The Man Who Knows Too Much
Bruce Sterling has an unnervingly good track record of predicting the future. And what he sees just keeps getting darker and darker.
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In another life Bruce Sterling would have made a tremendous fire-and-brimstone preacher. Since he began publishing in the seventies, the Brownsville-born author has been warning us to be careful about rushing headlong into the future. His novels presaged, among other things, wearable computers, the growing power of global capital, and terrorists using mass media to broadcast executions. The twenty-first century we’re living in looks much like the one he imagined in his twentieth-century fiction.
Sterling is best known as a godfather of cyberpunk, the science fiction subgenre that shifted readers’ attention from distant futures and far-flung galaxies to near-future dystopias dominated by, as one description put it, “high tech and low life.” Sterling (along with the better-known William Gibson) not only predicted much of what we call the Internet but actively shaped our expectations of it. Further collapsing the already small distance between his writing and the real world, Sterling has, over the past decade, put a great deal of his energy into nonfiction: essays, books, keynote manifestos, blog posts. It’s tough to shake the notion that as the future has come at us faster and faster, Sterling has lost patience with the lag time involved in writing novels. Better to engage the near future right now, before it turns into yesterday’s search term.
But if Sterling has all but given up on novels—he’s produced only two since 2000’s Zeitgeist—he still maintains faith in the short story, which can be done quick and dirty. His latest book, Gothic High-Tech (Subterranean Press, $25), is a collection of a dozen recent stories, helpfully divided into three thematic sections—“Favela Chic,” “Dark Euphoria,” and “Gothic High-Tech”—each of which describes a distinct facet of his current thinking.
In Austin during last year’s SXSW Interactive, Sterling explained each term. Favela Chic, he offered, describes phenomena much like Facebook: “It was thrown up over night, it has millions of people in it, there’s no civil rights . . . [but] it’s not unusual for revolutions to come out of favelas.” (“Favela” is the Brazilian word for “shantytown.”) Gothic High-Tech refers to the sort of decline embodied in those real-estate-bubble Florida condos where “weeds are coming through the windows”; it’s “the analog world that . . . is sliding into ruin before our eyes.” Dark Euphoria describes a kind of gleeful indulgence in wild fantasy in the midst of such decline.
The title of the book’s opening story, “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Google,” echoes the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s generation-defining poem “Howl,” suggesting Sterling has a similar ambition to define an era. In the story, a seventeen-year-old would-be graffiti artist rails against the “machine nannies” who monitor his every move in the year 2026—the “radio-frequency ID tags, real-time locative systems, global positioning systems, smart doorways, security videocams.” He rebels by spray-painting stencils of his favorite “teen pop-stars,” George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and William Shakespeare—a straightforward reiteration of Sterling’s belief in the resilience of the written word amid so much digital detritus. (The teenager sees the “authentic story of my generation” in Macbeth, courtesy of the tragedy’s Three Witches, whose omniscience he finds unnervingly similar to that of Google.)
Sterling establishes this theme of the individual rebelling against authority throughout the collection. Though the characters are nearly always dwarfed by their circumstances, their individual agency is never lost. They always strive to transform their acts of transgression into symbols of a larger cause.
Gothic High-Tech’s underlying message is most powerfully expressed in “White Fungus,” about an architect and single father who enacts his own rebellion by trying to build a school amid the dilapidated “digital-feudal housing” of the Eurocore, a “junkspace” of “peeling and rotting” urban sprawl outside the remaining European capital cities where the elite reside. In this bleak future, Sterling depicts a world that has suffered “six huge, civilization-crushing” crises, involving energy, weather, demographics, finance, and public health. (Sterling’s narrator notes that he can’t remember the sixth crisis, but it was “a major issue at the time.”)
Technology offered no salvation. “Computers were not sources of wealth for us,” Sterling writes. “Moore’s Law had smeared computers around the planet, with silicon cheaper than glass. . . . In the 2040s, everybody from the Abidjan slums to the Afghan highlands was on the Internet. . . . We could access anything, and yet we could solve nothing.”
Neither did politics offer any redemption. Throughout Gothic High-Tech, Sterling lambastes the European Union in particular, predicting it will either swell into a large, unmanageable entity or simply collapse under its own contradictions. (The story was written well before the onset of the current European financial crisis.) This continental focus is doubtless the result of Sterling’s 2005 departure from his longtime home of Austin for Belgrade and his eventual move to Turin, a city that serves as the setting for two of the book’s most satirical stories: “Esoteric City,” in which a Fiat executive literally travels to hell and back, and “Black Swan,” in which a technology blogger travels to a parallel world where French president Nicolas Sarkozy is transformed into a murderous gangster lording over a Turin cafe.
As the above suggests, Sterling’s imagination is as fecund as ever, though several pieces here feel more rushed and overstuffed than anything in his earlier story collections. The trouble with trying to deliver wholly imagined futuristic worlds in a few quick strokes is that doing so requires the writer to focus on explication, often at the expense of characterization. The characters in Gothic High-Tech are far more memorable for what they say and think than what they actually do.
It is perhaps understandable that Sterling has adapted to today’s Twitter-happy world by trading in his once healthy interest in plot and character for a healthy interest in aphorisms. After all, from Facebook to the blogosphere, the cutting comment and pithy characterization are the coin of the realm. Even the ardent activists of Occupy Wall Street recognize the power of a well-wrought placard. And Gothic High-Tech is certainly rich with gems ready-made for the Twitterverse, 140-character limit and all. “You can get three basic qualities with any politician: Smart, Honest and Effective,” goes one such aphorism. “But you only get to pick two.”
Given that in Egypt, at least, Twitter has proved itself to be the perfect tool with which to foment a revolution, it may well be the highest compliment you can pay a fiction writer in this day and age: Bruce Sterling is very tweetable.
What else we’re reading this month
The Living End, Robert Leleux (St. Martin’s Press, $10). Author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy remembers his Houston grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
I’ll Be Here in the Morning, Brian T. Atkinson (Texas A&M Press, $25). Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and others celebrate the songwriting legacy of Townes Van Zandt.
The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen (Harper Perennial, $14.99). Debut novel set in Texas and Saudi Arabia, from Lakeway-raised author.