Huff Post Books
Where I Like To Read
Posted: 1/3/12 08:19 PM ET
I wonder how many formal dining rooms in older houses have become studies, libraries, offices, since the 60s? Ours has. We have a long table, salvaged from the original Vancouver Public Library, that can seat eight for dinner, but three walls are shelves (designed by my architect friend A.A. Robins to match the rest of the woodwork) and the fourth all windows (not much of a view, but some green, and the odd squirrel running along a nearby fence-top.
I like to read here (most recently a proof copy of Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker) and to write (most recently the introduction and end notes to my non-fiction collection, Distrust That Particular Flavor). I do both those things in an oak Stickley armchair, with dark green leather upholstery, that I never imagined would get so much use, but the wide flat arms are perfect for books, laptop (precariously), coffee cups, snacks (having the kitchen a door away is a definite plus.)
We are yet to miss our formal dining room, and I tell myself that our guests think it's writerly (though probably they just think I'm odd.)
William Gibson's latest book, Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, $26.95) is a compilation of his non-fiction writing, and is out now. This message has been edited. Last edited by: Sentinel400,
New York Times Book Review
William Gibson’s Future Is Now
By PAGAN KENNEDY
Published: January 13, 2012
On one of his trips to New York, William Gibson stopped before an antiques shop that would end up haunting him. He tried the door. It was locked. Over the years, he searched for the shop window many times — it seemed to wander around SoHo and materialize on unpredictable streets. Whenever he peered through it at the treasures within, he felt as if he were glimpsing the props from a dream. “There is no knowing what might appear there,” Gibson writes in one of the essays collected in “Distrust That Particular Flavor.” Once, he spied a collection of toy-size missiles.
Another time, a “florally ornate cast-iron fragment” that might have been a chunk of the Brooklyn Bridge. The window winked like a portal to another universe, yet it was real. And that’s what makes this first book of Gibson’s nonfiction so exciting. He has handed us a map to his own magic doorways.
Gibson is, of course, one of our greatest science-fiction writers, exalted for his talent for depicting futures that are just around the corner. His 1984 novel “Neuromancer” popularized the term “cyberspace,” describing the hacker-scripted fantasies of a shared digital realm. A decade later, when we all stepped into cyberspace, the word seemed just right.
Although some of his novels have an almost reportorial quality, Gibson didn’t initially intend to write nonfiction. As a young writer, “I became uncharacteristically strict with myself,” he recalls. He banned anything that wasn’t fiction from his typewriter, worrying that if he delved into essay writing, he might drain the jet fuel from his imaginary worlds. But editors kept asking him for travelogues and memoirs and literary musings. Gibson couldn’t resist, especially when the assignments involved a free airplane ticket. The pieces collected here, he confesses, are “violations of that early prime directive” to rely sheerly on invention.
I’m so glad he did cheat on the novels. In “Distrust That Particular Flavor,” Gibson pulls off a dazzling trick. Instead of predicting the future, he finds the future all around him, mashed up with the past, and reveals our own domain to us as a science-fictional marvel.
Gibson’s writing enters the bloodstream like a drug, producing a mild hallucinogenic effect that lasts for hours. In one essay (originally a talk he gave in 2008) he introduces us to “Martian jet lag,” an actual sleep disorder suffered by people whose jobs require them to stay in sync with the Red Planet: it’s “what you get when you operate one of those little RadioShack wagon/probes from a comfortable seat back at an air base in California.” In another essay, and seemingly in his own state of Martian jet lag, Gibson explores Singapore. “Disneyland with the death penalty,” he calls it, describing the country as “a relentlessly G-rated experience,” a place stuck in 1956. “The only problem being, of course, that it isn’t 1956 in the rest of the world.”
Such is the power of his prose that when I glanced up from the pages of this book and surveyed the street-side around me, I felt as if I were wearing Gibson-glasses. Cars lumbered past like ponderous elephants of rusty steel, not so different from the cars of 30 years ago, and seemed not to belong in the same world as the tattooed kid punching code into his laptop nearby. Under the spell of this book, I suddenly understood my surroundings not as a discrete contemporary tableau but as a hodgepodge of 1910, 1980, 2011 and 2020.
