Gothic High-Tech by Bruce Sterling
Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
12 December 2012
I was on a panel at Bristolcon a few weeks back with a guy who'd never heard of Bruce Sterling.
This came as something of a surprise.
The chap in question was older than me, and clearly fairly well-read in genre terms—he was defending Aldiss's Hothouse (1962) in one of those "battle of the books" type of panels, while I'd decided to sit in the Schismatrix (1985) corner. (He won.) How, I wondered aloud, could you spend years reading science fiction and not know Bruce Sterling—cyberpunk ideologue, scathing critic, author of maybe a dozen dazzling and proleptic novels, plus a few score short stories in almost every subgenre there's a name for?
At this point I realized I was being a hipster, and decided to shut my mouth and think harder about the question—because if nothing else, it'd be a bloody good hook for a review I was supposed to have submitted nearly nine months previous.
Yeah, yeah, I know. But this is the hyperdisintermediated twenty-first century, people—atemporality is the order of the day. Think of this as the long tail of dead-tree book reviewing, if that helps. If you can't sit on the bleeding edge—and, let's face it, that's a hard trick to pull off without getting sliced in two—then you'd best sit a little way back and see what sense you can make of the warp and weft by looking at the severed threads as they flutter past, right? If pertinence is impossible, then we have to try and make sense of things along an axis other than the temporal.
As flippant as that sounds, I kinda mean it, too. Gothic High-Tech is a Subterranean title, which means it's as much artefact as entertainment media, if not more so. It's a tangible chunk of bespoke art-product, vastly over-engineered for purpose. Unlike the majority of Subterranean's titles, it's not a luxury reprint of a classic; this is the only place you'll find all of these stories inked onto high-grade pulped wood. There's no ebook edition, either. Once they've all left the warehouse, that's it. No infinite lossless duplication, no disintermediated cloud presence, no arphids. This Is Not A Spime.
The counterintuitive point I'm trying to make here is that Gothic High-Tech, considered purely as an artefact, is likely to retain the information it contains far longer than any extant digital format. Bits may rot, but pages? Even if stored fairly casually, they just yellow, become a little brittle. They actually accumulate value with time—unless temporal pertinence is your primary metric of value, of course, in which case I can't help you, nor can anyone else, and the years ahead are going to be an unbroken chain of baffling and seemingly disconnected revelations of an increasingly uncomfortable sort.
Also, their batteries never run out.
But anyway, back to the question: how has Sterling managed to slip under the science fiction reader's radar? His ubiquity in my own milieu is due in part to his reputation as a relentless burster of digi-cultural bubbles: in his role as resolutely counter-Panglossian futurist, and as a design and (new) media critic and curator, Sterling breezes in to the keynote sessions of conferences packed with whatever the direct descendants of the dot-com scenesters are called these days, and drops mad bombz into the discourse. As a colleague once put it, it's almost an inversion of the TED talk format: people pay Sterling to turn up and tell the thought-leaders of entire nascent industries that they're incredibly smart, that they're doing amazing work, and that their business model is ultimately doomed and there's nothing they can do about it.
He must be doing something right; they keep asking him back, after all.
But if you're not hardwired into that scene—if you're not one of those oddly meta Internet natives who spend most of their time on the Internet discussing the future of the Internet, if the phrases "New Aesthetic," "obsolete before plateau," and "design fiction" sound to you like the sort of ephemeral new-media buzzphrases that you've no interest in knowing more about—well, maybe it's not so surprising you've not heard of Sterling. After all, the way to keep up a good profile in the SF scene is to keep knocking out a novel a year, and we've only had three from Sterling in the last decade and a half.
So, my thesis is this: science fiction readers don't know Sterling because Sterling doesn't really need to write science fiction any more.
By which I mean he doesn't need to write in order to pay the bills; he is disconnected from the economic imperatives of the science fiction novelist. But as far as the desire to write—the drive to communicate and explore ideas, to examine the world like a potentially hazardous yet beautiful nanofibrous cyberflower that is always-already unfolding—he's still deep in the game, as the stories in Gothic High-Tech demonstrate.
But there's a further clue in the acknowledgments page. Only three of these stories, "Kiosk," "Esoteric City," and "The Exterminator's Want-Ad," were first published in an English-language science fiction venue of serious (albeit declining) note and visibility, namely The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy (January 2007, August/September 2009, and November 2010, respectively); "Windsor Executive Solutions," written in collaboration with Chris Nakashima-Brown, was published at Futurismic by yours truly (which is all we'll say about it in this review), and "A Plain Tale From Our Hills" was published by Subterranean's online magazine, which—despite its frequently stellar list of contributors—doesn't seem to have the readership reach it deserves. Oh, and "The Lustration" first appeared in Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse One anthology in 2007; feel free to ask an anthology editor how well those things sell nowadays. (A question best accompanied by the offer of a stiff drink, or of whatever intoxicants are mutually socially acceptable in your present locality. Be prepared for a lot of sighing.)
