INTERVIEW: BRUCE STERLING on Caryatids, Viridian and the death of print

Bruce SterlingNovelist, pundit, design theorist and iconoclast – Bruce Sterling is all of these and more, and is one of the people that the Futurismic project has always looked to for inspiration.

Sterling has a new novel called Caryatids out at the end of February, the writing of which has somehow been shoehorned in between him bouncing around Europe, lecturing on design theory and keeping an eye on the maelstrom of global multimedia culture and politics.

He was good enough to cave into the pestering of this irredeemable fanboy and answer some questions about the new novel, the closing of the Viridian Green project and the relentless demise of science fiction print media.

First of all, can you give us your “elevator pitch” for Caryatids? What’s it about, and why should we read it?

You know what would be ideal? A science fiction novel that people literally had to read. Otherwise they’d die horribly. Maybe through being publicly torn to shreds by vast, invisible forces beyond their understanding.

The elevator pitch — okay, fine. I’m trying to write some science fiction that was literally inconceivable in the 20th century. So this latest highly-innovative book has a lot of internet-of-things stuff in it. The Internet of Things used to be pretty inconceivable. It’s also got a lot of the down-and-dirty stuff that we’ve learned lately about climate collapse.

What was the hardest part of writing it?

That was the part when I discovered that I knew so much about ubiquitous computing that people wanted me to teach design school. I did, and I still teach in design school. Nowadays I teach lots of things in lots of different design schools.

Knocking it off with design school to pretend that printed science fiction is really with-it, man, that was pretty hard.

The thing that’s cool about design students is, when you tell them about something goofy and speculative, they immediately want to build one. I dote on those characters. It’s like encounter-therapy.

What would you now, with the benefit of authorial hindsight applied to the speed of publication, go back and change about it, if anything?

That’s a great question, but really, I don’t think one should do that. It’s immoral. You wanna update stuff all the time, get a dang blog.

I’d probably throw in a little more economic-collapse than I did. Economic collapse is way trendy this season.

If I did that, though, the book wouldn’t date very well. Whereas Caryatids is probably like a lot of my books, better appreciated after ten years. Caryatids is gonna be one of those books where people either don’t get it at all — it’s just, like, a wild, disjointed farrago and it stays that way — or else people will be freaked-out by its many uncanny insights. Like Islands in the Net from 1988 — people read that book now, they’re like, “gosh, it’s so up-to-date, except for all these fax machines and Soviets.”

The top achievement for a future-SF tome would be that you wrote it, it was super-weird, far-out, and just tinglingly visionary, and forty years later people read it and it all seemed perfectly normal. No imaginative fireworks or sense-of-wonder there at all. Just commonsensical prose. Banal, even.

Caryatids has got way too much sturm and drang to achieve that; all the viewpoint characters are highly agitated people. Monstrous people native to monstrous times. Like us, only somewhat more so.

How does your writing process differ nowadays compared to the start of your career?


How does the kick of writing fiction differ to the kick of, say, your work in the design sphere?

Well, I’m not a designer. When I write fiction, I feel at least sort of okay about the result, or else I wouldn’t offer it for publication. Whereas when I involve myself in any serious design, I can immediately sense things going from bad to worse. I have no talent for form-giving; two-D drawing, 3-D modelling, I can’t even go there; and my heart’s just not in it. I really don’t care much for design — certainly not in the way that any serious designer should care. I care for design theory. I really like design theory, I like it better than most design theorists like it.

It feels like you’ve wrapped up the Viridian Newsletters with a tentative sense of “Mission Accomplished” on climate change awareness. Would that be a fair comment?

No. I wrapped it up more in the position of a guy who was doing some spy work on the ground and who split before the heavy bombers arrived.

What was the Viridian mission, exactly?

To create and encourage a “bright green” demographic of design technocrats. Or rather, to make that prospect seem thinkable.

And what do you see as the next necessary stage for the world?

Scaling up green. Scaling green way up, so much so that the possible contributions I would make merely get in the way. I’m not gonna help a whole lot in the ongoing obliteration of Exxon-Mobil. Not that I wouldn’t like to help, it’s just that it’s an activity better left to professionals.

How do you respond to the denial of anthropic global warming?

Well, I used to warn the practitioners that they’d end up in prison someday. They’re sure lying pretty low right now; all those bold hucksters, Heartland Institute, Greening Earth Society, the salaried denial pros that used to infest the Beltway… the ones that aren’t stupid, man, they’re probably really scared now. They left evidence trails all over the Wayback Machine, and when they’re trying to retire into the drowning South of France, that’s not gonna look pretty.

As for the amateur denialists, they’re just common website cranks like the Randians, Scientologists, Creationists, whomever. They’re quite sincere, but there’s no arguing with them. A total waste of time.

Climate change aside, what’s the next big truck coming down the turnpike – the big hazard we should all be watching for?

A major depression. Some off-the-wall style 1989-style popular upheaval has become possible again. The next big truck might not be a “hazard,” you know. We might get a big turnpike truck full of unexpected Christmas toys that makes everybody dance and sing.

No kidding, that’s been known to happen. Some black swans are beautiful.