“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet” — this quote is often attributed to Gibson, though no one seems to be able to pin down when or if he actually said it. Still, it neatly sums up his own particular flavor. In 1991, he and Bruce Sterling wrote a novel called “The Difference Engine,” an alternative history that takes the uneven-future idea to an extreme. In the novel, the computer revolution happens in Disraeli’s era, and the Victorians work out their calculations on steam-powered thinking machines. The book introduced a vision of “steampunk” to a broader audience, and also anticipated a fashion movement whose enthusiasts mix corsets with goggles and pearl-handled cellphones.
Steampunk is more than mere fantasy. It’s all around us. In many cities, the petticoats of Victorian buildings brush up against Wi-Fi hot spots, and if you want to time travel, all you have to do is walk down a street and open your eyes. In Tokyo, Gibson detects “successive layers of Tomorrowlands, older ones showing through when the newer ones start to peel.” Lurking in the back corner of a noodle stall, he watches a man playing with his phone. The gadget is glossy, “complexly curvilinear, totally ephemeral-looking,” shining with “Blade Runner”-ish reflections of the city around it. Gibson zooms in on an accessory hanging from the phone — a “rosarylike anticancer charm.” According to Japanese pop-culture lore, such talismans are supposed to protect against microwaves.
It’s the perfect Gibson detail: a hybrid of high technology and magic wand. Everything he notices seems to be a this grafted onto a that. In these essays, we see a man fascinated by objects and places containing their own contradictions. It makes sense, then, that Gibson’s novels have helped promote several portmanteau words and neologisms, like “cyberspace,” into widespread English use. This is the essence of Gibson-think — anything can be a kind of portmanteau, a glued-together paradox.
One of the delights of “Distrust That Particular Flavor” is its autobiographical stories, in which we learn how the author’s highly original take on the future evolved. He grew up in a time of paperbacks with googly-eyed aliens on their covers, “a world of early television, a new Oldsmobile with crazy rocket-ship styling, toys with science-fiction themes.” When Gibson was 6, his father left on a business trip and never returned: in some faraway restaurant, he choked and died. Twenty years later, the Heimlich maneuver was introduced, and asphyxiation deaths in restaurants became more or less obsolete. But locked in the 1950s, Gibson’s father couldn’t be saved.
The fatherless boy, exiled in rural Virginia, “a place where modernity had arrived to some extent but was deeply distrusted,” became a geekling with his nose always in a book — in particular, he was besotted with H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine,” a perhaps obvious choice considering the details of his father’s death. “I . . . filled a Blue Horse lined notebook with elaborate pencil sketches for my own, actual, working time machine,” he writes, adding that he decorated his diagrams with Babbage-y gears stolen from Wells’s Victorian era. He longed to explore a ruined London of the far-distant future, its postapocalyptic landscape of secret tunnels inhabited by molelike humans.
But his interest in science fiction began to fade, he says, after the Cuban missile crisis. Schooled on Wells’s novels and other classic science fiction, he had come to expect a capital-F “Future” that would look nothing like the present — either a radioactive wasteland or a crystal city surrounded by flying cars. Thus as the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war in 1962, he prepared himself for Armageddon. After all, according to the logic of those old science-fiction books, civilization should have ended when Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off; a rain of missiles should have reduced the human race to a band of mutant survivors. Instead, the crisis fizzled, and became for him a footnote. “I can’t recall the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis at all,” Gibson writes. “My anxiety, and the world’s, reached some absolute peak. And then declined, history moving on. . . . I may actually have begun to distrust science fiction, then, or rather to trust it differently,” its sense of events seemed so far off the mark.
And so Gibson began to think about building another sort of time machine, one made of words — bolted together, spliced, enjambed. In this beguiling collection, we have the chance to travel with him as he rockets around in that machine, visiting a future that already exists.
DISTRUST THAT PARTICULAR FLAVOR
By William Gibson
259 pp. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $26.95.
Pagan Kennedy, a 2010 Knight science journalism fellow, is the author of “The First Man-Made Man” and nine other books.
TALKS FACEBOOK, THE KARDASHIANS AND HIS NEW BOOK, DISTRUST THAT PARTICULAR FLAVOR
BY DAVID HERSHKOVITS
For many, William Gibson will go down in history as the writer who coined the term "cyberspace," first in a short story and later in his seminal novel Neuromancer. As one of our foremost practitioners of science fiction, his achievements are far greater than this one-word legacy. Recently, he shifted the setting of his books to the present, moving them into a genre called "speculative fiction," which is another way of saying sci-fi set in the present, a la his 2010 novel Zero History.