And it's yet more telling to look where the other pieces had their débuts: New Scientist ("I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Google," December 2006); Icon Magazine, a leading organ of the design and architecture communities ("The Hypersurface of This Decade," February 2010); a "bookazine" (their neologism, not mine) of "new, experimental forms of architectural and urban writing” commissioned by SUN, a Dutch publishing house specialising in architecture, art and design ("White Fungus," April 2009); and MIT's Technology Review ("The Interoperation," November/December 2007). Add one straight-to-ebook novella through an Italian press ("The Parthenopean Scalpel," 40K Books, 2010) and a translation of a story first sold to a recent reboot of a late-seventies Italian science fiction magazine ("Black Swan," originally titled "Cigno Nero," 2009, Robot Fantascienza), and that's a full house.
See what I mean? Sterling simply doesn't need the core Anglophone science fiction readership any more; he has metastasized, like some snarky yet ultimately benign form of cultural cancer, spreading to other organs less hostile to news that doesn't fit with the care-worn hegemonic metanarratives and false ideological binaries du jour. (Though, to be fair, I suspect his audiences in the academy and the boardrooms are, Caesar-like, just as capable of hearing only that which is pleasing unto them. We are all but human, after all.)
Indeed, perhaps there's some additional fuel for the perpetual genre-in-crisis debate, here—because while many of these stories are science fictional in attitude, they are largely devoid of the standard signifiers of the genre: no rocket ships, no mirrorshades (except in ironic self-reference), no Competent Men, no Manifest Destiny. The obsession with history as a developmental and developing narrative, as a braided skein of cause and effect woven on the fly by a loom comprising people and politics and technology? That's very much present and correct. But if you're hoping for a traditional SF reader-cookie for backing the right paradigm—the reassurance that the world's problems could be solved by your ideological tribe, if only you could elbow aside the [wingnuts/moonbats—delete as appropriate] and really get to work—you're going to end up reading on an empty stomach.
OK, look—around when The Caryatids (2009) was published, yours truly interviewed Sterling, and he gave me answers that made a lot of my questions—and, by extension, me—seem pretty stupid. (This is apparently a fairly common experience among Sterling interviewers.) I asked him what made him feel positive about the potential of the decades ahead, and he responded thusly:
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."
That answer pretty much changed the way I think about everything, but it had the most marked effect on the way I read (and write) science fiction. I hold that everything you need in order to understand what Sterling tries to do with fiction is right there in those few paragraphs, as is everything you need in order to understand why Sterling outgrew science fiction like a mutant carp in an over-aerated aquaponics tank. Science fiction has all but stopped seeking truth (if, indeed, it ever did); its response to the post-modern hollowing-out of comforting Grand Narratives is to wail that its Grand Narratives never did mummy and daddy any harm, thankyouverymuch, and that if you take its security blanket to be washed then it will almost certainly have a massive tantrum come bedtime. In this vignette, Sterling's like some disreputable uncle who rewrites fairytales on the fly and gives your kids nightmares; as such, he doesn't get invited round too often, except for those big family bashes where it'd be as rude not to invite him as it would be to not invite the other uncle, the unreconstructed fundie homophobe who nonetheless also helped put the family on the map Back In The Day. (Indeed, the unreconstructed uncle tends to get invited more often . . . though as he loses his grip on notions of diplomacy—or is it basic common decency?—the invites are becoming less enthusiastic. Yes, Orson Scott Card; I am looking at you.)
I find it harder and harder to recommend Sterling stories as the years go by—not because they're no good, but because they demand an effort from the reader that few seem willing to give. Sterling likes to make your brain work; this is something all SF claims to want to do, but somewhere along the line stimulation got mistaken for soma, imagination for wish-fulfilment. But it's not just a matter of content, but one of style; Sterling's most SFnal works tend to be written in the breezy and almost cartoonish style he developed in the Leggy Starlitz stories, and—rather than demurely claiming that "it's all just fiction, really"—there's often a very clear and unflinching allegorical component to them, which readers either don't notice or decline to notice. Allegory is woefully unfashionable in SF these days—find me a reputable review from the last decade that mentions allegory in an SF novel with unalloyed positivity, I dare you—and as such SF readers no longer have the right toolkit for reading them. Part of this stems from a lot of shitty allegorical and/or polemical fiction being published over the years; another part stems from Sterling's fondness for types.
