Inside the military-entertainment complex

Bruce Sterling Interview

Set in Istanbul, Bruce Sterling’s most recent novel Zeitgeist (2000) outlines a wicked scenario: the world is being conquered by G7, a girl group that plays cheap sampled pop and sells tons of merchandise product, oil-tanker-style. Against this backdrop of "popular geo-politics" a great deal of discourse is afforded to the so called "war for the soul of the next century." A culture war that is to be taken "inside the homes, and heads, and hearts, of the fundamentalists" as soon as the region’s distribution infrastructure and its contents are entirely in the hand of the G7 management.

"Of course, you can be a soldier, and also be a great entertainer", admits the novel’s anti-hero Leggy Starlitz. His pitch sounds familiar? Well, what the protagonists in "Zeitgeist" discuss among themselves as the military-entertainment complex foreshadowed contemporary phenomena such as "foreign diplomacy as marketing" (the current Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy is a former Ogilvy Mather chief and tries to rebrand USA and sell democracy to hostile Musilms across the world), "war journalism as reality-TV soap opera" (networks like ABC supply personal stories of soldiers in Afghanistan, the Philippines and beyond, in Sitcom format, directly from the front) and "imperialism as entertainment" (a consulting agency like Pearlfisher advises clients including Virigin, F1, or MGM studios to take over an entire island in order to create "Virgin Territory", an adult-only war-themepark).

In an early attempt to comment upon the world after 9/11 Sterling sketched apocalyptic combat choreographies like Gulf War III and Cold War II for pop-science journalists, scientists and engineers who hang out on John Brockman’s EDGE website. As Sterling explains "it’s the sort of thing we "virtual intelligentsia" types like to discuss when normal people aren’t looking." Now they are looking and wonder how the acclaimed Sci-Fi writer gauges the new world order.

Inside the military-entertainment complex

Pearlfisher’s Post-September 11th vision for an adult-only themepark: "Virgin Territory" (Image: Pearlfisher What’s left for Sci-Fi-writers to do after 9/11?

Bruce Sterling: Well, they didn’t lack for topics after Hiroshima. Why should 9/11 slow them down? I know it got a lot of press, but it’s just a few large buildings and aircraft, it’s not like D-Day and the Seige of Berlin. But isn’t it more than just two towers and buildings? We see the globe caught up in a new type of world war.

Bruce Sterling: We indeed see the globe caught up in a "new kind of world war," but what kind is it? Veterans of World War One and Two would have to shake their heads at a "war" where people die in fives, dozens or hundreds rather than millions. We may yet work our way up to some serious shooting war, or maybe some acts of urban genocide committed with rogue nuclear weapons. But if that were the case, why would we call that "9/11"? If Washington disappeared in a mushroom cloud, we’d give that huge event a different name. What about phrases like "September 11th is now!" or the notion that everything that currently happens, is – in the view of the Pentagon – legitimate because of 9/11?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I’ve been in the Pentagon, and there’s not unanimous sentiment in there. The Pentagon is not a monolithic entity, it’s a bunch of different military services and established industrial interests quarreling over tactics and funding. It’s a disturbed, scrambling, doubtful, rather feverish time for them. Somebody crashed into the Pentagon and they’re busy rebuilding the wreckage. People in the Pentagon had colleagues killed and maimed by bin Laden. They’re trying to find bin Laden and kill him and his cult. Naturally they consider that a legitimate thing to do, but they’re having mixed success at the job. They’re busily re-thinking a lot of their cherished doctrines. Nothing concentrates the military mind like getting shot at. If bin Laden is in fact publicly killed, then the US military will find itself standing around with its hands in its pockets, wondering what’s supposed to come next. In your most recent contribution to Wired magazine (April 2002 ) you have an answer at hand: Astro Cop takes over, that is: Space technology based US military world domination, in the course of which peace is sold as war. In order to make this rhetoric(al shift) palpable, could you briefly explain how "peace as war" materializes?

