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A world run by technocrats or one ruled by oil firms?

Talking black swans, pink flamingos and sacred cows with American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling (centre) with fans at the recent Bangalore Literature Festival. Photo: BLF
Bruce Sterling (centre) with fans at the recent Bangalore Literature Festival. Photo: BLF

American science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling is considered one of the progenitors of cyberpunk—fiction set in a future or an alternate reality where sophisticated technology coexists with social breakdown and autocracy. While William Gibson’s Neuromancer defined cyberpunk to a large extent, Sterling helped solidify it with novels like Involution Ocean and Schismatrix. In Bengaluru recently to attend the Bangalore Literature Festival (27-28 October), Sterling revealed that he had spent time in Chennai as a child, and is an admirer of Indian films (including mainstream Bollywood and Tamil movies). Edited excerpts from an interview:

Many of the tropes of cyberpunk are now reality. How does it feel to have predicted the future?

It’s pleasant that people sometimes praise me for my prescience, but it’s often for the saddest and darkest things that I wrote. It would be nicer if the world was in a better condition today, and I had the reputation of a happy prophet who had promised everybody that things would turn out fantastically well. That didn’t happen, but, well, that is realism.

Do you believe we live in a technocratic world?

Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, and also Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, are the dominant industries of the current era. Unfortunately for them, they are the top dogs in grim times, and clearly they must deserve some blame for the current shape of things. I used to scold these major companies for being oblivious to the many side-effects of their great successes, but now I can see that they themselves are very worried. This technocratic world of computer companies has problems, but it is probably better for us than a world run by oil companies. The oil companies are also very technocratic, and also heavily armed.

Many of your stories are set in a world where humans have colonized the solar system. What is your opinion of the current state of space exploration, and is human colonization of space a good or a bad idea (also, is it inevitable)?

There are many capable robot spacecraft out in the solar system today. Managing space environments where people can survive and thrive—that’s not as easy at it sounds in a novel. People do want to do that, though. For decades the International Space Station (ISS) has always had someone aboard it, even though the space station is fantastically expensive and doesn’t make a lot of commercial, military or scientific sense. If it was a “good idea" to live on bleak, hostile Mars, then it would also be a good idea for Indians to choose to live in the cold, airless peaks of the Himalayas and in the worst, most barren deserts of the Indian subcontinent. Still, I believe that’s technically possible. India has spacecraft orbiting Mars. If there were big, thriving Indian colonies out in the waterless deserts of the Thar, Deccan and Kutch, then there would probably be some Indians living on Mars, too.

You spoke about pink flamingos (as opposed to black swans). Could you tell us more about them? What are India’s pink flamingos?

A black swan is famous as an unforeseeable event that is the “unknown unknown". There is no futuristic way to prepare for the black swan, because no one has any idea that such a creature even exists... A pink flamingo is a strange bird like the black swan, but instead of not knowing about it, everyone has agreed to ignore it. For cultural or political reasons, it’s just not possible to speak frankly and practically about the pink flamingo. So, even though the pink flamingo is large and awkward and has a big effect on public events, people will never admit that it is the root cause of what is happening. If you want to study India’s many pink flamingos, you might begin by listing aspects of Indian culture that seem impossibly exotic and weird to some innocent foreigner from, say, Latvia or Samoa. A “sacred cow," for instance. The well-known reverence for cattle is an Indian flamingo that’s so entirely unusual that it’s been known worldwide for centuries. I would add that I do not expect India’s cattle to get any less sacred in the future. On the contrary, Indian cattle will probably get more sacred.

I believe you liked the Indian sci-fi film ‘Enthiran (Robot)’. Did you like it sincerely or ironically?

I like Aishwarya’s dance gear in the item number that was shot, for no reason at all, in South America. That’s one of Mrs Bachchan’s better movies all around, actually. It’s rare to see her enjoy herself so much in a role. Enthiran is a work of Indian cinema that I’m keen to show to people who don’t understand Indian movies. Technically and culturally, Enthiran really is an advance, and much more interesting than a similar hit movie such as Baahubali, which has a very similar FX budget but is much more backward-looking. Enthiran is a bet on an India that can portray itself as a swaggering technological superpower, a “Make in India" powerhouse. That prospect sincerely interests me.

What excites you today—enough to make you want to write a book on?

I’m writing a book about the city of Turin, or rather, a book about why the city of Turin exists. I like to write works of fantascienza, the Italian version of science fiction, and this work is my only full-length fantascienza novel. I travel a lot, but I spend more time in Turin than anywhere else. I feel a need to come to terms with this experience in a historical way. The deep alliance between the past and the future is something I feel vividly in Italy.

Why does it feel as if contemporary science/speculative fiction is exclusively focused on dystopia?

Contemporary science fiction writers are focused on writing dystopia because the political and economic classes are focused on creating dystopia. Chinese science fiction writers don’t write dystopias, mostly because they are not allowed to do that by their state. I would point out that in a true dystopia, people wouldn’t write or read dystopias—there would be no reason to write or read. I’m writing this from Belgrade, Serbia, a city I know well, and I would have to say that here, the city and the people are much better off than I’ve ever seen them before. They’re not dystopian at all. By the harsh standards of the Balkans, they’re doing very well now.

The writer Ernst Jünger was a sadder novelist than I am, yet he lived for 103 years. Jünger once said, “A happy century does not exist; but there are moments of happiness, and there is freedom in the moment." I like that attitude, with its realization that every day is a gift.

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