His latest book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, is very different indeed, a collection of journalism and nonfiction written over a period of nearly 20 years spanning his interests from music to Japan to Ebay and beyond. The essays are full of wonderful insights, including his self-deprecating -- and occasionally verifiable -- opinion that they are not as good as he had hoped they would be. A short, updated postscript follows each piece in which Gibson tells us how he feels about each topic today. It's a winning strategy that only endears him to readers even more.
David Hershkovits: Do you like being a pundit about the future?
William Gibson: Actually, no I don't. It's not part of the job description I thought I signed up for 30 years ago. I suddenly go from being the guy in the basement that writes to a guy talking to people.
DH: Then you shouldn't have been so successful?
WG: Well, I was up for that but it's the being expected to make sense of it afterward part that I'm very hesitant about.
DH: You wrote that you never really felt comfortable with the pieces in Distrust That Particular Flavor while you were working on them. As you reread them for publication, how did you feel then?
WG: Initially I had the same doubts about it, but as we went through the editing process, and I was able to get rid of a few I was more deeply unsatisified with, the body of work started to make more sense to me. I actually found myself seeing that some of my ideas for the novels came from doing those pieces. That surprised me.
DH: Why did you feel it necessary to comment at the end of each piece?
WG: I wanted to be able to sign off on each one. If I said something decades ago that I no longer believed, I wanted to be able to say so. But I didn't really have to do too much of that. That may mean that I don't evolve that much.
DH: Your novels have been described as dystopic. Are these pieces more optimisitc and positive?
WG: I've always been slightly amused by being described as a dystopic writer because I feel that what I'm writing isn't as bad as what some people in the world today are actually experiencing. I've never written about a society as messed up as say North Korea. North Korea is real. It's fantastic and strange and sad that it's happened that way for them, yet there they are in this terrible place. And there are lots of people in North Korea who would immigrate to the imaginary world of any of my books at the drop of a hat. They'd give anything to go and live in Neuromancer where they would be much better off. I always think of that when the dystopian label pops up. I try to do a naturalistic science fiction where people have ordinary problems at the same time they are having a science fiction problem. For example, my day got off on the wrong foot because of something that happened in the visible web of cellular telephony which, to somebody of the 1960s, would be science fiction. I've always gotten a kick out of doing that with science fiction because it's something that science fiction skips over. Traditionally, it's not what people went to science fiction for.
DH: You mentioned in the book that science fiction is all about the present. As you noted, George Orwell's 1984 was really about 1948, the year it was written.
WG: That's the only way that I ever found to read old science fiction. The most interesting way of reading it is as a document about the moment in which its written. Orwell got it sort of right but he only got it sort of right for places like North Korea. What we call Orwellian in our society is something Orwell could never have imagined. When I think of Orwell I wonder what he would have made of reality television. What would he have made of the Kardashians.
DH: What do you make of the Kardashians?
WG: They're actually closer to the entertainment industry that I imagined in my later books than anything I ever imagined cyberspace would be like. What I imagined cyberspace would be like isn't what we do every day on the Internet. What the Kardashians are like is very close to what I imagined later.
DH: Do you watch the show?
WG: I really only get it by osmosis. What I was watching when I was writing imaginary stuff that was related to that was the first season of Cops which was in a way the beginning of reality TV in America. I thought that was something new so I worked in seeing how far I could push it in my imagination.
DH: Your work has also evolved in that it's now set in the present. In Pattern Recognition, for example, you're also interested in marketing and business.
WG: I think that marketing is increasingly what we do as a culture. We're much less of a culture that manufactures objects. Now we farm that out and work on the idea of it and selling it later. That's been one of the changes I've seen in the course of my life that I wouldn't have imagined. But Neuromancer is not that much of a marketed world. It had multinational corporations when very few people were familiar with the expression but it wasn't all marketing all the time which what we've gotten to in the 21st century.
DH: There's belief that we are all brands. On Facebook, everyone is a brand promoting imaginary identity that they want to project.
WG: I wouldn't have imagined that either. I wish I had. Doing science fiction in the traditional sense, by the strict rules of the game, becomes constantly more difficult. When the 'I am a brand' thing becomes the folk wisdom how do you do science fiction? How do you do it If something that strange has become what kids tell each other in grade 7: "Gotta be a brand, man."
