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Sci-fi author laments state of world

In his annual talk closing out the South by Southwest interactive conference, Bruce Sterling says the world is in crazy shape. Photo: Sterling speaks at SXSW

AUSTIN, Texas--At a South by Southwest interactive conference that many said was too big and too crazy, one thing everyone was seemingly happy to see hadn't changed was that science fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave the closing speech.

During the roughly 45 minutes Sterling talked, he touched on any number of issues, from the wonders of Web 2.0 technologies, to the way America and Americans are viewed abroad, to politics and daily life in Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, where he currently lives.

In general, the speech was defiant and lyrical, in keeping with Sterling's style. It was a paean to modern technology and the way people today can live anywhere and everywhere and yet still appear to be in one place, given to using e-mail and instant messaging for communication rather than physical mail that requires a street address.

And he applauded the originality of many of the technologies being celebrated here at South by Southwest.

"This is the year of Web 2.0," Sterling said. "This is the hottest period of invention since the invention of the browser...Flickr is not a copy of anything else, it is not a hippie knock off a commercial product, (and) Wikipedia is not a copy of anything else... The Net community is no longer hanging on the coattails of Gates."

But Sterling is also clearly unhappy with the state of American political and governmental affairs and the way he says the Bush administration and others in power are stifling innovation with unimaginative policies. These words were well-received by most of the audience--many of whom come from either the San Francisco Bay Area or Austin itself, one of the few liberal enclaves in Texas.

"If I've learned anything from hanging out with the Eastern European dissident crowd, it's make no decision out of fear."
--Bruce Sterling

"Our people in Washington are drinking their own bath water," Sterling charged. "They have forgotten how to build looks like the Soviet Union."

He talked at length about society in Belgrade, where he is living with his wife, a "Serbian feminist peacenik dissident." And he explained that Serbian society is even more troubled than America's and that much of the vitality there comes from the strength of writers, philosophers and other social thinkers toughened by years of war.

"If I've learned anything from hanging out with the Eastern European dissident crowd," he said, "it's make no decision out of fear."

The line got a rousing cheer.

Sterling also talked about books he's written and time spent traveling around the world at a furious pace. He said he had plans to see fellow science fiction author Cory Doctorow on three continents in five months.

In the end, Sterling closed on a somber note. In a reading during which he frequently appeared on the verge of tears, he recalled the words of Chicago poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote in the poem "The People, Yes": The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic, is a vast huddle with many units saying: I earn my living/I make enough to get by/and it takes all my time./If I had more time/I could do more for myself/and maybe for others./I could read and study/and talk things over/and find out about things/It takes time./I wish I had the time.