The Big Idea: Bruce Sterling

Science fiction writers dream of different worlds… and sometimes miss the complexities of the one they’re on. Can we imagine this world, and who we might be somewhere else on it? It’s something Bruce Sterling has given more than a little thought to, and how his new book Robot Artists & Black Swans came about.


Brian Aldiss once confided to me that the big problem with American science fiction writers was that they loved to write about Mars but knew nothing about Indonesia.

This mild warning from a mentor encouraged me, however, because I was an American who had seen some of Indonesia. So I thought: fine! I’ll accept this advice of the maestro of Albion, and I’ll try to be less of a Yankee hick!

Hence the Big Idea for my latest short story collection, “Robot Artists and Black Swans,” which is American science fiction re-imagined as Italian fantascienza.

Italian has quite a long science fiction tradition, created for Italian readers, in the Italian market. However: can an American write that stuff? Yeah. The intent of my new book was to prove that.

Literary thought-experiments are Big Ideas.

Suppose that an Italian science fiction writer existed.

Suppose that he lived in my Turinese apartment in Italy, he ate my lunch and wore my clothes. Who is this Italian fantasist, what are his topics, what does he want to write about?

Obviously he’s a local Turinese writer engaged with his city’s extensive heritage and its high-tech design scene. Those would be his table-stakes.

Also — and this is important — he’s indifferent to the American science-fiction cultural tradition, the “Old Baloney Factory” as Damon Knight used to call it. That superpower horde of American sci-fi publishers, editors, agents, and fans — he doesn’t mind them, but they’re just not his audience. He rejects their assumptions and constraints and he substitutes his own. “Bruno Argento” exists within the Brian Aldiss territory of the Martian Indonesian.

Signor Bruno Argento is not a grizzled American genre careerist like me, but since he actually is me, he brings the American SF literary toolkit to his Italian cultural circumstances. So he might well read and quote Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, but he writes rather standard popular fiction, gleeful, accessible genre page-turners that might aspire to some Nebula nominations.

His stories are cross-cultural, cross-temporal pastiches and parodies, but they have an intensity that arises from the author’s genuine struggle — the struggle to comprehend Italy. The author of these painstaking stories — may the saints and angels forgive him — he deliberately chose to dwell among aliens. He has few regrets, but the least little design-details of Italian-ness will trip the poor guy up. He can’t get over the font choices on the coffee packaging, or the way that the fireplugs are shaped.

Especially, being American, he can’t get over how amazingly old things are in Italy, and how nakedly the distant past is exposed in everyday life. Having seen the famous “Shroud of Turin,” he feels driven to compose a yarn about the people who sold the Shroud: a historic uchronia complete with their hats, their shoes, their cheese and sausage, their dialects, their pop music, what they say to the cops, how they make nice to the university professors. It’s a roiling explosion of Turinese minutiae that employs SF techniques but is mostly stolen from Italian architects, art historians, anthropologists and material-culture studies.

Italians-as-Martians. Such is the result of a sincere attempt to take the kindly advice of Brian Aldiss to heart. Mr Aldiss was an older English writer counseling a much younger Texan writer, and he wanted to rescue me from the confining stereotype of the Texan cowboy. He was urging me not to mistake my identity politics for my intellectual freedom.

He was telling me that science fiction should sympathize with “Indonesia,” internalize the lessons of our planet’s many highly variant cultures, and use that power to catapult the imagination beyond the limits of other kinds of writing.

Brian Aldiss was one of the founders of “World SF” group. “World SF” were idealists, and their ideals fell short, as ideals do. However, the core Big Ideal there is that Science Fiction can transcend conventional literary boundaries of language, culture, and commerce. Brian would cheerfully sell an Aldiss book to Soviet Estonia, even if they didn’t know him, he didn’t know them, and there was no gold, girls or glory for him in doing that. Mr Aldiss knew that the wretched and excluded of the Earth can become the avant-garde in the blink of an eye.

This new small-press book of mine lacks common-sense, too. It’s impractical of me to spend a year of my life studying Risorgimento conspirators and liberation terrorists, just because half the streets of Turin are named after them and they’re national heroes. But I see their names on the streets every day that I spend in Turin, so I just had to know. And having learned, of course my story’s antihero has to have a torrid Italian love affair with a two-headed steampunk baroness. Because writing science fiction is so gratifying.

These stories are meant to seem Italian, yet they’re starkly personal. They’re all about the adventure-hero sci-fi protagonist (the author) immersed in a strange world he never made. They’re the auto-psychotherapy of “An Exile on Planet Earth,” as Brian Aldiss once called himself. Since I know what he meant, I put that to practice.

Robot Artists & Black Swans: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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14 Comments on “The Big Idea: Bruce Sterling”

  1. I am reminded of an essay I read years and years ago by an SF author (maybe you?) talking about how standard American SF aliens were really just kinda standard American characters in alien drag, and contrasted that with the writings from some hundreds-of-years-ago of some non-European nomadic leader, who was simultaneously terrifying in the alienness of his outlook (talking casually about beheading enemies, or some such) while also being a really funny guy.

    That essay has always stuck with me, as an exemplar of how narrow the scope of “alienness” and “exotic” is for most of us in the Anglosphere.

  2. I have the hardback Pirate Utopia, which I’m guessing is part of this collection. An Adriatic port in the aftermath of WW1, just left lying about for fearless revolutionary poseurs to seize and make of it what their dreams will.

  3. Hmmm, has anyone even thought of Indonesia since ‘Nicholas van Rijn’ stepped off the pages?

  4. @Dana: as a fan of alternate history, I often wonder what to do with Indonesia in an alt-historical scenario. All those islands, you know. And now I am wondering what sort of SF an Indonesian great power or superpower (Indonesia has almost as many people as the US, you know) would produce.

  5. BMunro, write it!

    I’d think of putting The Phantom and ‘Bangalla’ in those islands, and making the pirates descendants of Dutch traders who were shipwrecked or shanghaied and… ;-)

  6. I’m such a Neal fanboi I would probably buy it just for the intro. However, I am also somewhat of a Sterling fanboi, so I would probably buy it even without the Neal.

    I read The Difference Engine long ago and have reread it a couple of times. My wife and I did a Cotswolds walking tour a few years ago and I installed Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist works onto my ebook reader for whenever I wast’t tripping on the imbue. I cannot now think of Tolkien’s shire without anachronistic intrusions of hip space opera into my mental visions.

  7. Looks interesting. I’d prefer this title as an audiobook, so I’ll wait for an Audible version. :)

  8. I’ll buy this; everything Sterling writes is exceptionally good and always unexpected.

  9. Just finished reading Walter Jon William’s “This is Not a Game” – the first chapters are set in Indonesia, and it has everything from clove cigarettes to corrupt generals to silat. All the main characters are Americans, though: it’s an outsider’s POV.

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