DH: I know that you were part of counterculture of the 60s. I believe that a lot of the culture that people partake of today had roots then.
WG: My friend is a designer. We were talking about the '60s and the Pantone index -- this commercial index of all the available colors that are used to design things -- and my friend said if the '60s hadn't happened the index would be like a fifth of the size that it is. The '60s made everything all different colors and they stayed that way. I think that the really big changes that the '60s brought we don't even notice. They're not the kind of things that you can necessarily trace back and say, 'Yes, these hippies on a farm did this.'
DH: I think hippies on farms can be traced back. That's one of my favorite examples. Local food, eating organic...
WG: Yes. Whole Foods began as a hippie grocery, I think, in Austin, Texas. 20 years later you're standing in the middle of a real-expensive, post-hippie supermarket that's bigger and brighter than any supermarket in America in the 1950s. That's very strange. I was walking out of a Whole Foods in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago and it was kind of late at night and it's dark here, winter time, and I realized that I was on a street that had been the equivalent of Haight Ashbury in the '60s. I wasn't in Vancouver in the '60s, but I kind of know what that street would have been like, and as I walked out I saw the crowd walking by and it occurred to me that if I was a time traveler from 1967 walking out of that store and seeing the street now I would go, 'We won, we won. Look at these people. They're us.' But it wouldn't be true. I wouldn't be able to see that these hippie boys and girls walking by were really high paid software engineers worried about their mortgages and stuff. But the way it looks would give the '67 time traveler great encouragement. The reality would, as they used to say, freak him out.
DH: Has living in Canada -- off the grid -- given you a perspective on the world at large that is necessary for you and your work. If on the grid in New York, would your work have been different.
WG: I don't think I would have produced the same stuff but I don't know what I would have produced. I say that being someone who's enjoyed New York in all its different iterations during my lifetime. I even like the current one which drives some of my friends crazy. When I'm there I some times wonder what I would have written if I had lived there instead. Maybe fantasies with dragons.
DH: What has replaced the Ebay addiction you write about in Distrust that Particular Flavor? How do you waste time?
WG: I mostly surf around and look at stuff on Twitter. Twitter is my new source of random novelty. It works pretty good for that. I'm @greatdismal. There's a story about that name, but I cant tell you because I have to go.
This story was published on Jan. 3, 2012
JANUARY 15, 2012, 10:00 AM ET
Sci-Fi Writer William Gibson on His iPad
By Barbara Chai
Influential science-fiction author William Gibson is something of an intellectual renaissance man. He’s often cited as the father of cyberpunk, or for coining the term “cyberspace,” but his new collection of non-fiction essays, “Distrust That Particular Flavor,” shows he can wax eloquent on everything from the Internet to Japanese people’s “obsessive desires,” to a perfectly tailored pair of jeans (worn by musician Skip Spence).
It is the first time his non-fiction has been collected in one volume, though we feel the presence of Gibson the novelist in many of the pieces. In one of the essays, for example, Gibson takes us on a trip to Tokyo, funded by “Wired” for a travel article, and in his new postscript, he says he feels he owes the magazine another story because many of his observations on that trip ended up in his novel, “Pattern Recognition,” instead.
Speakeasy caught up with the 63-year-old writer this week to discuss his non-fiction, his gig as a travel writer (sort of), and how tablets — like Walkmans, back when they first appeared — are changing how we understand cities. Below is the first part of the interview.
How did you get this gig where you’ve been able to travel on someone else’s dime?
With the original pieces, it was because I had become a sort of minor subcultural flavor of the day at a time in which the Internet and digital things were becoming a really obviously emergent technology, and because most magazines are simply aggregators of novelty more than they are conveyors of actual hard news. I was actually managing to make a living writing novels. I started doing things like swapping taking their couple of dollars for doing the job, and insisting on first class tickets. I’ve never been a professional journalist, I didn’t treat it as a profession. I apologized for that in the introduction.
You are primarily a fiction writer, and you emphasize this in the introduction. Has it been intrusive to have this non-fiction collection out there, subject to review?
The introduction is a sort of pre-emptive strike on the author’s part. So, front of the book, there’s the author saying slim-volume alert, dilettante, not a professional. There’s been a bit of that review-wise, although it’s also been very enthusiastically received in some quarters. I’m actually a bit surprised at the extent of the positive response. I’m kind of curious to see whether or not it will result in a second wave of people calling up. I’m actually inclined to think that it won’t because the economy is so different now.