On the flipside, what about underrated good stuff: what makes you feel positive about the potential of the next few decades?

I don’t even do “positive” and “negative” potential. I sincerely think that attitude makes people actively stupid about the future.

Asking me about the positive or negative potential of the 2010s — that’s like asking about the positive aspects of the 1810s. There was plenty going on in 1814 that was “positive,” but if you wrote a historical treatise just about the nifty, upbeat aspects of two hundred years ago, people would think you were nuts.

History is what it is. Major change-drivers, true historical forces, they have little to do with people’s innate need for pep-talk. If you want to help people deal with futurity, you need to think talk and act in a way that clarifies the situation — not within mental frameworks that are dystopian, utopian, miserabilist, hunky-dory, apocaphiliac, Singularitarian, millennialist… wishful thinking just isn’t serious thinking. We’re wishful about the future because it hasn’t happened yet, but the future is history. Tomorrow is quite similar to all the other days in history, with the quite small difference that it’s personally happening to us.

Anything that’s got “potential” has always got some positive and negative potential. Otherwise it’s not even “potential.”

The developments that interest me now are mostly ventures that lack proper names. I’m interested in things described only with buzzwords, because they lack a settled verbal framing. I don’t call those the most important things in the world, but I think I can do some good work there. Personally, my time is well-spent in those arenas.

How do you feel science fiction – written, cinematic or otherwise – relates to existential issues in the world today; does it still (or did it ever) have genuine relevance?

Okay, there are two parts to this problem — the part about “genuine relevance,” and the stuff about print, cinema and other media issues. Never mind the science fiction — just imagine yourself writing for the New York Times, and realizing your publishing platform is hanging by a thread because it barely got bailed out by a Mexican billionaire. The media are in dire turmoil.

Big money — like, major venture finance — obviously, that’s supposed to have massively genuine relevance to the genuine issues. Well, there isn’t any money. It went away. It was phantasmic, it got rejected more violently than the lunatic premise of Star Wars.

And now you’re wondering if science fiction stories in the bimonthly F&SF have existential “relevance”? Relevance compared to what? What would you rather have, a cracking good sci-fi story or a billion dollars in underwater real-estate?

As a writer who started his career publishing stories in the sf print mags (and one who still appears in them occasionally today), how does it feel to see the decline of print as a medium – not just from the design/futurism side, but from the side of a consumer of and contributor to a niche industry?

The decline of print is sickening. Also, it’s profoundly unsurprising. The part about the Russian KGB agent buying the London Evening Standard for one pound, okay, that part was a little peculiar. That’s very William Gibson, but he would have taken more trouble to make that development look plausible.

It’s bad, but every futurist gets it about print. What worries me is other stuff, like the visible decline of weblogs as a medium. I’ve been tiresome about dead media, I obsess at much length about the issue of media and its fragility. but I’m wondering now if I ever guessed the half of it.

Money is a medium. Money is a medium of exchange. It digitized, it globalized, and then what happened to it?

The decline of print compared to what? Compared to Microsoft? Microsoft is firing people. They’re supposedly the road ahead and they’re not inventing anything.

What’s next for Bruce Sterling – what will you be focusing on, and what should we all be watching out for on the global stage?

Well, I never said much about this, because there are certain dark remarks that can become self-fulfilling prophecies. But I always held a secret, silent dread that I would end up as a publisher. It’s the standard punishment for getting too close to the Muses: they make you put on an apron and an eyeshade and do all the scutwork.

But if there’s no commercial science fiction, no bestsellers, no chainstores, no media tie-ins — no more place to throw my glowing pearls before those capitalist swine — well then, clearly the model for action is something like Arkham House. Yes, Arkham House, or maybe some Czech hippie ’89er samizdat underground scene. Counterculture goes to the trenches. Cold canned spaghetti with the Lovecraft cult. It’s what one does.

I sure don’t relish that prospect, because I’m old and lazy, but what the heck, I’ve seen it. Maybe, if I absolutely had to do it, I could do it in some way that better fits contemporary circumstances. Like: buy the 6,000 word scifi story, get the free fabricated chair-plans. An Arduino chip with every novelette. Buy the fantasy trilogy and you get a gratis Italian street uprising and a homemade steampunk watch. You get my drift here.

When the world turns upside down, the people don’t stop breathing. Tomorrow just composts today.


On behalf of Futurismic, I’d like to thank Bruce for taking the time to answer these questions. If you don’t already, you can get a Sterling-eye view of the world from his blog, Beyond The Beyond.

2 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: BRUCE STERLING on Caryatids, Viridian and the death of print”

  1. Actually, I quite like the model he’s proposing. Times being what they are, why not pay in luxury: I know I’d take a year’s supply of my favourite too-expensive organic body cream, or salmon shipped straight from the Copper River, or a night’s rental of an HD screening space so I could watch 2001 with all my friends. If money’s useless, give me what I’d like to buy with it, instead. (And no, barter doesn’t pay the bills. I’m well aware. But let’s face it: SF never did, unless you were extremely lucky.)

  2. This man is the best comedian of the 1990’s.
    Every time I hear him speak I am filled with jovial mirth and secret delight.
    He really is quite a clever old knob and his subtle wit is engaging.

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