More than a quarter of the year has passed and only this past week have I gotten around to reading Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s State of the World 2017 over at The Well. I’m glad I waited. Late December is so taken up with retrospective/prospective pieces that it can numb you to truly original thinking about our current moment. And Bruce Sterling has never been lacking in original thought about this or any other moment.
Sterling achieved notoriety in the science fiction scene of the early 1980’s as a leading light of the cyberpunk movement. His Shaper/Mechanist stories of 1982-1984 garnered multiple Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and his 1985 novel , Schismatrix, set in the Shaper/Mechanist universe, is one of the few works of fiction I reread on the regular. He earned a reputation as a critical firebrand and literary scold as editor of the Cheap Truth fanzine, which was a manifesto of sorts for the early cyberpunk movement (the first line of the first issue accurately conveys the flavor of Sterling’s critical rhetoric: “As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands. Dreaming of dragon-hood, Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla.”). And in 1986 he gave the larger literary world its first taste of the major voices in cyberpunk as editor of the Mirrorshades anthology.
But for all that Sterling’s fiction is something of an acquired taste, even to devoted science fiction fans. He lacks the evocative prose style and raw postindustrial aesthetic that helped catapult his compatriot, William Gibson, into literary stardom. His plots tend to move nonlinearly, chasing tangents or jumping the timeline in non-intuitive ways. The focus of his authorial gaze flits from one shiny, mind-melting thing to another.
While that may be grating in a novel (for some–I happen to love it), it makes Sterling’s non-fictional current events commentary consistently fascinating. I look to him to not only find and explain the oddball, under-the-radar stories circulating in the aphotic zones of the Internet, but to actively obsess about them. And his annual State of the World sessions with Jon Lebkowsky over at what remains of The Well are one of the best places to see that on display.
This year he begins with a lengthy and surprisingly heartfelt meditation on the death of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, who was assassinated on December 19, 2016. Although knowing nothing about the ambassador prior to his death, Sterling writes that
I felt a kind of genuine and rueful affection for the guy. As if we were on a first-name basis, and he’d slipped and fallen on an icy sidewalk that presented a danger to anybody. “So, it’s come to this, has it Andrei?” I wanted to say.
Not that he is blind to the realpolitik of Russian aggression in Syria and elsewhere. But despite the gulf between Western and Russian ideologies Sterling sees Karlov’s death as the latest and most dramatic of a long line of harbingers foreshadowing the demise of the Westphalian order:
He’s got an alien value system, his activities don’t align with my interests, but somehow, I’m beyond that kind of knee-jerk irritation. Troll hot buttons rarely get to me at the dawn of 2017, I understand them as the counterfeit pennies of the modern intellectual marketplace. Karlov is dead, and I take his death “personalitically.” The personal is the political, and he’s like a freshly coffined microcosm of the trouble we share from pole to pole.
A variant of this sentiment creeps up later in the discussion regarding Vladimir Putin. Comparing him to Louis IX, Sterling writes that “Maybe the proper attitude in 2017 is not piling such emotional effort into: ‘What is this awful guy gonna do to mankind, what are his dreadful capacities,’ but ‘What if he’s not around?’”
The implications here being that the western-led world regime has relied on leaders in the periphery practicing various levels of authoritarianism as a key ingredient in global order. And in 2017 not even the dictators are safe, and the chaos that they so effectively repressed for so long is only one well-aimed bullet away from its debut on the world stage.
Elsewhere, Sterling launches into his tech-curmudgeon spiel, familiar from prior years. Google is “harebrained” and their “moonshots all miss the Moon.” Apple is “Elderly, formerly-daring, an aging diva who is transgressive in ways that nobody thinks are actually liberating.” Facebook is “bitter, toxic, creepy.” Amazon is the only major tech company Sterling thinks has any competence and even there he finds room for pessimism in Bezos’s recent entree into politics via the Washington Post.
More interesting his his take on AI. Despite being “genuinely impressed” by recent advances in deep learning, Sterling remains skeptical, largely due to their opacity:
You can’t mathematically prove that you have an accurate answer with a deep-learner. You just get cool Ouija-board hints. They strike me as a form of decadence for computer science, frankly. They have a baroque, visionary, suggestive, occultist quality when at this historical moment that’s the very last thing we need.
As someone who has been following Sterling for years, this techno-skepticism is almost cliche at this point, despite being a welcome counterweight to the prevailing tech boosterism that persists in mainstream media organs. And this point about the opacity of deep neural networks is something that the industry is starting to wring its hands about.
As scathing as he is about tech, this year Sterling reserves his harshest, most pessimistic words for the environmental movement:
If anybody thinks that standard Al Gore rationalist, scientific Blue State leftie environmentalists are destined to be the heroes of this great crisis of our civilization, well, they haven’t been entirely ineffectual, but they’ve gotta be one of the least successful mass movements ever.
… I get annoyed by the kind of febrile leftist melancholia that says, “Well, they failed to do what was obviously correct by my cogent analysis, and therefore a Dark Age looms.” It’s not that your analysis was even mistaken, it’s just that reality isn’t bound by your rationality.
There’s much more here worth reflecting on, including comparisons between the current economic crisis in China and Italian politics (“Once you’re inside Italy, you slowly realize that, though by anybody else’s standards it really is a deep and serious and chronic ‘crisis,’ by Italian standards it’s never a crisis unless they’re actively shooting each other”), thoughts about an insane recent Italian espionage case that has gotten exactly zero attention over here in the US, and speculation about the future of espionage in general.
The one part of Sterling’s remarks here that I keep turning over in my mind, and which I think deserves to be more generally discussed, is his perspective on our current fascination with dystopias in fiction and film. He writes:
Okay, I get it why dystopia is popular now, but that is a genuinely problematic sensibility. Today really WILL be over with, it’s crumbling, we’re gonna be knee-deep in the ruins of the unsustainable. However, we don’t have to get all ruin-porn about that. Even if that is our cultural sensibility, we could up our game and do it with better taste.
Scary political disaster, Nazism, Fascism – okay, a lot of people simply lived through that historic period. It didn’t last all that long. In fact it was only melodramatic creeps like Hitler who really thought it was a Thousand Year Reich that deserved to end in a totalizing scorched-earth Gotterdammerung. If you tremble all over from a prospect like that, you’re actually buying into the worldview of the problem.
Germany, Italy and Japan were all smoldering ruins in the 1940s and quite lively, prosperous, inventive places in the 1960s. Strange, but true.
Because text on The Well, god bless it, is not threaded to make for an intuitive reading experience, I collected a condensed version of Sterling’s SOTW 2017 remarks in a Google doc viewable here.