Daniel Fischlin, Veronica Hollinger, Andrew Taylor
"The Charisma Leak":
A Conversation with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
The following conversation took place on 5 April 1991, at the Sushi Bar
Restaurant on Toronto's Queen Street. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling were in
town as part of the tour organized by Bantam to publicize the North American
appearance of their new collaborative novel, The Difference Engine, a work of speculative fiction set in an alternate 19th-century England. Our meeting took
place at the end of a day which included several interviews for both magazines
and television, as well as a three-hour book-signing at BAKKA, Toronto's largest
Given the wide range of references to cultural phenomena, both past and present,
which found their way into this conversation, we have included a series of
Notes at the end of the transcript which we believe may be of interest to our
Bruce Sterling: I need some powerful central nervous system depressants.
William Gibson: If time spent fishing is subtracted from the length of time
you're going to live, then time spent being interviewed counts double.
BS: Unless you're being fed.
BS [eyeing the the number of cassette-recorders perched on the table]: You can
collate these on some sort of digitizer.
Daniel Fischlin: We're going to do a William S. Burroughs thing and snip them.
BS: Or put them on a MIDI deck like they had at M.I.T. Some clown there was
telling us that "Oh, you know, if you look at the lifework of a great composer,
it comes out at about 7 or 8 megabytes, that's it."
DF: This is Tod Machover that you're thinking of, or that you met?
BS: No, we didn't meet him. M.I.T. is Tod Machover's stomping grounds. I tried
on his gesture glove.1
WG: It made Bruce's nipples swell up nastily.
DF: So did you make beautiful music?
BS: No, it wasn't hooked up. It was just this thing sort of like a sashimi
octopus, a loose rattling brass thing; but it had these rubber devices which
gripped every phalange in your digit; it was elastic, with a sort of foam rubber
thing, and these little brass doohicks and a mass of cables and you sort of sit
there and you're like clicking it on.
DF: Is it like a Nintendo glove?
WG: No, it's a lot more exo . . .
BS: And it begins to grip you, in a sort of very amorous . . .
WG: Exo-skeletal; in fact, the company's name is EXO. This is a rigid skeletal
thing . . .
BS: It's sort of replicating the skeleton under the skin in electro-mechanical
Veronica Hollinger: Can you feel anything when you're actually moving your hand?
BS: Oh, very much so. I mean, you'd be better off with, say, a latex glove or
something, because it does irritate the skin, and it's quite heavy. You know,
it's a dense thing, and it mimics your motions very aptly; it's quite a creepy
little thing really; at the same time, it has a bizarre kind of erotic quality
to it because of its great intimacy—and it has a very dense tactility . . .
WG: All virtual-reality gear has a kind of bondage aesthetic going [at this
point, a strong Virginian drawl becomes apparent]. Yeah, when the bondage crowd
gets into VR, that's going to be very interesting. That's one of the
possibilities that hasn't been discussed. It's like the virtual jail. You never
hear much about the virtual jail, but it's a really ugly idea. I mean, you could
run the Orwell on them without actually having real rats. You could drive
somebody bughouse in 15 minutes if you gave them sodium pentothal and locked
them in one of those helmets and started messing with their minds. How many
times could you see a car driving at you at high speed, just over and over
BS: Or how many times could you watch the guillotine blade coming down? I think
you could just crack somebody very quickly; they could use it for field
interrogation—it would be so effective; it leaves no marks.
Andrew Taylor: Do you get a sense that technology's catching up, that it's
actually as if the story you're writing is coming into effect?
WG: No, it's not like it's catching up. It's just that other people are starting
to realize that it's already here. It was evident to me that it was already here
in some larval form. VR is just intimate television; it's just more media. We
were in Austria with Morgan Russell, editor of Mondo 2000, and he had been
running around, but in the East Bloc, getting tight with East German hackers and
he went to an East German hacker convention. There were hackers from all over
the East Bloc. And he talked to them about VR and they just sort of said, "Ah,
you know, we don't care; it's like high-definition television." It just didn't
do anything for them. They said, "Oh, it's just more of your stuff." You know,
it's like the man who invented MUZAK is thinking of something new, and I was
kind of impressed by that. I think that might be a very good way to look at it.
BS: VR could probably drive an individual bugfuck in 15 minutes, but television
could drive an entire culture bugfuck in 15 years [laughter]
WG: Quite true.
VH: Do you think that we're post-bugfuck at this point in time?
BS: Very much so; I think we lost it a long time ago. I think that our
grandparents lost it, and now it's just catch-as-catch-can . . .
[Intermission dealing with AT's great-grandmother as Canadian heroine; barrels,
bloomers, and Niagara Falls. . . .]
BS: Yeah, you had to have real, groundbreaking nerve to wear bloomers. Bloomers
were happening clothes, they really were; they were like the period equivalent
of black jeans and a funny haircut.
WG: Yeah, they were the period equivalent of black spandex.