"Kiosk" is a good example. Set in an unnamed Eastern European nation-state some few decades down the timeline from today, its characters are not just temporal types but also avatars for entire classes, for different social strata and their different reactions to changing circumstance. The state in question is just hitting the next techno-economic upswing after a global economic collapse, powered by the introduction of next-generation 3D printing or fabrication devices, and the typical responses of each avatar to the shifts of power determine whether their lot improves, declines, or stays the same: the future is a thing that happens to you, and the best you can do is roll with the punches. Indeed, if there's a determinant of success for Sterling characters, it's that they remember enough history to be able to infer meaning in the fluctuations of the present, and act accordingly. Of course, "success" may not turn out to be what you—or they—thought it was going to be.
"White Fungus" does a similar thing in a different part of a similar world—this time, it's the sprawling monoculture of Eurosuburbia, rendered an alien habitat by economic collapse, and by the disappearance of both cheap fossil fuels and the state. The narrator is from the world before, the world in ruins which he must come to terms with, but the protagonist is a new type: rootless, severed from geography and the global financial system, operating under a new set of priorities as strange and marvelous to the narrator as ours would be to ordinary people of the 1970s. It's a kind of temporal determinism, in a way, but the use of types enable Sterling to talk powerfully about how we are all—inescapably—products of our times.
The problem is that we've grown unaccustomed to the use of types, as opposed to flat characters who are flat simply because their creator can't write for toffee. It took me a long time to get to grips with Sterling's short fiction for exactly that reason, to be honest; I'd had it drilled into me by the genre discourse that Flat Characters Are Bad Writing, and Sterling makes no effort to pretend that these characters are supposed to be "real" people. Indeed, he makes it quite explicit that they're not, exaggerating everything. His characters declaim for the benefit of the audience! They're Shakespearean! Their speech is not naturalistic! And, I swear, no one hammers their [shift]+ key combo like Sterling doing a dialogue scene!
In other words, it's tricky stuff to give to someone who's been inculcated with a certain set of beliefs as to how science fiction prose should be written, because it can come across as a bit absurd if you don't grok the context; like a sort of Punch and Judy show, almost, though that's a massive oversimplification. Personally, I found the key to these sorts of Sterling stories was watching a lot of those keynote speeches I mentioned: once you have a feel for his speaking voice and rhetorical style, the sense of his stories as polemical performance suddenly opens up, and you realize that he's using both mediums to similar ends. But if you try to read them through the lens of supposedly literary values as currently considered canonical on Planet Genre, you're going to bounce off pretty hard.
You'll also run into trouble if you go looking to Sterling to tell you that you're on the right side of something, or indeed anything. This deep-running moral ambiguity is what I believe made The Caryatids unpalatable for many readers: not only does it feature a cast of exaggerated types, but the extrapolated incarnations of our current ideological dichotomy—which we still label Left and Right, even though those terms are ludicrously outdated and hollow—are both revealed to be as blinkered, fractious, and destined to fail as one another. The same sleight of hand is played as a dexterous back-alley card sharp's one-shot in "The Exterminator's Want Ad," where you're encouraged to see the narrator as a right-wing astroturfing socnet monster who got his just desserts before being shown that, while that's exactly what he is, those who served the desserts are just as monstrous in their own ideological manner, that both camps are inextricable (not to mention mutually enabling) aspects of the contemporary human condition, and that everyone, regardless of which side they pick, is going to end up sat in the same latrine and siding with whoever speaks most convincingly about their ladder-building skills.
If "Exterminator" is a polemic, then "I Saw the Best Minds" is even more nakedly so, to the extent that it seems like a weak piece against the others herein collected, and so completely devoid of subtlety or pretenses of Literature that it was an act of either bravery or madness to put it at the very front of the book. Which is to say I sympathize with the point it makes, but—unlike the other stories—it really feels like the title is the only bit you need to bother with. "The Hypersurface of This Decade"—a monologue from a freshly dumped member of the Silicon Roundabout digirati who's busily 3D-printing himself a whole new set of possessions to replace the stuff his now-ex-wife has absconded with—does a much better job of saving its bite for the final moment, and "The Interoperation" manages to talk about the knock-on effects of software incompatibility—and, simultaneously, the ideologies incorporated into software by its coders, which predestine that incompatibility—without losing sight of the need for a narrative. Granted, that narrative is about two generations of computer-aided architects and their fractious familial relationships, which doesn't exactly make for dazzling action scenes—or, indeed, any action scenes at all. But think back to where it was first published. The readership of Technology Review probably appreciated the brusqueness with which Sterling makes his point: that software has exactly the same problem with redundant paradigms and intergenerational incomprehension as the hapless meatbags who create and use the stuff.
