commonly identify myself as a science fiction writer. The field gets upset when people say, “Oh, well, that stuff I was writing isn’t really science fiction.” If you’re pulling a Vonnegut people get upset. If you’re Robert Silverberg and you decide “I’ve got to write a book about the Mound Builder Indians” nobody gets all that upset. It’s when they feel disowned and used that they get upset. I’m not disowning or using anybody. I just wrote the Encyclopedia Brittanica article on science fiction for heaven’s sake. I’m a science fiction critic. I’m blurbing science fiction people right and left. I’ve written essays on science fiction. I’m a science fiction ideologue. I’m the cyber-punk science fiction, you know.
ND: What are you reading now?
BS: I’m reading Doctorow, Straw, MacLeod. I’m reading M. John Harrison, little China Miéville.
ND: I’m constantly pushing Miéville on everyone I know.
BS: Well, man, these are the top guys in our field right now. Neal Stephenson, very important guy. There’s not a huge lack of talent. There’s kind of a lack of fame. I’m a little worried about these cross-generic trends. Miéville, Stephenson… they’re writing books which contain all genres all at once. Like Neal Stephenson’s book is a techno-thriller and a historical book and a science fiction book and it’s fantasy. And Miéville’s is a horror book and a dark terror book except its got women with insect heads. What it reminds me of more than anything else is Bollywood masala movies. You watch Bollywood flicks and they’re presented for a polyglot audience. So they’ve got an internal clock, it’s like: dance scene, dance scene, villain scene, vamp scene, dance scene, dance scene, fist fight, dance scene. I think it’s something about globalized society or just the way that younger people are thinking about the world now. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting old but I find something vaguely distressing about it.
ND: We’re hearing so much more about Bollywood these days and it even figures into your novel, do you see them ever breaking through into the mainstream culture?
BS: They’re going to be for the Aughts what Kung Fu movies were for the Seventies. They’re not going to dominate but they’re the hip exotic thing to be into now.
ND: You open The Zenith Angle with the line, “The Most Important Man in the World put his pants on one leg at a time.” Who would you consider to really be The Most Important Man in the World?
BS: Bin Laden, if he’s still alive. He’s certainly the most effective terrorist the world has ever seen. This guy is the Ghandi of terror. He’s certainly the most effective politician, assuming he’s not dead. And even if he is dead he may very well be more effective dead than alive. Christ certainly was. You know, he’s a martyr cultist. But really, objectively, if you just look at the direction that the world is changing and how much effect this guy has had on major organizations there are very few who can match him. He’s truly a mover and shaker.
ND: Do you have any tips for the next generation of writers?
BS: Yeah, you’ve got to hang out with people in your own generation. You’re going to learn more from them than you do from so-called mentors or instructors. Job one is to find your own voice. What are you saying that other people aren’t saying? Generally it’s something that many people who share your interests are trying to say. It’s an inchoate thing, it’s the thing that is next and mentor figures or guru figures are not going to be able to tell you that. You’re going to have to learn about the trend-setters who are your own age. You’ve got to take them seriously and you’ve got to give and take with them. Hanging out with writer’s groups works for me. If it doesn’t there are other ways to do it but that’s kind of the royal road to success.