VH: Did you have any kind of particularly appropriate clothing in that sense in
The Difference Engine?
BS: Oh, God, yes.
WG: The clothing details—we know an unhealthy amount about Victorian women's
underwear; I mean, we know how you get in and out of a crinoline.
BS: Have you
ever read Anne Hollander's book, Seeing Through Clothes? That's a good book. The
clothes riffs in DE are heavily affected by Hollander theory.2
WG: Because, in a sense, the female body is reinvented every decade or so in
terms of what we think it is; it's reinvented by fashion. Things like the
BS: Yeah, if you look at portraits of nudes over the years, Hollander
demonstrates that they actually conform to the shape of their clothing. It's
like the women of the 1890s have big jutting butts instead of wasp-waists. Of
course, women have never physically looked like that; it's just that the ideal
moves around. You see waistlines leaping up and down in these portraits. But at
the same time, maybe they do kind of look like that, because you know the human
body is a lot more plastic than people give it credit for. I swear to God you
could look through stuff from the 1920s and everybody in them has this look . .
WG: It's very strange. Looking at period porn is really interesting. There are
women in period pornography with bodies like I've never seen in my life. Just
different . . . different style of body. If I had illustrations, I could prove
BS: I could swear that the musculature is different. I'd like to cover one of
these mid-Victorian bodies with electrodes and just look at it and discover
where the posture was and which muscles are being held in and which are slack.
Like that regional look people get, you know.
WG: Yeah, if you could control the involuntary musculature of your face, you
could just change your face, you know.
BS: Like Arthur Kroker's presentation in Linz [Austria] at Ars Electronica,
doing this thing about the pressure of the public gaze reshaping Michael
WG: Advanced schizophrenics get a face that you can't even recognize, because
their musculature changes.
BS: People are prepared to cover their bodies with Borneo tattoos like that
whole Bay Area crowd. These guys are seriously into tattooing and piercing, and
why not? Like Gibson's thing about people whose faces are "blank masks of shark
collagen" [this description appears in Gibson's Neuromancer]. You know, that's
not that far away.
VH: So body tailoring will take over the face as well?
BS: Well, it's like those guys you were talking about, those East-LA Chicano
gangs who have gigantic Roman numerals tattooed on their torsoes. Like "XII."
DF: What does it mean?
BS: It's like club signs, like the 12th division of the local Crips or whatever;
they all have it in Roman numerals, XII, big though, big as football jerseys.
AT: [to WG]: That's what you've been working on at the moment, isn't it . . . LA?
WG: I've been working in LA, but I'm going to write a book that's partly set in
LA [working title: Virtual Light]. I think LA slipped over the Fault into the
21st century about eight years ago, maybe even before that. If you want to read
the coolest piece of cyberpunk non-fiction so far, get a book by Mike Davis
called City of Quartz.3 Mike Davis is an old LA lefty who's written this
brilliant semiotic analysis of what LA is today and it's just one of those great
rants, but he really gets it down.
BS: You know, I read about half of City of Quartz . . . it's too informed by
dead 19th-century theory.
VH [to WG]: Do you want to talk about what you're working on now?
WG: What I'm working on now is mostly getting some three or four feature movies
into production, so it's not really literary stuff; it's just entrepreneurial
hustle, but, you know, the book I'm starting, I'm just starting; I'm at that
lovely place where I've sold it . . .
BS: And all things seem possible.
WG: It's under contract in three different countries and all things seem
possible, so . . .
AT: Are we actually going to see some of the movies that people have been
WG: There's no way of knowing, until they actually come out; there's just no way
BS: I'm writing a non-fiction book, called The Hacker Crackdown; specifically,
it's about the US crackdown on computer hacking in 1990.
VH: Time Magazine ran a piece about it just this week.4
BS: Time has run several pieces. I was at the "Computers: Freedom and Privacy"
conference and, in fact, I talked to the guy from Time at some length [laughter]
in camera. He came up to me and said, "What the hell's going on here anyway?"
Yeah, I'm wearing my journalism hat; this is my first non-fiction book.
Science-fiction writers like to do pop-science books; it lends them a certain
cachet—like Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke. So I'm going to do this.
VH: Do you have any fiction in the works?
BS: Well, I have a new short-story collection coming out this year, but I'm not
really going to have time to write fiction. Boy, is this material good, my
God—Computers: Freedom and Privacy—it's like a primal soup of unwritten SF
novels, unbelievable. You go to one of these gigs and you'll never go to a
science-fiction convention again. Not only are they smarter and richer, they're
VH: Who are these people?
