Interview by Giovanni Agnoloni
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bruce Sterling on the occasion of the NeXT-Fest, the first festival entirely focused on Connettivismo (Connectivism), which took place in Rome from the 26th to the 28th October 2012. It was very interesting to talk with this most amiable American writer, among the founders of cyperpunk literature (he was the editor of the short story collection Mirrorshades, whose contributors were the protagonists of such a great sci-fi literature experience). Thus, I had the chance of getting to know interesting aspects not only related to his work as a narrator, but also to his activity as a blogger, to Connectivism (that he has always followed with lots of attention) and to Italy, where, although he travels around the world pretty often, he spends part of his time.
– What fascinates you in nowadays’s world? What makes you think and imagine?
I like working on my web blog, and the topics that I follow on my web blog. And they tend to change with time. Because I am a dilettante, and I lose interest in things. Sometimes I pick them up later. But I usually have kind of a rolling set of interests that are vaguely connected in my head. So, right now on my blog I have several categories and one is called Design Fiction and it’s about speculative kind of design and industrial design and services that don’t exist yet. So, I find this really exciting right now, I think it’s kind of a hot field. It’s an area where I know a lot of people, and I’m familiar with how they think. It seems to me to be a growing thing. It’s not a genre and it’s not really design, but it’s like a form of activism that’s new. And there’s also a little bit of Architecture Fiction, which is about speculative buildings, future cities and so forth… and I have a category which is called Tech Art, which is about people practicing electronic art, art on networks and device art.
There are some that are very exciting. This is really the golden age of Tech Art. There are more installations and projections, mappings, augmentations, net art, interventions than there have ever been, and I think they’re getting better, less amateurish… they’re getting bigger audiences: that scene is developing. And then I have some other sections, like Dead Media, where I study not new technology, but dying technologies, technologies that are going away… like the British tele-text system from the BBC. Very few people know these. But I think that’s an important part of understanding the future: not the new things that happen, but the old things that stop. You have to be aware of the absences, as well as of the novelties. And then there’s are things that I blog, like occasional bits of my travels, things I’ve learnt in Europe, or Brazil, or Canada… and then I have quite a large section of “augmented reality”.
– This convention is focused on “Connettivismo” (Connectivism), this Italian originally sci-fi movement. What do you think this movement can add to the international scene of sci-fi and of literature in general?
Well, I am quite familiar with sci-fi movements, and I think they have a reason to be, but you know, you need three things: you need means, motive and opportunity; you need to have the ability to write something, and you need to want to write something; and you need some way to publicize it, so as get in front of a public. It’s hard to say what you have to do, that will capture the public imagination or that will inspire the people. But, generally speaking, if these movements are healthy they have deep roots in some scene. There may just be few people writing, but there need to be thousands or maybe hundreds of people who share some kind of cultural sensibility and are contributing – consciously or unconsciously – to what these few people are saying. Commonly a movement will end up, after a certain historical period, and maybe one or two people will be remembered and will somehow be famous, and the others will be forgotten or obscured. But quite often these forgotten and obscured guys are the ones doing the real work… whereas the guys who are famous are like really brilliant and talented soccer stars, like Ronaldinho, who is incredibly super-famous, compared with the guys on the team, who help him score goals. So, it’s hard to say what it is in your society that’s going to speak in that way, but I think it’s important for the people in the movement to recognize that they should not be too attached to themselves, asking questions like: “Am I sufficiently genius?” This is far less important than your scene. If you can tell the people there’s something going on out there, convince them so, then things will work out.
Mirrorshades was a group of about a dozen guys. They sort of shared a period cultural sensibility, some more, some less… There was no single moment. Not like you wake up one morning and say: “Gosh, I’m a cyberpunk!”. People who were cyberpunk usually referred to our work as “the movement”. We were sci-fi writers and commercial sci-writers, but we were trying to open up some new ground. But I’d guess there was a moment when I thought something was really happening, when I got a manuscript from Vancouver with an unpublished story by William Gibson and I took it to my local writers’ group in Austin, Texas, which is quite a well established regional writing group, that at the time must have been ten years old: some writers were professional, some were amateurs, but we had pretty good ideas about what we were going to do in Texas. So I took this manuscript and I circulated among the other writers. I really didn’t know what to make of it. We had a discussion about it. Some of us were really enthusiastic about it, and others were just completely bewildered, and didn’t understand it or considered it almost senseless. So I thought it was good. It was different and polarizing. It was different enough to what was going on, so that it was difficult enough to recognize what was happening. It was really avant-garde. It was the realization that something was going on that was outside our Texas group, and it had a sort of large implications. And I think it’s been the case to this date. I think the history of cyberpunk is very much tied in with emigrates, and with people moving from one culture to another, and people from small regional scenes moving into larger ones. This is very much reflected in the writing. The typical cyperpunk novel starts in Toronto and then goes to Japan, and then chapter 3 is in China, and Chapter 4 is in Moscow… That kind of sensibility was pretty unusual at the time, and pretty common now.
– Talking about travels and experiences abroad, and the fact that you live part of your time in Turin… We often complain, in Italy, about the fact that cultural life is not so lively… it’s kind of dead. Do you agree with this point? And what do you actually get and absorb from the Italian reality? To what extent do you feel Italian?
Well, I don’t really feel at all Italian, and I don’t think I ever will… but now I feel pretty global. I kind of work wherever I’m placed. You might think that, as an emigrate, I am sort of a homesick person. You know, writers quite often lament a lot about being cut off from their cultural roots… But I really don’t feel like that at all. I feel like I’m just Italian enough. There are elements of Italian society that I find really exciting and innovative, like electronic art – there’s a lot in there going on –, and interesting web “2.0” style things; Italian industrial design is pretty lively… Italian politics are terrible, but they are terrible in a kind of “advanced” way; it’s like there are people are trying to have politics that are as bad as Italian politics. It’s hard to be super-excited, when you live in a period with such international scandals and when the economy is so depressed. That’s not definitely a time when people are going to be dancing and happy in the streets. They’re rather troubled, turned in on themselves, very doubtful and self-questioning. But I would not say that there’s no culture going on: by comparison to other areas, Italy is really pretty lively. I mean, not every part of it is a wild party all the time, but it is a place that entertains a lot of foreigners, and a lot of people come here. It’s a place that lives by tourism, and sometimes dies by tourism, like Venice, visibly killed by millions of tourists… horrible, frightening thing to see, but that’s very typical of global culture. I think some of Italy’s problems are not “Italian”. Some are, but a lot of them are forced on you by things out of your control: globalized capitalism, European policies, emigration, economic decline. Don’t blame yourselves too much!