Where Software Meets Wetware: An Interview With Germán Sierra


The Artifact, the excellent first novel in English by acclaimed Spanish author Germán Sierra, occupies a fascinating space between the scientific and the psychedelic, where the boundaries that divide humanity and technology blur and we’re asked to consider what we are in relation to the accumulated data that trails and increasingly defines us.

Sierra has published five previous novels and a collection of stories in Spanish, and has been widely anthologized. Though some of his short fiction has been translated into English, this is the first time that one of his novels has been made available to the English-language audience. This is particularly exciting because Sierra has written The Artifact directly in English, granting a new readership access to his unique narrative mind without the filtering lens of translation.

Sierra and I recently spoke about The Artifact, writing in a second language, and humanity’s relationship to technology.

You’re known as a member of Spain’s Nocilla Generation. What does that mean to you? Do you view your work as being in conversation with the specific group of contemporaries also considered to be members of that literary movement?

“Nocilla Generation” was a name given by some Spanish critics and journalists to a very diverse group of writers back in 2007. The name comes from Agustin Fernández Mallo’s novel Nocilla Dream, which became unexpectedly popular since its publication by a small press in 2006. In the previous years, some of the writers included in the “Nocilla list” (including myself) had been organizing small meetings to discuss the emergence of a new literary aesthetics in Spanish fiction—so yes, there was an ongoing and very open conversation about Spanish contemporary writing. However, it’s difficult to think about the so called “generation” as a homogeneous movement—we were, and we are, very different and very personal writers—except for our attempt to write fiction that somehow reflected a broad 21st-century culture (science, theory, art, technology, music, some interest in experimentalism and the underground, etc…) within the aesthetically conservative Spanish literary landscape. We started talking to each other because we had been reading each other’s work and we liked what the others were doing. The popular success of Agustin Fernández Mallo’s novels attracted some mainstream media attention to the group.

I never liked the term “generation”, because it usually refers to people of more or less the same age and a particular historical moment. I don’t think that our community reflected a single period in Spanish literature, but I see it more as the continuation of an “experimental” and “playful” tradition, coming from Cervantes in the case of Spain (and with wonderful examples in the 20th century such as Valle-Inclán, Julián Ríos, Juan Goytisolo or Juan Benet), which is often ruled out by self-appointed “realist” narrators.

In The Artifact, your first book in English, you say, “Writing in a foreign language is like being infatuated with some unknown persons out there in the internet: a continuous exploration of the radiant but probably false traces of their behavior.” Why did you choose to write this book in English rather than Spanish, and how did the experience of writing in a second language affect your process and the resulting text?

Actually, what most encouraged me to start writing fiction in English were people like you! —writers, publishers, critics and readers sharing literary stuff in the internet. For a long time I was doing fiction in Spanish and academic essays in English, but a couple of years ago, Douglas Glover, who was editing the wonderful online magazine Numéro Cinq, invited me to submit a short story for the mag. I took it as a kind of humorous experiment, like writing within an Oulipianesque linguistic constraint. Of course, many writers switch languages—even geniuses like Nabokov or Beckett—but in almost all cases this happens after moving to a different country and getting immersed in the second language. My case is a bit different because I live in Spain and my only continuous relationship with English is as a reader. This is really weird, because I often write words that I might never have heard, so they have my own (and probably incorrect) inner “sound”—being aware of that was funny and scary at the same time…

I’m sure there’s a lot of Spanish in my English. I remember an interview with the Vietnamese-born writer Vi Khi Nao in which she was talking about “writing Vietnamese in English”: “People said, ‘oh this sentence is strange’… I don’t think it’s strange, it’s just, it has a lot of Vietnamese in it–my Vietnamese past in it–and so it gave that English word or sentence…that slant… It has my…somatic system of Vietnamese-ness embedded within.” I feel very much identified with that sensation. I’m intoxicating global English with Spanish baroque.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the process of producing a fictional text in a different language. I was feeling more free to experiment, less “grammatically prejudiced” than when writing in Spanish, so I decided to go ahead with a longer thing—and that was The Artifact.

