May 20, 2004

Sterling Commentary

Bruce Sterling came to town last night, to do a lecture and book signing at Mysterious Galaxy on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. This is the same store that Michael Gruber did a signing at back in 2003, and also covered here in the blog.

I got there a few minutes early, but discovered some others had gotten there a few minutes earlier still. Two older geeky guys were having a conversation among the books, that went something like this:

Red Stapler #1: Oh, the most I ever paid for a box was a Gateway system for $3800.

Red Stapler #2: I got one of the early laser printers back in oh, 1984.

Red Stapler #1: I paid $425 for a printer back in the day, it was the first printer I ever bought. Dot matrix. That printer is still running . . .

Bruce S. finally wandered into the store around 6:45, looking a little tired. Last time I was at a Bruce book signing was years ago, at Hunters Books in La Jolla, when he and William Gibson co-signed books for their Difference Engine book.

The store shopkeepers chit-chatted with Bruce and when they did, Red Stapler #1 began talking as if he was part of the conversation, answering questions and interjecting his own comments as if Bruce was listening. He wasn't, and never acknowledged the guy's existence. Red Stapler #1 went and sat down.

I got up, went over, and said hello.

"Hi Bruce, I'm 'brian' on The WELL." (For those who don't know, Bruce is "bruces" on The WELL.)

"Hi, Brian-on-the-well." He said it as if pronouncing "Stratford-upon-Avon." Very droll.

He didn't know me from Adam. I guess I was Red Stapler #3.

I told him I remembered the time I met him back at the old Hunter's Bookstore in La Jolla, back in.. oh...

"Nineteen ninety-one!" the Mysterious Galaxy shopkeeper shouted out from behind the counter. Shit, I thought, everybody's a geek in this store.

"The line was incredibly long, weaving throughout the store," I said. "And at one point, you stood up and announced your hand and wrist were tired from signing books, so you just got up and said you were going to take a half-hour break before going back to table to continue signing."

His facial expression indicated either he didn't remember it, or he didn't want to remember it. He responded blaming Gibson, it must have been Gibson. (It wasn't.)

I told him I was here to blog the event.

"You're blogging it. Well, I'm gonna blog your blog," he said, in a manner I imagine Mark Twain or W.C. Fields might have.

He mentioned he had to get up early tomorrow morning to catch a 6:30am flight to Seattle. He wasn't happy about that.

His voice hadn't changed. Still the same mixture of Marvin the Depressed Robot, an Austin version of The Dude, and Matthew McConaughey's character David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused.

I went and sat down behind two Red Staplers. They were having a discussion about the uses of hexadecimal code.

My chair was right along the wall, lined with the Bookshelf of Honor: all the books in the shelf were signed first editions. In other words, books the bookstore had left over from crappy turnouts from previous author signings. There were a bunch of copies of Neal Stephenson's The Confusion. A Gregory Benford title was there. Lots of sci-fi. Lots of mystery writers too (who reads all this crap, I wonder?). There's a reason the store is called Mysterious Galaxy, after all.

There wasn't anything for Bruce to drink. The storekeeper offered to go to McDonald's next door and get a soda. At first Bruce resisted ("I'm gonna run on pure charisma!" he announced) but finally said fine. The storekeeper announced, "I'm about to go over to McDonald's. Wish me luck!" and off he went.

And so the talk began. Bruce talked half into his hand, upon which his head rested. He spoke about how he stumbled into doing a "techno-thriller", which is how he describes his latest work, The Zenith Angle. He was doing a bunch of nonfiction, including a WIRED piece, and found himself interviewing policy wonks and defense contractors in D.C. "I'm old enough now that when I go and talk to federal officials, they're younger than me" and so he's less of a threat, he said. He marvelled at how intertwined the military-industrial complex has become: "the door at the Pentagon is revolving at the speed of sound." "Everybody's implicated," he said. "From Maine, to Kansas, to San Diego. Everybody's on the take. We're so into major military power that we can fund our fantasies."

The shopkeeper came back from the McDonald's. He plopped a huge, 64-oz Super-Sized cup of soda on the table besides Bruce. (I guess the guy hasn't seen the movie SuperSize Me). Bruce never drank from the soda.

He mentioned how some of the minor characters in the book are named after some of the real-life people who helped him with some of the technical and policy matters.

He described The Zenith Angle as a techno-thriller "where the technician is the hero." Q becomes Bond, in other words.

Interspersed with his profundities of techno-thrillers, military power, and science fiction, Bruce had little jibes at the Bush Administration. He's not a fan. "The Bush Administration came into office with their minds made up," he says, and nothing anyone says, including folks like Richard Clarke, will alter their mindsets.

He'd met Clarke while doing research. "Computer security worldwide is a shambles, a mess," he said. The speed with which viruses can attack on the Net now is so incredible ("It's like watching ants eat an elephant!") there's no human way to type in code fast enough to fix the holes. He described our current approach to security as "patch and pray."