BS: Silicon Valley people, you know, and cops, my God, the cops are
There were cops galore at this thing, like the premier hacker cop in America,
Mike Gibbons, G-man of the FBI; he's a former computer-intruder turned federal
policeman and he's young, smart, I mean he's brilliant; he's not just sort of
smart, he's MENSA fodder, on top of this stuff. I don't know, it's a complex
story; it's going to take a whole book to tell what really went on and sort out
where the bodies are buried, but I've been on it for three months now and I
think that in a few more months I may be able to get through on this. My main
fear is that the police would not be willing to talk to me because the police
are seriously concerned. They really do believe, at least some of them believe,
that Gibson and myself and the other cyberpunks have created a generation of
The number of references to cyberpunk as a literary phenomenon are now
outnumbered by its use as a synonym for computer criminal. In fact, there's a
book coming out in a couple of months called Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers
the Computer Frontier, by Katie Hafner and John Markoff of the New York Times,
which is the best book I've ever read about the computer underground. It's
just a fabulous piece of journalism and it's called Cyberpunk—it's a book
called Cyberpunk. If you go out, two years from now, and look in a university
card-catalogue under "cyberpunk," you're going to see books about computer
crime. You're not going to see books about 19th-century steam-driven computers.
AT: I wanted to ask you about that. What took you back? It seems such an odd
thing, in a way, to have two people who are so completely attuned to what's
going on now.
WG: It didn't take us back, you know, 'cause we'd never been there before. It
just took us somewhere else.
BS: My feeling is that the best guide to the future is the past. If you're
really interested in the future, you have to study history, because otherwise
you're clueless. You're going to mistake every historical accident for an
iron-clad rule of the cosmos. If I learned anything from writing DE, I learned
that the present is somebody else's past. This is the past of the year 2050, the
year 2060, and when they look back on us and judge us, I tremble, I really do. I
mean, we may criticize the Victorians, but what are we leaving for the next
generation? Their works are still standing all around us. What the hell are we
leaving? Mounds of disposable diapers, basically, a ruined atmosphere . . .
VH: Are you saying that there's an allegorical content to
BS: No, I hate allegory.
VH: I know you do. I'm deliberately trying to provoke you because I know that
you've said that your works aren't allegories. But I know that Bill has talked
about the metaphorical content in his works.
BS: Bill's ideologically incorrect on that count. But he can't help it. Yeah,
is about the 1990s, let's face it.
AT: The Victorian references are very thick; I mean, it's not casually put
together. You must have been reading Victoriana for a long time.
BS: It's our disease projected onto a lab animal of the 19th century. Watch what
happens to them, watch the course of symptoms, which will help us to understand
what's happening to us. You know, if a Victorian read this book it wouldn't make
any sense to him at all. What the hell would he make of it? Even Charles Babbage
wouldn't be able to understand DE.5
WG: Yeah, we took it seriously. I mean, we did our research on this, God knows
we did our research.
AT: When did you start working on it
BS: 1983. You know, we actually wrote it for about three years, but we'd been
talking about it since before cyberpunk got started. People ask, "Why did you
depart from cyberpunk to write this historical thing?" Jesus, we had this in
mind before the word was even invented. I'm not going to attempt to escape
anything. This is something we've been doing since the year zero.
at: Where did you get your information?
WG: Mostly the University of Texas library; but, you know, given that I'm from
Virginia, I was sort of born with some kind of anglophilia. I lived in Toronto
amid the literal ruins of the Victorian age and 20 years ago there were a lot
more of those ruins. A lot has been torn down or carefully refined and sealed
over, as Jim Morrison once said. That's how Yorkville [now a trendy shopping
district in Toronto] struck me last night.
BS: I used to live in India, under the shadow of the British Raj, for about
three years . . .
WG: We were in London and a journalist we were talking to said, "What's your
fascination with the Victorian era? Why do you even think about it?" and I
said, "Look," and the guy looked around and this kind of shadow crossed his
face because I think the British can't afford to acknowledge what they're
living in. You know, they're living in the bony carcass [laughter] of a vast
beast that still controls them and their movements and the shape of their
cities, and I think they'd like to think of themselves as living in a modern
country somehow, but it's not.
DF: Do you see Victorian science as a sort of failed science?
BS: No, their science is triumphant. It's our science that's failed science.
DF: But if we're them—or are we them?
BS: We're not them, we're their great-grandchildren. I have a lot of sympathy
with someone like T.H. Huxley, who once wrote to Darwin that he was going to
follow the truth wherever it might lead; that was an act of great moral courage,
to say "I'm going up against the establishment, the Church, the House of Lords,
the truth will shield me," but he didn't exist in the milieu of genetic
engineering or the Manhattan Project, you know.6 Yes, it may be true that
anything you can do to a lab rat you can do to a human being, and we can do
almost anything to lab rats, but that doesn't mean we ought to, simply because
we might discover some truth thereby, you know.
WG: One of the things that DE does is to disagree rather violently with the Whig
concept of history, which is that history is a process that leads to us, the
crown of creation.
BS: The Whig version of history is an awful lie.