Bruce Sterling: Well, humans are very aggressive and scrappy, and go to war at the drop of a hat. However, a standard land war is no longer going to work as it is no longer technically possible. There are no fronts, the commanding headquarters of generals can be smashed instantly and are number-one targets, supply lines can be interdicted at will, trans-border invasions by organized national armies are heavily disapproved by large coalitions of nations. War as Napoleon knew it just not possible any more. However, we’re very unlikely to accept or recognize "world peace" even when we get it. Therefore, events that Queen Victoria would recognize as outrages, frontier skirmishes or minor popular rebellions will be reclassified as "war." And so will major atrocities such as biological warfare and surreptitious nuclear explosions. They used to be seen as insane or unthinkable acts of madmen. But if they take place they’ll be called "war" too. And there will still be no conventional war. It is quite interesting how you intermingle journalism (Peace is War) with science fiction (Star Tech). What is the agenda behind that? Do you intend to blur the borders between the two or extend our notion of the respective catergories??

Bruce Sterling: I like to get paid for doing basic research, so it’s pleasant to write some nonfiction about it. Those categories don’t bother me much, I don’t need to "blur" them. The boundary between writing for the Internet and off the Internet, that’s pretty challenging, though. There a lot of my work is noncommercial and for small or at least unpredictable audiences. Still, I like to think of it as some of my best work — or at least, my most characteristic.

Inside the military-entertainment complex

It seems that you are not only writing about the military-entertainment complex but are also part of it. How would you define your position as a writer against this backdrop: "Parasitic", as the Japanese perhaps would call it?

Bruce Sterling: Yes, of course I’m an entertainer in the military-entertainment complex. I’m very clearly a major agent of American cultural imperialism — I’ve even been sent to Italy by the US Information Agency. I’ve written about cops, about soldiers, I’ve even met real, live people from the FBI and CIA. And I wouldn’t describe that "position" as "parasitic." I’d describe that experience as "edifying." I don’t merely write from a critical intellectual distance. I actually live around here. What was the Italy-mission all about?

Bruce Sterling: Oh, that was such a long time ago… Last week I was in Italy hanging out with Linux freeware activists in a college event sponsored by a dance club that’s run by some kind of anarchist dive… With Communists, and feminists, and hackers, and the media, and professors of Latin American literature, and radio personalities, and solemn guys with piercings who hate Berlusconi… And man, the food was great. We were all drinking heavily, and the local soccer club won and the population went nuts and ran into the streets…. I haven’t had that good a time in ages. Since September 11, really. I just felt so happy, it was like the sun came out of the clouds for me. I love Italy. Let us talk about your readers: Hackers, digerati, media philosophers, etc. Of course also teens/students with Anthrax T-shirts who are into the funky language and the "fucked up" scenarios. They probably lack any critical/intellectual distance to what you call the military-entertainment complex. They are hooked on that stuff, as they feel that this is now, that this is the beat that shakes the planet. They consume books like "Zeitgeist" along with movies like "Strange Days" and games like Counterstrike.

Bruce Sterling: Hey, I was once a student in a punk T-Shirt hooked on fucked-up scenarios. That’s how I became the esteemed cultural figure that I am today. Young people may not be real worldly, but they’re untroubled by the ballast of dead concepts and they think really fast. They’ve got plenty of time to develop "critical/intellectual distance," not that they much like doing it. What’s your "thesis" on the mode of consumption in the military-entertainment complex?

Bruce Sterling: Well, the intellectual-property crisis is going into the trenches right now. A lack of a workable means of cultural consumption has killed off the Internet boom and lost AOL Time Warner $54 billion dollars in just one quarter. It’s a big, ugly, stinking deal, with extremely high stakes, in which there are no heroes. Even the smartest people make some of the worst and stupidest blunders. I’ve been watching this squalid debacle build up for decades on end, and I have to say at this moment I feel worse about it than I ever have. It’s wretched. A report on luxury, which has been conducted by Pearlfisher shortly before and after 9/11 and aims at counselling major brands in a time of global recession, suggests one homogenous class of consumers and the democratization of luxury.

Bruce Sterling: That sounds to me like it’s more a symptom of increasing class and income differentiation. The ultra-rich may be feeding roses and champagne to their racehorses, but that doesn’t mean we’re on the brink of an apocalypse. We might be on the brink of an apocalypse if, instead of poor people with suicide bombs killing middle class guys, middle-class people with suicide bombs started killing rich guys. I’ve heard people speculate that the growing American vogue for murder-suicides in the workplace has a certain tinge of this. On the basis of the aforementioned "analysis" the Pearlfisher report outlines imaginary products, among them "Virgin Territory" – the themepark for war-games and extreme-sports, which somehow echoes the reality in some of your stories.