Several things pop up repeatedly when Bruce speaks. One, he'll remind you every now and then that he's old now, thank you very much. Two, the name Gibson. It's as if he's haunted by everything Gibson does. I suspect deep down The Zenith Angle is Sterling's answer to Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

Bruce spent a lot of time distinguishing between techno-thrillers and science fiction. Science fiction, he said, is about "cognitive estrangement . . . it wants to blow your mind". Techno-thrillers are about sex, sadism, and snobbery, like James Bond. "Bond has gizmos the others don't."

Things you'll never find in a James Bond novel, he said, included a) Q handing Bond an instruction manual, and b) any woman turning down James Bond's advances ("Sorry, James, I have an STD...")

"I'm a sci-fi antiquarian," Bruce muttered at one point, announcing with pride that he had just penned the entry for "science fiction" in the next edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.

He then mentioned that a bunch of gamers in the Pacific Northwest (who always have more money than sense, he quipped) were trying once again to resurrect Amazing Science Fiction magazine, and would he please write a 2000-word story on the subject of Resurrection? "I was commissioned!" he told us. And then he read the whole story, right from the screen of his white Apple iBook computer. "This'll take about twenty minutes," he said. It felt like thirty, but I wasn't watching the clock. It was watching me.

Bruce smiles when he reads from his writing. He loves his words. He delights in words. The earring on his right ear and his graying hair both glistened under the bright store lights, as he rambled on, delivering thick gobs of wordstew to a rapt audience. Rapt or napped, I'm not sure.

I didn't think his story, called The Spider's Amazement, was very good. It was a mishmash of themes from THX 1138, The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, and The Time Machine, all of which are better stories. He'd been commissioned, though!

When he was done, he began talking about random things again, like a blogger boingboinging from one subject to another at the podium. At one point Red Stapler #1 must have somehow gotten the cue that it was time to speak up, and he did, once again as if Bruce even acknowledged his existence let alone heard him, which if he did, he didn't let on.

One delightful bit of wisdom from Bruce: "You can write great science fiction about forks." I don't know about forks, but I've heard some good stuff about spoons. Oh wait. There is no spoon . . .

I liked his view on post-humanism. In a super-evolved post-human world, we'll have people with 10x the strength of an average man, and some people with 250 IQs. But they'll still be jocks and geeks, he said, and, as we've all learned from high school, post-humanism doesn't mean they're going to be 10x as nice...

Another Sterlingism: "I don't think you have to be correct to be an interesting thinker." That ought to be translated into Latin and made into the motto hanging over every blog home page on the Web (including Bruce's).

During the Q&A session, someone asked him what is he reading?

He delighted in responding with thick, harsh-sounding foreign-language names like "Victor Palevin", "Dubravka Ugresic", "Italo Calvino", and a bunch of other names I couldn't write down fast enough. "Mostly weird foreigners," he summarized. He also mentioned a Chilean author and his interest in the "McOndo writers" movement.

The subject of age came up again: "I need to be reading guys half my age," he said regretfully. Unfortunately, he added, he has "more fun reading about guys half my age."

He expressed admiration for Doctorow and Stross, calling them "overclocker characters" and "the Great White Hope." He mentioned that they were Canadian and English. "SF in America sucks," he said. "We have no idea what we want." He confessed he spends more time reading email from Doctorow, or "boing boing dot net", than he does Doctorow's novels.

And older woman in the front row asked him if he'd ever thought of writing stories for children. She loved his voice, his use of words. Ever thought about writing for children say, aged eight to twelve?

He looked at her with a look right out of W.C. Fields' playbook. "No," was his reply.

Then he spoke about his own writing: Sometimes, he said, "it's too sing-songy, too Swinburneian." Sometimes, he admitted, one "becomes lulled by the melody of your own blithering."

Bruce may have been lulled, the audience may have been lulled, but the Mysterious Galaxy storekeepers were not. They all had frowns. Bruce was going too long. It was well after eight p.m., and the book signing hadn't even begun yet. Eventually Bruce got the message and that was that. Two lines formed, one to buy books, one to sign books already bought.

I went home.

Posted by brian at May 20, 2004 09:36 AM | TrackBack


That was a great recap, Brian. Reading your piece was better in some ways than being at the event itself, because I've been at enough Bruce Sterling keynote addresses, book signings and Austin parties now that I can conjure up Bruces images and mannerisms in my mind.

And very nice cropping on the photos!

Posted by: Paul Walhus at May 20, 2004 11:37 AM

Quite an enjoyable read, Brian. Nothing like the glaring phonecam of truth to burnish all the silverplate off of a brass icon. Or perhaps steel - I don't mean to denigrate, I actually loved "The Difference Engine," (though I suspect the prose was more Gibson than Sterling) but haven't read any of his fiction since then, beyond WIRED musings.
Thanks for sitting through it for us!

Posted by: mack reed at May 20, 2004 03:31 PM

Bruce *is* like that. The full effect of what you wrote cannot be experienced without hearing Bruce say those words.

Posted by: Russell Nelson at May 25, 2004 09:04 PM

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