WG: One of my favorite lines in the book is where the black slave, Jupiter, says
to Mallory, "You were right, sir, there is no history."\
BS: Yeah, if history is leading to you, and if you're living in Sri Lanka right
now, where the hell is history leading? You know, history leads to some people,
some people can afford the particular time and moment to believe that history is
leading to them, but 500 years from now this may all be rewritten by the
VH: But it's interesting, because in a way DE is about history leading to us.
BS: Yeah, but not to us exactly.
WG: No, it's about contingency leading to us [laughter].
VH: What about artificial intelligence? Does either of you believe that AI is
possible? Or is it one of your metaphors, Bill?
WG: I don't really worry about whether it's possible or not; it's part of our
myth-matrix. We seem to need to think that it's possible, but I don't know. I
think that most people who know me intimately would find that I'm curiously
unconcerned with scientific possibility. I sort of vaguely hope that they'll
fix the hole in the ozone layer and wonder if that can be done. Or if they can
actually make a really disposable diaper, that would be a good thing. Stop
burning, stop chopping down the rain forest. Something like that.
BS: But, you know, I've read Roger Penrose's book.7 and his argument is denser
than I can follow, but I have a basic distrust of arguments that assert that
something is impossible on ontological principles. I've heard people say that
AI is impossible because of this or that. Well, you know what's going to
happen when they bring it out of the lab? It's like you claimed this was
impossible, and look. This has been done so many times. But I think some kind
of computer intelligence probably is possible and I think that the idea of the
Turing Test for computer intelligence is probably bogus.8 I think you might
have some kind of very dense system carrying out very intricate
information-processing that would not be conscious in the way we are or even
alive in the way we would define it, but would nevertheless be an entity. If
you follow that distinction.
DF: What about your connection with Prigogine?9 Have you left that behind?
BS: Well, you know, I never knew what to make of Prigogine, really. I mean, when
I was reading Prigogine and doing that stuff in Schismatrix and the
Shaper-Mechanist series,10 what I was interested in wasn't Prigogine so much
as sainthood. And I wanted to invent a 25th-century religion and write the story
of a person who became a saint of that religion and when I tried to mimic the
rhetoric of a futuristic religion, Prigogine's rhetoric—which really is quite
heightened and bizarre—struck me as being something that I could use as raw
material. And I'm sure that if Professor Prigogine were to read that, he would
recognize that as an extensive distortion of his work; nevertheless, I sort of
stripped the buzzwords off it—a technique I learned from my colleague here
[laughter]—and you know, it's startling how great an effect you can create
through sheer distortion of language.
DF: Who wrote the last chapter of DE? Or do you want to reveal that?
WG: It wasn't done that way. This is a word-processed book in a way that I would
suspect no book has ever been word-processed before. We used the word processor
as an aesthetic engine. There were no drafts of this book. We never printed
anything out. We just kept swapping floppies. Our only hard and fast rule was
that the text that existed on the floppies at a given moment was the text. There
could be no returning to an earlier version unless one of us was so put out with
something the other had written that we would just have to rewrite what the
other guy had written over.
BS: It was unfair to refer back to stuff that had been deleted. You had to
reinvent it from scratch.
AT: And you really managed to stick by the rules? You didn't cheat and keep a
floppy of the old stuff?
BS: No, no, no, no. I kept the floppies; I just never referred back to them.
DF: And was the book written in sequential order?
WG: No, it was written very strangely. Sometimes Bruce would be down at the coal
face grubbing out the face and I would be somewhere up the line sorting through
it for fossils. It wasn't really written in sequential order; it was a kind of
funny jumping around process. When we found the book's voice, we let the voice
dictate the shape of the thing. It's kind of hard to explain now that we've done
DF: Was it a satisfactory process?
WG: Absolutely. I'm far more fond of it than I am of any of my own books. Much
more so. I don't even like to read my own books. None of them is a book I would
want to be buried with, you know. They never are, but this one isn't half shabby
in my estimation.
BS: Yeah, I have a similarly inflated opinion of its merits. Probably because,
unlike my own work, I can't look back at it and think, "Well, I was aiming at
something so much better than this."
VH: What else would you recommend it for if you were trying to be objective
about why this is a good book?
WG: Well, I would recommend it for its technique of literary sampling. I think
we applied word-processing technology to a traditional process of plagiarism and
did something really new because a great deal of the intimate texture of this
book derives from the fact that it's an enormous collage of little pieces of
forgotten Victorian textual material which we lifted from Victorian journalism,
from Victorian pulp literature. We lifted a lot of sensation novels,
particularly the novels of Mary Braddon, who wrote the Neuromancer of Victorian
sensation novels, Lady Audley's Secret.11 There are pieces of
Secret embedded brazenly in our text. Virtually all of the interior
descriptions, the descriptions of furnishings, are simply descriptive sections
lifted from Victorian literature. Then we worked it, we sort of air-brushed it
with the word-processor, we bent it slightly, and brought out eerie blue notes
that the original writers could not have. It's sort of like Jimi Hendrix
playing "The Star-Spangled Banner"; that was really a lot of fun to do.
