Bruce Sterling on the shallow erudition of Google

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

I’d be remiss in my relentless Bruce Sterling fanboyism if I didn’t link to this interview with the man himself at 40kbooks (which looks to be a digital-only publisher focussing on essays  about digital culture and short-form fiction from notable authors; the Chairman’s recent Interzone-published story “Black Swan” is available from them, for instance).

And I’d also be remiss in my blognautic self-aggrandisement if I didn’t point out that interviewer Rhys Hughes riffs off of an answer Sterling gave in my interview with him back in 2009

Rhys: I believe that you were once asked to state the major difference between the methods of research you employ as a writer now and the methods you employed when you began your writing career. You responded with the single word, “Google.” This might seem a perverse question, but do you think there are any perils for a new writer in the fact that research has now become so much easier?

Bruce: That’s not a perverse question.  It’s obvious.  It’s a simple matter to examine almost any contemporary text and see that Google was used to compose it. Contemporary writing is loaded with strange little details of erudition that used to be expensive and difficult to research. For instance, let’s consider an obscure, dusty figure like, say, Massimo d’Azeglio.  Or rather, Massimo Taparelli, Marquis d’Azeglio (October 24, 1798 – January 15, 1866), the author of the Italian historical novels, “Niccolò dei Lapi” and “Ettore Fieramosca.”  No American should properly know anything about this man. It took me 57 seconds to research that on Google, and that included cutting and pasting the text here.

The peril comes in thinking, as a modern writer, that you can truly understand something about Massimo Taparelli in just 57 seconds. No, you can’t. To access facts is not to understand them. The Marquis d’Azeglio was an intelligent, creative and cultivated 19th century aristocrat. He was deep and broad and subtle and human, and very alien to us moderns. Modern writers may fail to understand him in this sudden electronic blizzard of  bland facts about him.  We may  know less of him because we seem to know  more of him.

Lots more good stuff in Hughes’ interview, so go read.


South Pacific Fantasies

Lavie Tidhar @ 11-09-2010

Having lived in Vanuatu, I still retain a lot of affection for the place – I miss speaking Bislama, and keep in touch with several people in and of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu has also fed much of my recent fiction. My novella Cloud Permutations is a planetary romance set on a world, Heven, populated by Ni-Vanuatu settlers, and I explore Vanuatu in several short stories, from “The Solnet Ascendancy” in the Shine anthology to “How To Make Paper Airplanes” (Hao nao blong mekem old pepa eroplen) in the special Mundane SF issue of Interzone.

So when I saw Nalo Hopkinson tweet about a new initiative to take place in Vanuatu, I was intrigued… and then, as I began reading, also concerned.

The Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation and Tanna Center for The Arts is the brainchild of Paul D. Miller, AKA DJ Spooky, an American artist who has decided to establish, well, something, on the island of Tanna.

Now, normally I wouldn’t pay that much attention to something like this. But this project’s Board of Advisors includes, in no particular order, Cory Doctorow, Yoko Ono, Bruce Sterling and Jimmy Wales. (ETA: despite what this post originally says, Nalo Hopkinson is not a member of the BOA. My apologies.)

And suddenly, I became a lot more concerned.

Why?

To understand this, one needs to understand a little of Vanuatu itself: of its colonial history and its current politics and concerns. One needs to understand – or at least be familiar with – the concept of kastom, the old culture and the old way, and the tension that exists between it and outside influences.

One must also understand the very sensitive issue of land ownership in Vanuatu.

So just what is the Pacifica Foundation? And why are all these eminent Westerners on its board of advisors? And just what raises numerous red flags in my mind?

For one thing, there are no Man Tanna (people of Tanna) on the BOA, with the sole exception of the land owner, Isso Kapum. Most worryingly, there is no mention of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (kaljeral senta blong Vanuatu), the incredible people who work tirelessly to protect, preserve and invigorate kastom. Can DJ Spooky work without the Cultural Centre? Has he made contact with them? Do they approve this resort?

DJ Spooky sets to build an “artist retreat” on Tanna. “artists, writers, composers, theoreticians, and creatives from all disciplines will be invited to explore sustainable art practice … in a spirit that celebrates the unique qualities of being located in the South Pacific.” I’m not quite sure what those are, exactly, but “The Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation is building this artist retreat as a way to keep the cultural legacy of Tanna vibrant and alive.”

