Nationality: American. Born: Brownsville, Texas, 14 April 1954. Education: Attended University of Texas at Austin, 1972-76. Family: Married Nancy Adell Baxter in 1979. Career: Proofreader, Texas Legislative Council, Austin, 1977-83; writer, 1983—. Agent: Writers House, Inc., 21 West 26th Street, New York, New York 10010, U.S.A.
Involution Ocean. New York, Berkley Publishing, 1977.
The Artificial Kid. New York, Harper, 1980.
Schismatrix. New York, Arbor House, 1985.
Burning Chrome. New York, Arbor House, 1986.
Islands in the Net. New York, Arbor House, 1988.
Crystal Express, illustrated by Rick Lieder. Sauk City, Wisconsin, Arkham House, 1989.
The Difference Engine (with William Gibson). New York, Bantam, 1990.
Heavy Weather. New York, Bantam, 1994.
Holy Fire. New York, Bantam, 1996.
The Artificial Kid. San Francisco, HardWired, 1997.
Distraction. New York, Bantam, 1998.
Zeitgeist. New York, Bantam, 2000.
Globalhead: Stories. Shingletown, California, Ziesing, 1992.
Schismatrix Plus (includes Schismatrix and other stories). New York, Ace Books, 1996.
The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York, Bantam, 1992.
(With Hans Moravec and David Brin) Thinking Robots, an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk Librarians: The LITA President's Program, edited by R. Bruce Miller and Milton T. Wolf. Chicago, Library and Information Technology Association, 1992.
Contributor, Universe 13, edited by Terry Carr, 1983.
Contributor, Heatseeker, edited by John Shirley. Scream/Press, 1989.
Contributor, Semiotext(e) SF, edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter LambourneWilson, and Robert Anton Wilson. Autonomedia, 1990.
Contributor, Universe 1, edited by Robert Silverberg and KarenHaber, Doubleday, 1990.
Contributor, When the Music's Over, edited by Lewis Shiner, BantamSpectra, 1991.
Editor and contributor, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.New York, Arbor House, 1986.
Foreword, Cyberpunk Handbook: The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook bySt. Jude, R. U. Sirius, and Bart Nagel. New York, Random House, 1995.
Foreword, Reality Check by Brad Wieners and David Pescovitz. SanFrancisco, Hardwired, 1996.*
Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers by Larry McCaffrey, University of Illinois Press, 1990; Science Fiction in the Real World by Norman Spinrad, Southern Illinois University Press. 1990.* * *
Although Western culture is permeated with the narratives and iconography of science fiction, it is still relatively rare for an SF writer to be recognized outside the genre for work that remains within the genre. SF writers who "break out" into the mainstream, from Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut to Jonathan Lethem and Neal Stephenson, usually do so by producing work that, to one extent or another, drifts away from the materials of science fiction. There have been exceptions, such as Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler; to that list may be added the name of Bruce Sterling.
As the main voice, along with colleague and one-time collaborator William Gibson, of the "cyberpunk" movement in 1980s SF, Sterling promoted a worldview and aesthetic that strongly influenced the generation that came of age with the computer revolution, a worldview that, arguably, has had a greater impact on the world at large than on the literature of science fiction. Sterling has continued to chronicle the social and technological developments of that world through numerous journalistic pieces, including a book-length study of the computer "underground," The Hacker Crackdown. However, his fiction, which in some ways never fit comfortably into the cyberpunk mold, has evolved both conceptually and aesthetically; his most recent novels may be ranked with the best the SF field has to offer. By the late 1990s, with featured articles on Sterling in such publications as Time, it was clear that Sterling's novels were beginning to be noticed not just as important science fiction, but also as important fiction.
Like many SF writers, Sterling started early: his first novel, Involution Ocean, appeared when the author was twenty-three. In this novel and The Artificial Kid, Sterling both revels in and undermines the materials of traditional far-future, space-faring SF. The narrator of Involution Ocean is on a whaling voyage in the dust seas of the planet Nullaqua, but he set sail because the whales of Nullaqua are the only source of his favorite recreational drug. The plot of The Artificial Kid revolves around competing scientific theories that spark a revolution on the planet Reverie, but the eponymous narrator is a "combat artist" resident in a "Decriminalized Zone" who surrounds himself with floating video cameras that record his every move for an appreciative audience. Both novels are glib and energetic. Sterling's third novel, Schismatrix, recalls the grand visions of Olaf Stapledon as it covers the multigenerational conflict between the Shapers, who modify their bodies through genetic engineering, and the Mechanists, who modify their bodies through non-biological prosthetics. Far more ambitious than his first two novels, Schismatrix is unapologetically dense in its detailed account of the transformation of humanity into something that is, if not non-human, then post-human.
Schismatrix marked the end of Sterling's consideration of far-future, off-world humanity. His next novel, Islands in the Net, began a series of books that, although unconnected in terms of setting and characters, all explore the possibilities of twenty-first-century Earth through protagonists who undergo some form of radical transformation, sometimes circumstantial, sometime physical and mental, sometimes both. Laura Webster in Islands in the Net is yanked from a comfortable existence as a rising star in a multinational corporation and thrust into a far less certain world of mercenaries and data pirates; Alex Unger, the protagonist of Heavy Weather, is kidnapped by a band of high-tech storm chasers; ninety-four-year-old Mia Ziemann of Holy Fire, after undergoing a comprehensive rejuvenation that partially wipes out her personality, wanders across Europe with the artistic underground of the late twenty-first century; Oscar Valparaiso of Distraction, born of a genetic experiment and so not fully human to begin with, must adapt himself to the human intricacies of being a political operative in the crumbling United States of the 2040s.
Like many classic SF writers, Sterling is often more concerned with cataloging the details of his various futures than with maintaining plot and character (although Holy Fire and Distraction offer impressively nuanced characterization of their protagonists). Unlike many other SF writers, he maintains a consistent and engaging narrative voice that manages to be both breezy and serious. Reading a Bruce Sterling novel is akin to listening to a kindly uncle rattle on about his weird and interesting travels, if the kindly uncle happened to be a cross between Arthur C. Clarke and Hunter S. Thompson. This marriage of shrewd extrapolation and hip sensibility is realized with particular brilliance in Distraction, Sterling's best novel to date and one of the best SF novels of the 1990s.
It should also be noted that, although Sterling's work is sometimes cited as "postmodern" science fiction, his novels are, relative to a William Burroughs or a Kathy Acker, quite conventionally written. And although his focus on the dynamics of radical personal transformation and its inevitable shattering of received categories certainly speaks to the concerns of postmodernism, Sterling's later work shows a subtle awareness of the difference between what is inevitable and what may be desirable. After battling illness through elaborate experimental treatments, Alex Unger discovers that "genetically, I'm supposed to be a big fat blond guy"; after running on the cutting edge of art and technology, Mia Ziemann is able to pick up a camera and take her "first true picture" only after concluding that "Machines were so evanescent … in their wake people stopped being people. But people didn't stop going on."
This is not to say that Sterling has settled on a conservative determinism. But part of the astonishing energy of his novels derives from the tension between his detailing of the certainty of change and his apparent conviction that, once the radically transformed dust has settled, there will be a place for all, and all can, if they wish, find their place. Sterling has not yet turned fifty; we can only guess if he will maintain this relatively sanguine outlook, or if his future work will itself be marked by further radical transformation.
—F. Brett Cox