"Black Swan" hits the balance best, though, blending Sterling's snarky take on the here-and-now with a hoary but ever-useful trope. A two-bit tech-journo meets the leaky source whose tip-offs raised him somewhat above the blogospheric scum-line, and comes to realize that the integrated circuits and design software he's being shown haven't come from any world he's familiar with. And why would some shabby nerd in cargo pants want to gift the Italian tech industry with nth-generation engineering secrets? Turns out even a timeline-hopping ubergeek will do anything to try to win back the girl who dumped him for someone more successful . . . even when that someone is the diminutive (and now former) President of France. But in his quest for revenge, he's seen (and sometimes meddled with) sixty-four different realities where technology took a different turn and dragged society with it; where the titular black swans flew in different directions, but were accepted as history just the same. There's a sort of inverted sensawunda at work, here—an attempt to explain that, while other worlds might well have been amazing, we'd do better to worry about the one we're stuck with—but if you're still hung up on the necessity of characters one can root for, well, maybe you should move yourself along; unless you root for flawed avatars of human hubris and the sort of doomed fuck-ups and hucksters who litter the margins of history, that's not the game being played, here.
But the game that is being played can be played just as well with the past and the present as with the future, as illustrated by "Esoteric City"—which also foregrounds Sterling's fascination with Turin, the city where he now spends at least as much time as he spends anywhere else. This one's an allegory, too. A story of an Italian captain of industry who made a deal, not with the devil, but with an ancient Egyptian mummy, it shares some rhetorical bite with "Exterminator": cruelly satirical, here Sterling reminds us that time has torn down mighty pyramids and other such human endeavors without tearing down the social hierarchies and power structures that underlie them. If we think that the Greening of human civilization will arrive hand in hand with the unGreeding of it, we should look to history and think again.
"The Parthenopean Scalpel" not only delves into Italian history, but also adds a certain weight to my thesis, proving as it does that Sterling is more than capable of writing in a style other than his Tall But Telling Tales Of Types. I must confess to my nigh-complete ignorance of Italian history, so I'm not entirely sure what is being riffed on, here, but it's still pure Sterling: still a story of changes at the scale of nations and those left behind by the turn of history's pages, of archetypes rendered archaic by the events they themselves have set in motion. The closest stylistic referent I have for this piece is Borges: it has that vivid Borgesian hyperrealism about it, for a start, as well as featuring a duel over a woman with two heads. If you're familiar with "The Blemmye's Stratagem," you'll know the facet of Sterling's writing which shines through here. And while the history being referred to remains (to me) opaque, there's no missing that message: great men leave their marks, as is their wont, but in doing so they make a world to which they no longer belong.
More stylistically subtle still is "A Plain Tale from Our Hills," which does that thing where SF goes far enough into a future sufficiently weird that it reads more like a fantasy of days long gone. With its vacillating army officers and society balls, there's a hint of the Chekov about it, but Sterling manages to pack a whole lot of ideas (and more than a hint of If This Goes On) into a scarce handful of pages.
But for my money, "The Lustration" is the gem of this collection, and the one that I'd pass to a science fiction reader who hadn't heard of Sterling before, because it has the best of both worlds: you've got yer standard brutal Bruce, gleefully skewering the technoscientific discourse of the present, but you've also got a very cunning and evocative reframing of Singularitarianism (and its discontents) on a far-far-FAR-future Earth, where the role of the Internet is played by a global network of trees that has developed an emergent sentience. It's a proper bit of skiffy, in other words . . . and more than a little bit reminiscent of Aldiss's Hothouse, now I come to think of it.
All of which is a very long way of saying that, although you may not be aware of Bruce Sterling as a science fiction writer, it's still very much at the core of what he does—in fact, I might even go so far as to argue that it's the genre that has wandered, and Sterling who's keeping a particular iteration of the flame alive, lighting fires in new places, in new audiences, new minds outside the hidebound circlejerk of genre. And if you miss the sensation of having science fiction stretch your brainmeat a bit, of those powerful and irreversible up-endings of the way you see certain things, and you're not aware of Bruce Sterling? Go find him.
It's easy enough to do; just look at where the genre is now, and then look fifteen years further up the road.