Yes! I know that phenomenon well! Sometimes when I’m speaking or writing in Spanish, which is my second language, there will be moments when I recognize that I’m using English with Spanish words: the meaning that I’m trying to convey is there, but the syntax comes off translated and foreign. (For the record, I noted only a few instances of that in The Artifact, and they added to the texture of the prose, rather than being a distraction. I’ll be interested to hear the experiences of readers who don’t speak Spanish. If they don’t recognize the construction as Spanish, it might be completely transparent for them.)

I’m particularly interested in how language affects our writing, how thinking in a different language shifts your perspective and how that can impact the work. When I write in Spanish—especially fiction—my voice changes. The change in sound and rhythm creates a fundamental shift, like I’m accessing a different instrument, and perhaps even a different logic. Did this experiment of writing in English surprise you in any way as you wrote the book? Does it differ from your previous books in Spanish in ways you didn’t anticipate?

Of course!

The musical instrument metaphor is a good one. I remember a conversation, many years ago, with the Spanish composer and electroacoustic pioneer Luis de Pablo in which he said that he wasn’t interested in using synthesizers to mimic conventional instruments, but in being able to produce novel sounds that were not possible before. This somehow happens when you switch to a new language—you learn that you’re able to say things that, in your mother language, you didn’t know you knew.

For some short fragments of The Artifact, I used texts I had previously written in Spanish. First I translated them, but they didn’t seem right… The texts in English “wanted” to express something different from the texts in Spanish—they had their own different logic, as you say—so I had to remake them completely.

Also, as I mentioned before, some constrictions apply in my case. My English is far from perfect. There are many things that I can’t explain in English with the precision I would like, so I’m forced to take shortcuts I’d never take in Spanish. But I also learned that it works both ways—that writing in English allowed me to address several ideas that were much more confusing when thinking in Spanish. I was used to that happening with science texts, but I was surprised it was the same for narrative. Beckett used to say that he switched to French “to get rid of style”—and then he produced one of the most recognizable styles in the history of literature…

Some of those phenomena are related to vocabulary and grammar, but context is also very important. When writing in English I feel not just like “hacking” a foreign language—with all the playful and naughty references the idea of hacking evokes—but also kind of “performing a text” in a wider global artistic context—so it feels much more like doing visual or sound art.

In addition to being a writer, you’re a neuroscientist. (Let’s give our readers a moment to absorb that formidable combination.) The Artifact, which is set in what I read as a near future, considers the boundaries between human and technology, as well as the interactions and interdependence between humans and technology. In fact, in your protagonist, who has an extremely advanced prosthetic arm, we find the line between humanity (“wetware”) and hardware (and its attendant software) become blurred. Can you talk about that with regard to your background as a neuroscientist? What ground did you set out to explore in this novel, and how does it relate to your scientific work?

Haha! Neuroscience has been so extremely overhyped lately that it seems we’re mad but benevolent scientists unearthing the deepest secrets about what it means to be human… The humbler truth is that my research develops at a much more ground level: taking some samples from rodent brains and trying to find out how some neurotransmitters work in different experimental conditions. I was involved in cognitive neuroscience long time ago, but I’ve been fully into neurochemistry and neuropharmacology for the last 20 years.

Of course, neuroscience—and, more generally, the scientific approach to knowledge—gets merrily in my way when I’m writing fiction, but, as a writer, I’m more often interested in the popular myths surrounding science and technology than in “proper” science. Actually, The Artifact started as a kind of joke on our wrong perceptions about neuroimaging—the common belief that we can actually “see” the brain doing things—and around the surreal idea that the human skull is a kind of “house,” so it could be “haunted.”

The prosthetics technology I mention is invented, but it could probably be constructed now. I was interested in exploring the relationship between us and our prostheses, the way we adopt our instruments as intimate parts of ourselves while, at the same time, feeling the strangeness of our own body. This is becoming evident for “softwared” technical objects, but we were culturally primed for that—a sword, for instance, is a carefully designed prosthesis, and the dream to add some software (it was called magic then) to it has accompanied fiction from its start.