BS: You can get quite extraordinary effects from using a piece of Victorian text
verbatim and then deliberately forgetting where you got it and rewriting it
four or five times [laughter]. The effect is quite extraordinary because it
still carries a bizarre kind of authenticity, but after it's been filtered four
or five times, it's like its bones melt but the skin and hide are still on it.
WG: So you give it eight legs and send it back out on the street.
BS: Yeah, we sort of deboned Victoriana and gave it a new skeleton and a
different set, but it still smells the same. And if you sort of pat it with your
eyes closed, it still feels the same.
WG: It's something like the Victorian fast-food joint that Oliphant goes to with
BS: I love those Helen America sequences, which are so totally gratuitous; they
seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the book and yet they
chime so thoroughly. It's as if for the first time in the book you really feel
that you're at the mercy of this narratron, this book, that these amazing things
are happening and they're happening in broad daylight, and they're utterly
plausible. It's almost as if you're being forced to live them. I'm so pleased
with that effect; I've never been able to do anything like that before in any
book I've written.
DF: In writing DE, how much do you feel that you were connected with your godfathers in science fiction? I got a strong sense of Ballard's
World for example. Was that there or am I just hallucinating?
BS: I don't know, I don't think so. We grew up on Ballard, so I suppose his
genetics are all over it; but I felt really a lot closer to, say, Mary Braddon
or Benjamin Disraeli, or especially Wilkie Collins, who's actually a character
in this book, William Collins, Captain Swing, that is, Wilkie Collins. William
Wilkie Collins was his actual name. We were hiding; we didn't want to embarrass
poor Wilkie's bones, but he did have that misshapen head and he was quite the
laudanum freak, our man Wilkie—or Jules Verne.
WG: Yeah, we considered at one point casting Jules Verne . . .
BS: We wanted to have him as Lt. Verne of the French Imperial Navy, but we
thought this was too cute. You know, in one of the earlier drafts of DE I had
thrown in this thing about how there was supposed to be a wrecked submarine in
the book, with perhaps some sort of gunnery engine on board, and then I
suddenly realized that every book I've written in my career has some kind of
submarine in it, and when I realized that, I was frightened . . . [laughter] No
submarine! Nix on the submarines.
VH [to WG]: Like your hotel interest.
WG: You know, I wasn't even aware of that until some critic mentioned my hotel
fetish.12 I forced Bruce to stay at a series of extraordinarily weird hotels
on this tour, the Park Plaza [in Toronto] being by far the most banal. We stayed
at an amazingly sepulchral place in Manhattan [laughter].
BS: I'm glad I went there.
WG: Oh, it's something to see; it's one of the world's
BS: I was just complaining about it for dramatic effect. I'll never stay there
again, but it wasn't unpleasant, it's just like living in someone else's
WG: I'll stay there again; it suits me.
BS: It's a very Gibsonian hotel.
WG: Yeah, it looks like someplace where Armitage [a character in
BS: This hotel fetish is a genuine fetish. It extends into the physical world
[laughter]. . .
WG: Yeah, I have a catalogue of places to stay.
BS: The funniest thing is that he was calling me up and consulting me on this:
"Well, in LA, I think we should stay at the such-and-such." Whatever works,
Bill, go for it, big guy [laughter].
DF: Do you reciprocate with submarines?
BS: No, I don't reciprocate. I'm the kind of classic science-fiction writer with
eyes glazed over. Oh, I'm the guy who's standing in the grocery line talking
about neutrinos to himself—and Bill notices everyone's shoes. You know, for me
it's like vapourware. The physical world is vapourware.
AT: I wanted to ask you about the difference engine itself, and particularly
the things that are said at the very end of the novel.
WG: The narratron, we called it.
AT: Is it telling the story?
WG: The story purports in the end to tell you that the narrative you have just
read is not the narrative in the ordinary sense; rather it's a long
self-iteration as this thing attempts to boot itself up, which it does in the
final exclamation point.
AT: Does that transcend reflexivity?
BS: Well, it is reflexivity; it's a very postmodern move; it's your basic
narrative frame-breaking move there. But, yeah, the author of the book is the
narratron; it's sitting there telling itself a novel as it studies its own
WG: You know, the whole all-seeing eye business is clearly significant up to
that point . . .
BS: I mean, when Lady Ada [Byron] picks up the mirror, that's where the
narratron suddenly comes in; when it looks in the mirror and it can see itself
for the first time.
WG: But Oliphant senses what's happening . . .
BS: Yeah, he senses his being a computer-generated character. Oliphant is the
one character who's aware of the all-seeing eye; the all-seeing eye is, of
course, the narrator of the book. It's carrying out this vast surveillance of
the 19th century from an alternate 1991.
at: So ultimately Big Brother is watching himself?
