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Sterling, Bruce

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Editor, Fan.

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(1954-    ) US essayist, editor and author whose first published sf was a short story, "Man-Made Self", in an anthology of Texan sf, Lone Star Universe (anth 1976) edited by Geo W Proctor and Steven Utley. His first novel, Involution Ocean (1977), is a memoir of the baroque adventures and moral education of a young man who joins the crew of a dustwhaler, a ship that sails upon a sea of dust within a vast crater, seventy miles deep, on a waterless planet, in search of a mysterious prey; the influence of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) is clear throughout. Sterling continued in this vein of nigh-allegorical extravaganza with The Artificial Kid (1980), another first-person Far-Future picaresque, whose, shockproof milieu of glamorized youth, martial arts and omnipotent Technology recalls the early work of Samuel R Delany. The novel also looks forward to the Cyberpunk subgenre, whose principles and character Sterling largely defined in his polemical Fanzine Cheap Truth (1983-1986), which he wrote and edited as by Vincent Omniaveritas and which was eventually assembled as The Complete Cheap Truth (coll 2019 ebook). In this context Sterling also edited Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (anth 1986), which further promulgated his forensically antagonistic division of the better sf writers of the 1980s into Humanists (Kim Stanley Robinson being dismissively so described) and Cyberpunks like Sterling himself. A few years later, with the same polemical edge evident but more usefully deployed, with Richard Dorsett he created the term slipstream (see Slipstream SF), which he described in a short, influential essay, "The Slipstream List" (July 1989 Science Fiction Eye), as not delineating a genre but an affect, as "a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel ..." (see Equipoise). It is a description that excludes almost any example of Genre SF, which he treats as a bankrupt marketing category.

Sterling's talent for rhetoric and his pre-eminence as sf ideologue of the 1980s may have distracted attention from his own fiction. In Schismatrix (1985), a one-volume Future History of the interplanetary expansion and transformation of the human race, he exchanges the fantastic exorbitance of his earlier work for a hard-edged and highly detailed realism closely informed by scientific speculation and extrapolation. Linked with Schismatrix is the Shaper/Mechanist series of short stories included in Crystal Express (coll 1989), about a spacefaring mainly Posthuman civilization whose Space Habitats are found throughout the solar system; it is divided into two factions, traditionalists who wish to maintain human life free of Genetic Engineering, and the Posthumanists, who are themselves divided into two: the Shapers, who favour bio-engineering; and the Mechanists, who prefer prosthetics (see Cyborgs). The collection contains some of Sterling's best and most fully realized work; he has called it "my favourite among my books". The five stories connected with the sequence, plus Schismatrix, were assembled as Schismatrix Plus (omni 1996); new stories, none connected to the sequence, were assembled as Globalhead (coll 1992). Two later stories won two Hugo for best novelette: "Bicycle Repairman" (October/November 1996 Asimov's) and "Taklamakan" (October/November 1998 Asimov's), which also won a Locus Award, as did "Maneki Neko" (1998 F&SF); both appeared in his third collection, A Good Old-Fashioned Future (coll 1999). Further collections include Visionary in Residence (coll 2006), Ascendencies: The Best of Bruce Sterling (coll 2007) and Gothic High-Tech (coll 2011), the last focusing on the kind of survival issues facing humanity after the various crises that have been afflicting and transforming the species for decades, a process Sterling clearly thinks may generate a badlands planet (see below).

Narrated in the mode of the Scientific Romance by an anonymous historian above and beyond space and time, Schismatrix is a homage to Olaf Stapledon, but in fact many of Sterling's novels may be seen as tours conducted around fields of data by protagonists whose main function is to witness them for us. This approach culminates in Islands in the Net (1988), a Near-Future thriller concerned with the increasing growth and complexity of political power in electronic communication networks. Sterling's fascination with the inner workings of cultures foreign to his own also led to his collaboration with William Gibson, The Difference Engine (1990), an Alternate-History, Steampunk novel in which the successful development of Charles Babbage's mechanical Computer around 1820 has with Ada Lovelace's later contributions produced a world divided between France and an 1850s UK ruled by a radical technocracy under Lord Byron; this UK is depicted as a cruel and polluted Dystopia whose visual squalor seems to reflect the influence of Charles Dickens's apocalyptic vision of an industrialized land riven by nightmarish arterial roads. And worse is to come: the eponymous computer is clearly en route to becoming an AI, and may end up ruling the world.

Sterling's later work focuses, with greater intensity and success than perhaps any other American sf writer of his generation, on the strange and intoxicatingly various Near Future of this planet, which he consistently understands as a globe whose every aspect is interactive. Human civilization as an intricate and unstable mechanism, whose dynamics work against any balancing of the need for equilibrium against our insatiable demands for knowledge and power. Such concerns centrally govern the plot of Heavy Weather (1994), set early in the twenty-first century at a point when the ecological degradation of the planet, and the turbulence in the world weather system caused by Climate Change, have generated storm systems of unprecedented ferocity. Even more vitally engaged with the real world to come is Distraction (1998), perhaps his most successful (certainly his most complex) novel. It is set in a balkanized America that resembles, but is not nearly so quiet, as a typical Ruined Earth. The plot – which involves complicated parlaying between a scientific enclave and the free state of Louisiana – is much less interesting than the portrait of this multiplex through the eyes of the book's protagonist, a spin doctor able to sense the ley lines where information concentrates. Sterling's more recent novels inhabit a very similar planet, though Zeitgeist (2000) can be seen as a mocking homage to the forever-disappeared twentieth century. Both Zenith Angle (2004) and The Caryatids (2009) reside, perhaps too comfortably, in the precarious roil of the twenty-first century. They give off some sense that Sterling may be holding his fire; but no sense whatsoever that his next book may not, once again, reconfigure our understanding of how to see the world. Pirate Utopia (2016), a spoof Alternate History set after World War One in a Europe transfigured by the dreams of Futurism (see Filippo Tommaso Marinetti), does not attempt this reconfiguration. Robert E Howard and H P Lovecraft, among others, feature in the tale. [CG/JC]

see also: Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Economics; End of the World; Evolution; History of SF; Interzone; Islands; Steve Jackson; John W Campbell Memorial Award; Music; Omni; SF Music; Sociology; Transportation; Villains; Women in SF.

Michael Bruce Sterling

born Brownsville, Texas: 14 April 1954




  • Schismatrix (New York: Arbor House, 1985) [Shaper-Mechanist: hb/Ron Walotsky]
  • Crystal Express (Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1989) [coll: contains five Shaper-Mechanist stories plus other material: hb/Rick Lieder]
    • Schismatrix Plus (New York: Ace Books, 1996) [omni of the Shaper-Mechanist stories from the above plus Schismatrix: pb/Danilo Ducak]

individual titles

collections and stories

works as editor


MIT Technology Review SF Annual

  • Twelve Tomorrows (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Technology Review, 2014) [anth: MIT Technology Review SF Annual: pb/John Schoenherr]
  • Twelve Tomorrows (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Technology Review, 2015) [anth: MIT Technology Review SF Annual: pb/Virgil Finlay]

individual titles as editor


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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