Fair enough. And you do write at one point in the text that “science is at the heart of magic.” Though I don’t recall ever having heard any myths about magic swords that can bring their bearers to orgasm. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that your protagonist has so merged with his prosthetic arm and hand that it is able to learn his sexual rhythms and preferences and jerk him off according to the resulting algorithm. Besides the fact that the dirty bits are always fun to read, I appreciate (and am terrified by) the idea of humanity and technology becoming so merged that even our sexual responses can be noted and measured and served back to us…wait…we’re already there. Of course we are. Jesus Christ…

Okay! And so The Artifact then brings us the protagonist as a volunteer control subject in a series of corporate scientific trials. He talks about “the relief/pleasure of turning his body over to science, becoming anonymous, a test subject, fodder for corporate science. Absorbed into the machine.” I couldn’t help but read so much of this as an analogy for social media, how we’ve turned ourselves over to corporations, willingly become a collection of data. Though perhaps we’re driven more by the fear of anonymity than a desire for it. What’s your view of the current human/technology relationship, and where are we headed?

All those feelings are ambivalent. In one of my previous novels (Intente usar otras plalabras—Try using other words) the protagonist rants about the “fear of not being watched,” a kind of reverse paranoia, but I’m equally attracted to intentional overexposure and secrecy, to celebrity as the most abject form of anonymity, to technologies and strategies of obfuscation in the total screen. The ingenuity of telling the truth—or believing the truth is told—to/by the platform systems is so cute… Most of my narrations deal with those moments of ingenuity, when, despite their most sardonic skepticism, people just let themselves go, as if they suddenly became conscious of the theatrical nature of life. When people realize they could go as themselves because nobody would believe this is how they actually are. One of the most evident features of our time is that we’ve lost the modern belief in human agency, in being able to control what happens around us, but we can’t go back to old ideas like fate or destiny or teleological explanations, so sooner or later we embrace chaos and randomness on one hand, and accept being absorbed by inhuman macroarchitectures on the other.

I don’t have a single, or clear, or unambiguous view about how we are shaping our technologies and how they’re shaping us. I’ve been an unrepentant technophile since childhood and I’m fascinated by the advances in communication technologies—I always wanted to inhabit the library of Babel. I’m a bit disappointed with interstellar transportation, however…

I’ve never been able to seriously envision a future—only a series of contradictory possible futures—maybe because I enjoy being surprised. I have a lot of questions, but no coherent answers, which is why I prefer to speculate about our societies and technologies from the fictional viewpoint (or, sometimes, to think about thinking by writing about other people’s fiction). It’s like, well, machines might take over the world and kill us all tomorrow, so I’d rather have fun with them while they’re just toys…

The “artifact” that gives this novel its title refers to a set of brain scans that show a mysterious anomaly. You say that conceit began as a sort of joke, but it feels—certainly by the end of the novel—to carry significant meaning. How did your concept of “the artifact” change from initial idea to final draft?

The Artifact grew “organically” from a short story published in Fluland in which the “haunted skull” pops up as one of those images that seem to lead nowhere. I do this often in my writing, I really like to introduce narrative cuts that look like dead ends but are sometimes re-opened in a different context, like passages to alternative dimensions. Later I thought of continuing with a satire on brain scan interpretations but, as we know at least since Freud, jokes are serious things—they often hide our anxieties and fears, or just confusing embryonic ideas that we still don’t know how to address. So at some point the text became a dialog between the rational and the irrational, the livable and the inapprehensible abstraction, an essay on how we deal with some obsessions which seem to be banal but end up occupying a central role during some periods of our lives. And finally, a reflection about what we can actually understand as “data” and what is “technical artifact” (or “foreground noise,” as a different phenomenon from “background noise”)—once we know that a centered observer cannot exist, to what point a de-centered observer, the narrator, the reader, might be artifactual.

What are you working on now?

Fictionwise? I have a short story in the forthcoming Felt, a collective book from Zeno Press that will be out in November. I got a bunch of notes and disordered fragments both in Spanish and English… A couple of them might end as short stories, but don’t know yet. Most will disappear (I love deleting as much as recycling old things I forgot to delete).

I’ve published several essays and articles about contemporary literary aesthetics recently—and I have a couple more that are still unpublished—so I’ve been considering the possibility of an essay book—but it will require some concentration in the project, and I won’t have much free time in the next few months. Besides, I’m a lazy writer—like Borges, I’d rather read other people’s books, haha!


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on Twitter, Facebook, and sign up for our mailing list.