BS: Yeah. Somebody asked us about what the world of 1991 looks like in DE. We
actually thought of describing the world of 1991 and then we decided that 1912
was as far as we could push it. The death of Mallory sequence, in which Mallory
is looking out the window and everything is just utterly Gaudiesque14—you know,
it's like Barcelona, this bizarre organic stuff. That was as far as we could
push it and make it work as fiction.
WG: It would have been like Stanley Kubrick showing you the aliens at the end of
2001: A Space Odyssey. He had some really interesting ideas for that, one of
which was a sort of big carrot. I've seen pictures of the production designs, so
it's a weird idea, but finally he had the very good aesthetic sense to just say,
"No, can't see it."
BS: Some things are better left unspoken.
DF: Was the connection with Huxley a sort of implicit rethinking of
BS: Well, there's that Aldous Huxley joke in there, where Mallory brings T.H.
Huxley some psychedelic things; I think in an earlier version Huxley demands,
"You don't expect me to eat these, do you?" And then we thought that was too
cute. I mean, there's a genuine aesthetic difficulty in this book, given that it
purports to be a thing written by an alternate computer in an alternate 1991.
There are, in fact, a number of gratuitous in-joke references to our world in
it and in some ways that strikes me as a violation. For example, at one point a
drone at the Central Statistics Bureau says, "We keep a brotherly eye on all
the information traffic," and that's an Orwell reference, but, of course,
George Orwell did not exist as far as the narratron is concerned, so you
recognize that as an aesthetic violation. I wondered about that, but on the
other hand, this is a world we invented [laughter]. It's not the real world.
VH: What was the function of the Mallory/Hettie episode? There's this sort of
long sexual interlude in the middle of the novel and then the Hettie character
WG: It's necessary to see in a number of ways; that's where you sort of see that
society with its clothes off. I think after that it's not quite the same book.
BS: This is the thing that the late 20th century can say about Victorian England
that Victorian England was almost unable to say about itself. The Hettie
sequence is like an extended pastiche of documents like My Secret Life.15 You
know that only exists in six copies in Amsterdam. It's a very rare text, and yet
there's something absolutely vital about that book. I think we owe the author,
Walter or whoever the hell he was, some kind of very genuine cultural debt, and
this is not to say that he was a pleasant or admirable person, because he
wasn't. He was a sexual predator par excellence and he's not somebody you can
approve of, but at the same time he's given us a glimpse into something that
otherwise would have been entirely buried—and thank God for that glimpse.
WG: You know, that's not an erotic sequence. It's like watching incest; it's
really quite alien and that was the intent. You know, just as we invent
dinosaurs every decade or so, we reinvent sexuality.
BS: That particular sequence raises the ante drastically for the book. Up to
that point it could almost pass for some kind of romp, but after that session
with Hettie, it's bootstrapped itself up to another level of significance that
it never retreats from.
VH: Was this conscious?
BS: Yeah, it was quite deliberate. We wanted to do a sequence with Oliphant, and
then we thought, wait a minute, we've done this, we don't need to make this
statement again. Because Oliphant's sex life never appears on-screen. You
realize at the end that he's contracted syphilis from someone or other but it's
not something that ever appears in his consciousness.
WG: Yeah, the historical Oliphant had hereditary syphilis.16
BS: Well, some people claim he did. I've read a lot of Oliphantia and I suspect
he picked it up from a hooker or somewhere in his youth.
VH: After Laura Webster in Bruce's Islands in the Net and a character like Molly
in Neuromancer, I was surprised that all the women in
DE: were secondary
characters or off-stage characters.
BS: What the hell could you do when you were a woman in Victorian England? The
one woman who utterly gets her way in this book is Lady Byron, Annabella Byron,
and she's not a pleasant character, she's a Margaret Thatcher basically, quite
deliberately, the Iron Lady. People refer to her as that, and, of course, Byron
himself is Reagan, the Great Communicator, a Thing who goes out and gives
speeches, a Painted Thing.
WG: They got that right away in England.
BS: They knew she was Thatcher. It's that Thatcherite code, like her espousal of
Victorian values, postmodern Victorian.
WG: You know, the British espousal of postmodern Victorian values is so much
more interesting to look at, so much kinkier than our espousal of postmodern
BS: Reagan was an idiot, but Thatcher was a phenomenon. Thatcher was worth ten
Reagans; we're lucky she was never president. It was bad enough having Reagan,
but Thatcher would have been unspeakable.
AT: Were there aspects of Victorian culture that you found constricting, bits of
it you felt you had to write because they were typically Victorian?
BS: Yeah, primarily their treatment of women. If you want to be a Victorian
adventuress, you have to put aside everything that makes you a lady, everything
that makes you a respectable citizen as a female in Victorian England. Even Mary
Elizabeth Braddon, who was probably the foremost novelist of her age, lived a
particularly scandalous life. She was an actress, she lived in sin with this guy
for years, had three or four of his children while he was married to another
woman, wrote as M.E. Braddon for a long time—no one knew whether she was a man
or a woman; she was passing for human.