How? How would foreign artists on a retreat possible help preserve or even understand the culture of Tanna?

Many of the Tannese have resisted change for centuries, but now feel the call to engage with the outside world. The younger generation has begun to leave the island, and “they get into trouble,” says Esso Kapum who gave the use of his land on Tanna for the venture. “We want to give them a reason to stay.”

There are so many problems with these contradictory statements I find it hard to know where to begin. Let’s begin with land ownership, possibly the most important thing in Vanuatu. Land cannot be sold so much as leased on a 99 year basis. Land disputes are the number one cause of strife, prolonged trials and topics of conversation. Today’s situation sees much traditionally-owned land being “sold” to foreigners, mostly Australian land speculators, to develop as housing for the rich or as resorts. The situation is desperate on the island of Efate (Vanuatu’s main island) and is spreading rapidly, to Tanna and even the remote Banks islands, where I lived.

At its most basic, DJ Spooky and his board of directors, wittingly or not, are contributing to the parceling of traditional land away from its traditional owners.

Worse than that, there is no sign of how, or why, this project will assist kastom kalja. No kastom jif is on the board of directors. Tanna kastom is strong (for a fascinating exploration of kastom on Tanna check out The Tree and the Canoe) but such a retreat will not serve it.

Construction on the island is typically done with imported labor and imported materials, but we’d like to use local talent and the abundant resources as much as we can. … With proper funds we can fly in bamboo construction experts and purchase equipment, but are also open to volunteers who can fly themselves to the island and help with construction and cultivation. Our goal is for the retreats and residencies to be free of charge, thus we will need to find ways to be self-sufficient. Individuals able to help us cultivate the land to grow our own food and possibly export are a high priority. We also wish to empower the local population and decrease gasoline usage so experts in diesel to vegetable oil conversion are needed.

I don’t know how to characterise that paragraph apart from saying it is complete and utter nonsense. Importing bamboo? Most construction is done with imported labour? Imported from where? kastom buildings on Vanuatu are fantastic, sharing their construction with their South East Asian progenitors (see the Lapita), built from local trees, bamboo and material. See my hut for an example – technically, it is what’s called a semipermanen, or semi-permanent structure, due to its concrete base, which is not usually present. The electricity wires leading to the roof, needless to say, did not lead any electricity – there had been a generator on Vanua Lava a few years ago but it had not lasted long. A resort of Tanna for foreign artists would require electricity, running water, refrigeration – none of which we had on Vanua Lava, nor did we need them. Everything was locally built, from local material – notice the natangura roof and the bamboo weave walls.

Of course, according to DJ Spooky, the conditions are “very primitive”. Not a word I would particularly like to use, or that inspires much confidence in me.

Even the simple things like going online, or getting cash or getting eggs is a big production and often ends with the need tom try again another day! Often i have no idea what is going on – Bislama, the pidgeon English, is still hard to understand and folks are not very good at explaining things!

Again, where do you stat? Perhaps one should learn Bislama? “I have started to teach Isso’s daughter English.” So far, then, the cultural exchange is going exactly one way, isn’t it?

As for getting cash – a large part of the point about Vanuatu, and the tireless efforts of the guys of the Kastom Ekonomi team at the Cultural Centre, is that cash is a foreign concept, and Vanuatu does not need to engage with the cash economy but rather use its – very successful – traditional, or kastom, economy, based entirely on self-reliance and growing and catching your own food. The cash economy is forced on Vanuatu to a large extent by well-meaning foreign aid agencies, and to a large extent is redundant. (Try and visit Hu, the last island in Vanuatu, in the Torres Islands, which is a perfect embodiment of the kastom ekonomi).

So what is DJ Spooky doing? I am not sure. And normally, I would not care a great deal – many dreamers come to Vanuatu, and many dreams hatch and fade with the sitsit blong solwota. What does concern me is the large number of influential, well-meaning people on the Board of Directors – including Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, writers in my field who I respect a great deal – who seem to sign their name, with all good will, to something they should not, perhaps, be supporting.

