U. of Texas Snags Archive of 'Cyberpunk' Literary Pioneer Bruce Sterling

Photo by Pablo Balbontin Arenas, published under a GNU Free Documentation License

Bruce Sterling
March 08, 2011

Late last month, four archivists descended on the Austin home of Bruce Sterling, the influential science-fiction novelist, Internet theorist, design futurist, blogger, and traveling academic. They came to do a first cull of Mr. Sterling's archive, which he's donating in stages to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater.

"It was very odd to have these four characters in here ransacking the place," he says. "They were very polite about it. They didn't leave it in any worse disorder than it already was."

The archivists departed with a large part of Mr. Sterling's library and about 15 boxes of manuscripts, research materials, and other documents related to the cyberpunk movement, which he founded in the 1980s with William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Pat Cadigan, and other science-fiction writers. (The 1986 anthology Mirrorshades, edited by Mr. Sterling, features them and a lot of the other writers identified with the movement.)

Cyberpunk is where tech meets noir; think of Mr. Gibson's novel Neuromancer ("The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel") or the movie Blade Runner.

"The things that I gave them now I guess you'd call the cyberpunk canon," Mr. Sterling says. "They took some of the books I had about science-fiction studies, and they took the best set of published Bruce Sterling novels anywhere."

The Ransom Center estimates it carried off about 500 books, some inscribed by his fellow authors, some (the reference works, not the fiction) featuring his marginalia. The center carted away notes and manuscripts of a lot of Mr. Sterling's fiction, including the seminal 1990 cyberpunk/steampunk novel The Difference Engine, which he wrote with Mr. Gibson.

Much of that novel was actually researched at the Ransom Center, says Richard W. Oram, associate director and librarian there.

"He says it's like 90 percent" from the center, Mr. Oram says. "We have a box of research materials for that—everything from contracts to Xeroxes of some of the books here in the collection about weird Victorian devices and gadgets."

The center now also holds copies of the mimeographed fanzine/critical organ Cheap Truth, which Mr. Sterling wrote and distributed in the early 1980s "when he challenged the whole science-fiction movement and said it needed to be cognizant of computers," Mr. Oram says. "He called it a samizdat publication. It was published out of his apartment in Austin."

At Home in Austin

Cyberpunk "was really almost born in Austin, so it's good that the stuff is coming here," Mr. Oram says. He thinks that the Austin campus has the third-largest science fiction collection in the country, if he counts what's in the library's general holdings.

Mr. Sterling isn't just a Texas at Austin graduate; he was born in Austin in 1954, and still spends some time there, although he leads a peripatetic life. "I was an oil brat," he says. "I've been all over the place."

He's a professor of Internet studies and science fiction at the European Graduate School, in Switzerland. "I go to EGU to talk about media philosophy," he says. He's "visionary in residence" at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, Calif., where he'll teach a course this summer in which students will design augmented-reality apps for hand-held devices. He spends time in Serbia. He was in Brazil a couple of months ago and is now working with a Brazilian cyberpunk pal on a short story. He's always liked collaborating.

Now he and Mr. Gibson and some of their fellow cyberpunks have become "network-culture figures," drawing what he calls "a radically global" audience to their Twitter streams and their blogs. It's a long way from the kinds of print-based interactions they had with readers 30 years ago.

The cyberpunks are "more famous and much more influential than we were in our heyday, because now people respect us and quote us in public," he says. "But that's not very punk."

The pull of the network "is affecting people in every field I'm familiar with," he says. "It's a tremendous change. It's all about network culture and the rise of social networking and open-source this and collaborative that."

For all its focus on machines and technology, cyberpunk was built on paper, he says. "It was heavily dependent on Xeroxes and magazines" like Cheap Truth and Omni. Reading magazines "was an amazing thing to do in 1981," he says. "It's over in the way that mechanical typewriters are over."

Now, "even if you wanted to be a cyberpunk, you wouldn't have the means of distribution and production that a cyberpunk had," he says. "That's really fatal."

Guarding Privacy

Researchers will have unrestricted access to Cheap Truth and the rest of the Sterling materials in a few months, once the Ransom Center has cataloged the books and papers. What they won't find in the archive, at least not yet, is the writer's correspondence.

"I just didn't get them anything that would require restriction," he says. "I don't want to offend any of my correspondents. They're still working authors. I don't want anybody running in there and listening to cyberpunks confiding things about their private lives."

Scholars won't find his notebooks in the archive yet either, because Mr. Sterling is still using them. (He will donate them at some point.) "They're basically my diaries, to the extent I have diaries," he says. "I'm always surprised at the continuity in my own work when I look back." Notebooks "give you an insight on yourself" as a writer, he says. "That's why it's important to have a diaristic practice."

He looks for notebooks intended for architects or interactivity designers rather than writers. "I use them deliberately, not because they're easy for writers but because they're difficult, and they kind of push you into a different imaginative space," he says. "I compose fiction on a computer, but I commonly do my plotting on paper. I try to mix it up, actually, because I think it's important to have some grain to the material there. I use different writing instruments because I find it affects my composition process."

Mr. Sterling blogs at Beyond the Beyond, which is affiliated with Wired magazine. (He appeared on the cover of Wired's first issue, a copy of which is now at the Ransom Center, too.) He's on Twitter. He has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about computers and technology and how we interact with it.

He's also fascinated by dead media—a subject he has written a lot about—and is robustly skeptical about the idea that digital media are durable. "It's like thinking you're going to run your Ford Edsel for the next 50 years," he says.

Scholars won't find any digital artifacts—no hard drives or floppy disks, for instance, in the material he's given the Ransom Center so far. "I did not have any electronic documents to give them. Not even one," he says. "I've never believed in the stability of electronic archives, so I really haven't committed to that stuff."

"There are forms of media which are just inherently unstable, and the attempt to stabilize them is like the attempt to go out and stabilize the corkboard at the laundromat," he adds. "You can get into big trouble that way."

Those who tout digital permanence, he says, "need to go talk to the archivists."