Bruce Sterling: My idea of an amusement park story is getting adventurers to go tour environmental disaster areas. After all, if the entire Great Barrier Reef gets killed, which seems like an extremely lively possibility, what are you going to do with all that rotting limestone? The Chernobyl "wilderness" – disappearing glaciers – trees growing on dead skyscrapers in Detroit – in the Viridian movement we spend a lot of time and energy describing and studying these things. The "greening of the US military" comes to mind, a phase in the 90s, during which the army basically lost its job and started to take care of environmental problems, engaging upon missions like Endangered species. Ironically, the military’s surveillence apparatus was being revamped as an ecological-warning sytem among other things. Do you see these two complexes converging: the military-entertainment complex and the environmentalism of your Viridian project?

Bruce Sterling: Well, if politics and business fail us, of course the military will be called in. In the developing world, the massive and repeated ecological disasters are quite commonly met by the military. If disasters get bad enough, they certainly become national-security threats and the National Guard is called in. If the National Guard never goes home because the weather never gets any better, that’s a scenario we Viridians like to call "Khaki Green." It’s by no means a pleasant prospect, but what else is there? I once saw the 82nd Airborne doing rescue and psychological operations in the wreckage of Hurricane Andrew. I respect their dedication, and the population was thrilled to see them.

Tracing Leggy Starlitz

What was the starting point for the "Zeitgeist" novel?

Bruce Sterling: As you likely know, "Zeitgeist" is part of a continuing series of stories involving an iconic figure who travels to peculiar yet illuminating corners of contemporary society. So that’s the general starting point: what would a guy like Leggy Starlitz find of interest at the moment? At this hour, I feel quite sure that he’s in Dubai. It would be corny to be in Afghanistan or the West Bank. Lebanon, too easy. Bombay, too full of itself. Dubai, just about right. Not too hot, not too cold, just close enough to the blazing fires of geo-political context; close enough to warm your greedy hands. Any perspectives on the "military-entertainment dust-up" in contemporary Dubai?

Bruce Sterling:Yeah. Dubai seems to be the primary area in which Al Qaeda and its allies within India launder their money through the hawala system. Dubai is thriving. I’m especially interested in Dubai’s connection to the Bombay criminal underworld. Most zealots with guns gravitate toward organized crime, because it’s a lot easier to have money and buy gunmen than it is to have gunmen and get money. It’s going to be really interesting to see what the heroin market does in the next two years or so. One thing you can be pretty sure of. The Afghan peasants who grow poppies won’t get rich. The money will end up in places like Dubai. What’s also very interesting about Dubai, is that it has recently been promoted as the "portal" of the United Arab Emirates. Take a project like the Dubai Media City: at the crossroads of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, Dubai Media City is being described as the region’s media hub: "It has been established by the Dubai Technology, e-commerce and Media Free Zone Authority to provide an infrastructure and environment that enable media-related enterprises to operate globally out of Dubai. Today the Dubai Media City is the place where every kind of media business, including broadcasting, publishing, advertising, public relations, research, music, and post-production thrives."

Bruce Sterling: I’m pleased to have you tell me that about Dubai. It’s confirming my intuition about the place. I may have to go there myself. Probably not anytime soon, though. My travel plans are pretty well booked up for the season. Starlitz used to make his hands dirty in black market operations in rural Azerbaijan ("Hollywood Kremlin", 1990), he helped radical feminist pro choice phone phreak activists to smuggle a French deveoped abortion pill through a Japanese female rock band in Salt Lake City ("Are You For 86?", 1992) and he tried to launch the first Internet-based money laundry while plotting a revolution on Finland’s Aland Islands ("The Littlest Jackal", 1996). What kind of job would this guy do in Dubai?

Bruce Sterling: Obviously, broadcasting, publishing, advertising, public relations, research, music, and post-production. At least, that’s what he would claim to be doing. Would Starlitz be managing G7 in Dubai, too?

Bruce Sterling: No, no, he would never repeat himself in such a banal way. I’m sure he would involve himself in some entirely new scam. Like, for instance, where you can buy the costumes right off the backs of Bollywood actresses. The cool thing about baazee is that it’s global e-commerce, it sells the physical rags of the glamour right off the shooting sets to fans with hard currency in Europe and the USA. The Bollywood distribution system is so corrupt that they have trouble making money off movies. So they sell shoes that an actress stepped in. If they turned up the amps some, maybe they could sell the actresses. A set of Bollywood actresses are coming through Dallas soon in a live tour; I’d pay a lot to see them, but alas, I’m fully booked elsewhere.