Award-winning science fiction author, cyberguru and technopundit, Bruce Sterling on Aadhaar, Fake News and cyberpunk.
His Twitter bio says that he is ‘One of the better-known Bruce Sterlings’. But for readers of science fiction, the tech community, people interested in knowing how culture and technology interact, intersect & impact humanity, and geeks at large, he is THE Bruce Sterling.
Multiple-award-winning science fiction author, cyber-guru and technopundit, Bruce Sterling is one of the founders, and chief architects of the cyberpunk genre, with his novels and the genre’s defining anthology Mirrorshades edited by him being essential for an understanding of cyberpunk. Along with William Gibson, he helped establish many of the conventions of another genre, steampunk, with the highly influential book, The Difference Engine. Quizzing enthusiasts know him also to be the person featured on the cover of the very first issue of Wired (with the headline, ‘Bruce Sterling Has Seen the Future of War’), a magazine that to this day hosts his popular blog, Beyond the Beyond. Readers of this New Worlds Weekly column would also remember him for his contributions to the Sci-fi Anthology from Project Hieroglyph (in fact it was an extract from his short story Tall Tower that concluded that piece), and for being a part of the XPRIZE Science Fiction Advisory Council, and contributing to its anthology. And the Indian connection? Bruce Sterling lived – and travelled – in India during his teens and keenly follows India, not least Bollywood.
An outspoken commentator on the state of affairs of (almost) everything, Bruce Sterling is also a futurist, a proponent of design fiction, a much sought-after speaker, amongst many other things, the listing of which and that of his achievements and involvements, would take many a page-scroll. So without further ado, let’s go straight into the Q&A.
Gautham Shenoy: Many things you read in sci-fi today seems so familiar, given technological breakthroughs and headlines that tell you every day that yet another ‘gadget from sci-fi’ has arrived. Even fictional elements or tech that seems new, feels like ‘a difference of degree than a difference of kind’. Is there any point to reading ‘science fiction’ anymore, and where does sci-fi go from here?
Bruce Sterling: How do people learn what is “science fictional?” It’s rhetoric. Science fiction is what sounds like science fiction. It’s not about the “breakthroughs” in science, it’s a cultural sensibility.
Let’s say that I write a short story about people eating insects in Europe. You might as well say, “Wow, what a science fictional idea! People would never eat insects in Europe because Europeans are all gourmets, and fussy about their fine traditional food”. But, in reality, insect-eating rules were just relaxed in the European Union, on January 1 of this year. In 2018, it’s legal to farm and eat insects, and Europeans are selling insect-based foods. It’s the objective truth.
Even before insect food was entirely legal in Italy, I ate some cricket-flour snacks in Rome late last year. So those two things, the legal European regulatory business, and my personal experience of eating cricket food-product in Europe, those are not “science fiction”. They’re not imaginary. I didn’t invent them. They happened. I was there. They “arrived,” as you say.
But now imagine that you read a science fiction story about, say, a Bollywood star getting married in Italy. She and her cricket-star husband sit down at their Italian wedding feast, with the costumes and the cameras, and they eat some Italian crickets, insects ground into powder and packaged as pasta.
That incident has to seem plenty weird. It sounds shocking, bizarre. It would surely be perceived as science fiction. So it doesn’t much matter much if “breakthroughs” in insect diets have “arrived in the headlines.” A Bollywood wedding with a cricket captain is sure to get plenty of “headlines” in India. Those headlines are just headlines. They’re media artefacts.
An Indian cricket captain who eats crickets will seem weird for quite a while.
If I were an Indian technical journalist in 2018, I would probably write a loud essay arguing that Facebook is more of a threat to Indian democracy than Aadhaar.
If I were an Indian technical journalist in 2018, I would probably write a loud essay arguing that Facebook is more of a threat to Indian democracy than Aadhaar. I bet that would be a really popular essay that would go viral in a hurry.
The UIDAI doesn’t require my advice, but I can comment on the general issue. When you’re building infrastructure for a democracy, you naturally want to build something exciting and dynamic that gives you more power and makes you look great to the voters. But someday, always sooner than you like, you’ll be voted out of power. Then everything that you built will belong to the opposition party. That problem is underestimated.
Shenoy: What’s your opinion on SF in/from India? What work or works of science fiction from India – across any medium – have you truly enjoyed, and which ones did you think could’ve done better?
Sterling: Naturally every writer in India would like to be internationally famous for writing some brilliant, yet commercially successful science fiction like ‘Calcutta Chromosome’. But did you ever hear of “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie? That’s a book with some Indian themes that have worldwide consequence. It’s not comfortable to be a famous and important writer like Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s novel is better than most people understand, though. Because it’s got a genuine, consequential topic. People who were offended by “Satanic Verses” understood that the novel was powerful. It’s literature.
Most science fiction writers aren’t cyberpunk ideologues like me. They’re harmless fantasists who want to entertain the fans.
Most science fiction writers aren’t cyberpunk ideologues like me. They’re harmless fantasists who want to entertain the fans. “Enthiran the Robot” is an enjoyable work of Indian science fiction. The “Krrish” trilogy is lively, too. An Indian science fiction with genuine popular roots in India would probably look like those two hit movie series, in much the way that most American science fiction looks like cheerful commercial rubbish such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Marvel Comics movies. If you only write patriotic nationalist fiction that makes your own Dad happy and proud, that might play well at home, but it can’t last.
Probably that mass commercial success is what creates commercial room for cultural efforts like cyberpunk. So if there’s something that Indian science fiction can “do better,” it might be a more sophisticated understanding of how science fiction fits into the Indian media scene in general, and into the larger context of Indian culture.
You would need to understand what Indians like about science fiction, and what aspects of it they like. You have to take those intellectual tools, make them your own, and use them to make a difference.
But you must go farther than just India. Not to publishers in London or New York, but into the Indian cultural sphere of influence. Try to think kindly of Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan. Tibet, even. Places and peoples who understand that India has a space program, a Moon rover, a Mars probe. That India has Bangalore and elite engineering schools, that India is a regional superpower.
If you only write patriotic nationalist fiction that makes your own Dad happy and proud, that might play well at home, but it can’t last. Because it’s just propaganda, it’s not literary. Imagine a modern Indian science fiction novel that would impress people in Dubai. If you understood Dubai well enough to disturb them – to tell them things they just didn’t know, to change their minds about something that matters – that book would be a big domestic hit in India. You wouldn’t have to persuade the Indian public to read such a book. They would look at it and understand quickly, “This is us”. “We want to be seen like this,” that is propaganda which belongs in the embassy or the ad agency. “This is us” – that’s a contribution to world culture.
“It’s within your capacity to do that. It isn’t easy or simple, but I have seen it done.” he says as he concludes with that encouraging, realistic piece of advice.
That’s it for the interview! Thank you, Mr. Sterling for the opportunity, and for making for this.
I for one, found the ‘A’ part of the Q&A quite insightful and enlightening, as it to be expected when Bruce Sterling is involved. I hope you did too. And on that note, I bid you farewell, until next weekend, when we shall meet again over another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live Long and Prosper!
If you only write patriotic nationalist fiction that makes your own Dad happy and proud, that might play well at home, but it can’t last.