If you’ve never been to a Bruce Sterling talk, it’s a trip. It is often as dark, cynical, and info-dense as any cyberpunk fiction, delivered with the same speed-metal intensity as any c-punk prose.
Last weekend, I watched his presentation from last year’s SXSW. It was an rather rambly talk about his (then) current living situation (he and his wife were in residency at an otherwise empty 4-story palace in the hills of Turin, Italy). He talks about people coming to have audiences with “Dr. Cyberpunk” and the questions he gets asked from these visitors, about the state of cyberpunk, who’s the most cyberpunk person, most cyberpunk place on Earth, and other fannish foolishness.
In the talk, he shares some of his answers, and talks about other things, like the fact that cyberpunk fiction is ancient history now (older than the World Wide Web), his concept of “involuntary Beatnikism” (a downwardly mobile middle class having to live like hand-to-mouth artists and musicians), and the fact that modern science fiction writers are now often scientists themselves. Where the cyberpunks just made stuff up, a lot of modern writers actually know what they’re talking about.
He also makes a great point about how writers tend to come along and copy a successful cutting-edge trend (like cyberpunk) rather than doing the thing that made that trend successful and exciting in the first, which was breaking the rules, going against tradition, taking risks, etc. Or, as he puts it: “Don’t DO J.G. Ballard. Be ambitious like J.G. Ballard.”
At the end of his over 50-minute talk, he delivers this blistering indictment of our current moment (circa 2019):
There are a host of people these days who would make really great villains in 1980s cyberpunk novels because they are genuine high-tech low-lifes. In 2019, we have a crumbling world financial order and tremendous financial corruption and omnipresent computer communications, a kind of guerrilla war by the rich and the crooked against democratic norms. It’s all a petri dish for sinister cyberpunk bad guys: GRU Special Forces people wielding weird, classified nerve poisons, American henchmen of crooked Ukrainian dictators, kidnapped Chinese princesses from Chinese smartphone companies, Canadian BitCoin moguls who suddenly drop dead in India, weird influencer-supermodels on gigantic superyachts, Israeli private investigators selling trafficking software to follow Saudi millionaires around Cyprus. There are armies of ‘em! We are currently surrounded by bad actors! There are literal cyberwar battalions of them. When I sit in my bohemian garret in Turin, reading my Twitter feed, I can literally FEEL the pressure of corruption! It is definitely activity that is taking place outside the boundaries of science fiction novels. It is a true crime world of top-level decay and State-Mafia spook activity.