I think, worse of all about this, is that a small but dedicated group of people, in and outside of Vanuatu, really are doing great work, with an understanding of the unique culture of the islands – people working to fight off the cash economy, to record and preserve vanishing languages and customs, and those are the people who should be supported. And sometimes, to do just that, one should do nothing at all.

Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman (Angry Robot Books) and follow-ups Camera Obscura and Night Music, both forthcoming from the same publisher. His latest book, novella Cloud Permutations, is just out from PS Publishing in the UK. His story In Pacmandu is this month’s featured fiction on Futurismic.


Read this story: The Exterminator’s Want-Ad by Bruce Sterling

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2010

As I seem to be having a “recommend stuff elsewhere” kind of day here at Futurismic, here’s another suggestion for you. In between its non-fiction material (focussed, as its name might suggest, on building future communities based on sharing and mutual cooperation) Shareable.net is running science fiction stories from some big names to illustrate its chosen topics. The latest offering, “The Exterminator’s Want-Ad”, is from none other than Bruce Sterling – a darkly humorous first-person missive from an incarcerated former Beltway lobbyist and climate change denial huckster, locked up and “realigned” by the networked socialists of a post-climate-collapse near-future.

I could hear some of you make a sharp intake of political breath there, so let me reassure you that although Sterling evidently (and vocally) sides with progressive “bright green” sociopolitics, the socialist society he depicts is no naive utopia; if you’ve read his recent novel The Caryatids, you’ll know he’s more than able to draw every faction of the political future with all its warts and scars and human flaws fully to the front. I’m even tempted to label both works as non-partisan satires… but hey, go read it and make your own mind up.

And while you’re over there, Shareable has lots of other sf-nal content, such as interviews with Kim Stanley Robinson and Paolo Bacigalupi; go take a look around.

[ It also looks like they need to get a better comment spam plugin… ]


NEW FICTION: WINDSOR EXECUTIVE SOLUTIONS by Chris Nakashima-Brown and Bruce Sterling

Paul Raven @ 04-05-2010

Take one Futurismic alumnus (Chris Nakashima-Brown), one bona-fide science fiction legend (Bruce Sterling), and one grim meathook future in the United Kingdom, as monarchy, politics and altermodern culture smash together in the wake of economic collapse…

I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud to be publishing a story as I am of this one. It’s going to blow your mind, I promise. Now, read.

WINDSOR EXECUTIVE SOLUTIONS

by Chris Nakashima-Brown and Bruce Sterling

10 June 2026

JEKYLL Look, I can’t get you off the hook with these 140-character txt-msgs.

JACKAL Colonel Falstaff suspects I am press.  Since I failed that beltbomb test, well you know what

JACKAL you know what these devils will do to me!  Where would that leave you, Dr. Almighty Blogger?

JACKAL Leaking satellite shots of Prince Harry’s field maneuvers.  You call that “the news”?

JEKYLL No, my mercenary friend,  I do not.  So tell me what Falstaff wants.  Drugs, women, grain, petrol, lingerie?

JACKAL Save me, Jekyll.  You do owe me.

JEKYLL He’s very fond of beer, your Colonel?  I have thirty barrels of Nigerian Sorghum Stout.  Ready to move at your word.

JACKAL Falstaff wants a hot feed of the flesh of the Queen of England. Private and exclusive.  Falstaff is American.  You know how they are about royalty.

JEKYLL You lot are the Canterbury altar boys of our national death cult. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: WINDSOR EXECUTIVE SOLUTIONS by Chris Nakashima-Brown and Bruce Sterling”


Recommend exemplary cyberpunk fiction for a new anthology

Paul Raven @ 04-03-2010

Cover art for Korean edition of Mirrorshades anthologyWe love our (post?)cyberpunk here at Futurismic, and we’re guessing you probably do, too. So here’s a chance to show off your knowledge of the genre, and aid antipodean anthologist extaordinaire Jonathan Strahan in constructing a new retrospective volume that reassesses cyberpunk’s impact on sf and the world at large – a reflection of the reflections in Chairman Bruce’s Mirrorshades, if you will. [cover of Korean edition of Mirrorshades courtesy Wikipedia]

Everyone who makes a recommendation gets a shout-out in the acknowledgements, too. Take it away, Mr Strahan:

What I am doing now, though, is asking you to recommend your favourite cyberpunk story using my Cyberpunk Fiction Database. I am looking for recommendations for short stories, novels, and anthologies, and am considering any cyberpunk story, no matter when it was published.  I am especially interested in / looking for recommendations for work by women, people of colour and others.  Cyberpunk was mostly a white male phenomenon, but I’m eager to present as full a picture of this important movement as possible. Anyone recommending a story will be acknowledged in the final book. I’ve put some recommendations in myself, just to get things started.  You can see what’s already in the database here.