AT: What about the machinery? Do you feel comfortable writing about clacking
machinery, steam-driven machinery?
BS: Well, that was a lie. I mean, I know for a fact that a difference engine as
a mechanical device would have been a million times slower than a normal
electronic computer. For the sake of making a point about the information
revolution, we had to make the physically unjustified assumption that they were
at least as powerful as, say, an atari 400. Actually, they would have been of
great use for calculating naval logarithms; other than that—you couldn't have
run a graphic display off them, like a kinotrope. That's an invention and we
must admit that freely, but even computer people who are aware of this forgive
us because we've spoken the spiritual truth about computers, but not the
physical truth about what spinning brass can do.
VH: So we're back to a kind of metaphorical representation of technology?
BS: Well, I don't think "metaphor" is the proper word for it. "Fantastic,"
perhaps. And, yes, say that Babbage had invented the computer, I think it would
have sped up things quite a bit but it wouldn't have sped things up to this
extent. It's like in the Modus sequence—there's a joke about this in which Lady
Ada in her speech says: "You know, in his last failing years Lord Babbage was
experimenting with an electrical computing system and we now know that this is
not for us. Perhaps in a hundred years." So Babbage still fails; he still has a
vision which is he not able to carry to fruition.
WG: We had an eerie and wonderful experience when we were in London promoting
the British edition of the book. We were doing a thing on a BBC television show
and the Science Museum sent over a young woman and two navvies, and the
navvies—actually they were BBC navvies—carried in this enormously heavy teak
wood box, a sort of truncated coffin with big teak handles at either end and
they set it down and unlocked it with a couple of keys, lifted the top off it
and there was the test section of the Babbage engine which the London Science
Museum is building. It hypnotized us both and we moved toward it with that
curious lust that people feel in our book. And this girl jumped out and said,
"No! Not without the gloves!" And she whipped out white cotton gloves . . .
and she said you can only touch it wearing white cotton gloves.
BS: We were astonished by these gloves: "My God, we invented these!" And there
they were. We were stunned.
VH: Do you want to say anything about Jean Baudrillard?
BS: I think he's a great science-fiction writer.
WG: Yeah, he's a cool science-fiction writer.
VH: And I noticed in an essay that Bruce published in Monad that he referred to Baudrillard as such.17
BS: I read Baudrillard. I quite like Baudrillard's America; the other stuff I
can take or leave.
WG: We like Arthur Kroker. We're big Arthur Kroker fans.
BS: Arthur Kroker is a happening dude.
WG: Have you heard Arthur Kroker's rap record?
BS: Yeah, "The Hysterical Male." God, what a great thing! Arthur can rock out.
VH: The Hysterical Male is the title of his latest book.18 This is an actual
BS: It's a tape of Arthur doing his po-mo rap to a background dance track. It's
heavily sampled. It's an amazing thing. I play it on my Walkman all the time.
If Arthur hears this, I have to apologize to him for copiously pirating his
tape. But it's not for sale. That's the Buddhist practice of right copy. You
give somebody a copy of something they could never get otherwise.
VH: Would you say that DE is ironic?
WG: I don't know. It's like Thomas Disch wrote [in his review in
The New York
Times] that it's like a concatenation of nested ironies.
BS: It's ironic on a fractal level.
WG: Yeah, it's fractally ironic.
VH: Have there been a lot of people who haven't got it?
WG: Hardly anyone gets it entirely.
BS: I suspect this is something like a Name of the Rose phenomenon, that this
book is actually selling. Like Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time.
VH: I notice that it's called "a novel" on the dustjacket.
BS: Well, that wasn't our doing.
VH: No, I think Bantam was really involved there.
WG: Yeah, they were making crossover noises.
BS: I think this would be a fun book to read in 50 years.
DF: Let's take you off the hook now, plug the charisma leak.
1. Tod Machover is the composer of Valis, the "first populist, rock-influenced,
computer-driven opera" (New York Times), based on Philip K. Dick's 1981 novel
of the same name. Machover works out of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology's Media Lab and teaches in the Experimental Media Facility; his
compositions include works created using computer-assisted electronic
instruments or hyperinstruments such as the exo-skeletal gesture glove, which
magnetically tracks the joints in the hand, converting digital movement into
synthetic sound by way of a computer controller. For further information, see
Omni (March 1991) and Peter Manning's Electronic and Computer Music (Oxford UP,
2. Anne Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (NY: Viking, 1978). In her The
Language of Clothes (NY: Random House, 1981), Alison Lurie refers to Hollander
as "one of our foremost historians of costume" (118). According to Hollander,
for example, "all nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the
ghosts of aBSent clothes—sometimes highly visible ghosts" (85-86).
3. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future Los
Angeles (NY/London: Verso, 1990).
4. Philip Elmer-Dewitt, "Cyberpunks and the Constitution," Time, April 8,
1991. This report deals with the growing Constitutional problems presented by
computer theft, that is, by the invasion of computer systems, by hackers.