It would be excellent to see some web-published fiction appear in the final list… and I’d be even more impressed to see something published here at Futurismic make the cut! Someone has already recommended Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s recent offering “Biting The Snake’s Tail”, and I’ll be entering a few more examples myself… but please don’t let that stop you from recommending any other tales – from here or anywhere else – that you feel exemplify this complex and occasionally ill-defined genre. It’ll take a few minutes, and you’ll make some fiction writer somewhere very happy indeed. 🙂

Speaking of cyberpunk, here’s something that drifted serendipitously through my Twitter feed this morning courtesy of BlueTyson: a re-pub of an old essay by Chairman Bruce himself, looking back on cyberpunk from the vantage point of the early nineties. I’m not sure exactly when or where it was originally published (so feel free to let me know in the comments so I can attribute it correctly), but it’s interesting to see how much of what Sterling says still rings true today – try exchanging the word ‘cyberpunk’ for ‘Mundane’, perhaps, or maybe ‘Optimist’:

Human thought itself, in its unprecedented guise as computer software, is becoming something to be crystallized, replicated, made a commodity. Even the insides of our brains aren’t sacred; on the contrary, the human brain is a primary target of increasingly successful research, ontological and spiritual questions be damned. The idea that, under these circumstances, Human Nature is somehow destined to prevail against the Great Machine, is simply silly; it seems weirdly beside the point. It’s as if a rodent philosopher in a lab-cage, about to have his brain bored and wired for the edification of Big Science, were to piously declare that in the end Rodent Nature must triumph.

Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it’s the truth. It won’t go away because we cover our eyes.

This is cyberpunk.

[…]

Cyberpunk was a voice of Bohemia – Bohemia in the 1980’s. The technosocial changes loose in contemporary society were bound to affect its counterculture. Cyberpunk was the literary incarnation of this phenomenon. And the phenomenon is still growing. Communication technologies in particular are becoming much less respectable, much more volatile, and increasingly in the hands of people you might not introduce to your grandma.

[…]

This generation will have to watch a century of manic waste and carelessness hit home, and we know it. We will be lucky not to suffer greatly from ecological blunders already committed; we will be extremely lucky not to see tens of millions of fellow human beings dying horribly on television as we Westerners sit in our living rooms munching our cheeseburgers. And this is not some wacky Bohemian jeremiad; this is an objective statement about the condition of the world, easily confirmed by anyone with the courage to look at the facts.

These prospects must and should effect our thoughts and expressions and, yes, our actions; and if writers close their eyes to this, they may be entertainers, but they are not fit to call themselves science fiction writers. And cyberpunks are science fiction writers – not a “subgenre” or a “cult,” but the thing itself. We deserve this title and we should not be deprived of it.

And just in case you’re snorting in derision at the uselessness of genre taxonomy, bear in mind that the same thing happens music all the time in. But there’s a reason that genre definitions, as loose and fluid and contentious as they may be, survive: because they’re useful.

Clearly none of this really matters, especially if you’re like me and you prefer to take bands on a case-by-case basis. I can’t say definitively I like post-punk music, because there are bands I love who might meet the specifications, and there are also bands I don’t.

Where labeling music comes in handy is in drawing comparisons, especially in the digital age when it’s far simpler to discover whether you’re really going to enjoy something before actually spending your money on it. Artists frequently stream entire albums in advance of their official drop date, and even after it’s out, one can always sample bits and pieces on file-sharing services like iTunes. And, let’s face it, there’s a whole lot of grey area stuff happening out there, too. Music leaks like the bathroom sink in two consecutive Manhattan apartments a friend of mine has lived in.

Oh, don’t mind me – I’ve been waffling on about the similarities between sf and rock music culture for years, now. 🙂


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