Elmer-Dewitt's rather overwrought essay begins: "Armed with guns and search
warrants, 150 Secret Service agents staged surprise raids in 14 American cities
one morning last May, seizing 42 computers and tens of thousands of floppy
disks. Their target: a loose-knit group of youthful computer enthusiasts
suspected of trafficking in stolen credit-card numbers, telephone access codes,
and other contraband of the information age" (69).
5. Charles Babbage (1792-1871) was a British mathematician who devised the
principles of a calculating machine which he was unable, however, to construct.
The Difference Engine posits an alternate 19th century in which Babbage succeeds
in the invention of a steam-driven computing machine which precipitates
Victorian England into an Industrial Age which is also an Information Age.
6. When Gibson was a child, his father worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak
7. Roger Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the
Laws of Physics (NY: Oxford UP, 1989).
8. The Turing Test works as follows: a computer and a human are hidden from an
interrogator who asks them questions which are transmitted in some impersonal
manner. The human answers truthfully and assures her that he is indeed human;
the computer has been programmed to lie. "If in the course of a series of such
tests the interrogator is unable to identify the real human subject in any
consistent way, then the computer (or the computer's program, or programmer, or
designer, etc.) is deemed to have passed the test" (Penrose [see note 7], 7).
See also, Alan Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind 59 (1950);
rpt. The Mind's I, ed. D.R. Hofstader and D.C. Dennett (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
9. Ilya Prigogine was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1977 for work in the
thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems. Prigogine, who works both as a
biologist and a physicist, figures prominently in Sterling's Schismatrix, in
which the potential for some form of human evolutionary transcendence is defined
in so-called "prigoginic leaps." In his foreword to Prigogine's most
accessible book, Order Out of Chaos (co-authored with Isabelle Stengers, NY:
Bantam, 1984), Alvin Toffler summarizes some of the basic ideas associated with
the Brussels school founded on Prigogine's work. The Brussels school offers a
comprehensive theory of change [which holds] that while some parts of the
universe may operate like machines, these are closed systems, and closed
systems, at best, form only a small part of the physical universe. Most
phenomena of interest to us are, in fact, open systems.... In Prigoginian terms,
all systems contain sub-systems which are continually "fluctuating." at times,
a single fluctuation or a combination of them may become so powerful, as a
result of positive feedback, that it shatters the preexisting organization. at
this revolutionary moment—the authors call it a "singular moment" or a
"bifurcation point"—it is inherently impossible to determine in advance which
direction change will take: whether the system will disintegrate into "chaos"
or leap to a new, more differentiated, higher level of "order" or
organization.... One of the key controversies surrounding this concept has to
do with Prigogine's insistence that order and organization can actually arise
"spontaneously" out of disorder and chaos through a process of
10. Several of Sterling's stories set in the Shaper-Mechanist universe are
published together in his 1989 short-story collection, Crystal Express.
11. M.E. [Mary Elizabeth] Braddon (1835-1915) was a Victorian actress,
adventuress, and novelist. In the words of her biographer, Robert Lee Wolff, her
novel Lady Audley's Secret (1862) "rocketed her into celebrity" (Sensational
Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon [NY/London, 1979], 3).
In 1901, Arnold Bennett observed that "there are thousands of tolerably
educated English people who have never heard of Meredith, Hardy, Ibsen,
Maeterlinck, Kipling, Barrie...but you would travel far before you reached the
zone where the name of Braddon failed of recognition" (qtd. in Wolff, 2).
Braddon's Lady Audley was the first in a line of Victorian melodramatic
characters known as "sensation heroines."
12. In his review of The Difference Engine, Glenn Grant identifies both
"Sterling's obsession with emergency evacuations and Gibson's hotel fetish"
(Science-Fiction Eye, 8:39, Winter 1991).
13. A filofax is a pre-electronic portable personal organizer.
14. Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) was a Modernist Catalan architect whose creations
include the Casa Mila, the Casa Batllo, and the "wildly ornate" Sagrada
Familia (Holy Family) cathedral, left unfinished when he died. On April 25,
1991, the Casa Batllo in Barcelona went on sale at a reserve price of 10 billion
pesatas (107 million dollars).
15. Described by Walter Kendrick as "eleven large volumes, complete with index,
[devoted] to physical descriptions of sex almost wholly detached from any
context," My Secret Life was published anonymously by a Victorian "gentleman"
in the 1880's (The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture [NY: Viking
Penguin, 1987], 65). For an extensive discussion of My Secret Life, see Steven
Marcus's The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in
Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (NY: Basic Books, 1966), especially pp. 77-196.
16. Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888) was a British journalist, novelist, explorer,
diplomat, and sometime participant in utopian community living.
17. Bruce Sterling, "Precessing the Simulacra for Fun and Profit," Monad
1:51-65, September 1990.
18. Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker, eds. The Hysterical Male: New Feminist
Theory (Montréal: New World Perspectives, 1991).
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