In these essays, you observe moments in society in relation to whether they’re up the timeline or down the timeline, and what that reveals about that present moment in society. You roam up and down the timeline as a sort of time machine yourself.
Yes. As a writer of fiction who deals with technology, I necessarily deal with the history of technology and the history of technologically induced social change. I roam up and down it in a kind of special way because I roam down it into history, which is invariably itself a speculative affair. One which changes. The history of the past, a hundred years from now, won’t be the history of the past that we learned in school because much more will have been revealed and adjectives we can’t even imagine will have been brought to bear on what we did learn in school. So I have that. And then in the opposite direction, in a kind of impossible, made-up way, past our brief, present moment, I can roam around in imaginary futures. Or at least in the history of imaginary futures.
The theme of history as a construct is an important idea here. You posit that more than ever, history is subject to revision. Is this a shortcoming of the Internet?
I don’t actually see it as a shortcoming, I don’t think. The Internet is part of this ongoing, species-long project we’ve been working on since we climbed down out of the trees in the savanna. We’ve been working on it without really knowing it. While we’ve been working on it, we’ve been telling ourselves that what we’re doing is rather reasoned, that we’re making these cave paintings on the wall to honor our gods, or to commemorate how we felt after we ate that really strange plant last month. We do those things for those reasons, but what it cumulatively amounts to is a kind of prosthetic, communal memory that survives the deaths of individuals. It can even survive the deaths of whole societies and civilizations. I think the large part of the function of the Internet is it is archival. It’s unreliable to the extent that word on the street is unreliable. It’s no more unreliable than that. You can find the truth on the street if you work at it. I don’t think of the Internet or the virtual as being inherently inferior to the so-called real. I genuinely do think that our great-grandchildren will ponder long and hard on what it was that we might have meant when we made that distinction, because I don’t think they’ll have that distinction in the same way. They’ll have to go back and look at how fragmentary and low-res our interface devices were. Maybe they’ll play with those and go, I get it now, they had this equipment that barely worked.
Speaking of interface devices, you wrote that the Walkman changed the way we understand cities. You now have an iPad – does the tablet have the same effect?
Well, I think tablet computing definitely is something new, but in the way of new tech, I’ve already gone there. I’ve watched myself very carefully in my first week of being a tablet user, and I did experience some amazement and in a way it caused me to recalibrate my view of what you could do with a personal computer. But now, I take it for granted, and that’s the weird thing that happens with new technology. It requires an act of conscious archaeology now, for me to go back and imagine what it was like before I had this little portable thing with scarcely any moving parts.
You said you watched yourself very closely in the first week of using your iPad. How did you analyze that?
I’ve had a lot of experience watching other people with new technology, which is usually what I do. I was, for me, an unusually early adapter for the iPad. It was a month or two after the initial release and I was going on a tour, and a friend of mine had become a very enthusiastic iPad user and said you should get this thing because it’s exactly half the weight and half the size of your particular laptop. I went to the shop and played with it a bit. But I didn’t really get it. I was totally disappointed with it when I took it home and got it out of the box, and I didn’t get it until I was in Los Angeles and I met a friend who had his iPad and had it customized with a million apps. And then I realized it was the apps because the other thing about the experience for me is I still hadn’t – and still haven’t for some reason – an iPhone. So I was unfamiliar with generations of Apple interface technology right there.
Do you use the iPad as an e-reader?
No. I’m yet to read a book. I’ve bought a couple of issues of a couple magazines, when there’s been something that I wanted to keep. I was curious about what you could do with a magazine. I was profiled in Time last year so I got that on my iPad. What Time is now actually works perfectly on the iPad, but the paper version of it kind of gives me the willies. It’s the thickness of a comic book. It sort of feels off-balanced, the Time today in the print version, but on the iPad as a sort of Time-shaped website artifact thing, it’s very beautiful and elegant.
Are you writing fiction now?
I’m in that strange liminal state that precedes the actual writing of fiction, in which many things happen. Or so writers tell their partners, when the writer’s stretched out on the couch and his wife says, why aren’t you doing anything? And it’s, honey, please, it’s my process! But, it actually is my process and it seems to be processing.
So much of science fiction observes humanity through a pessimistic prism or depicts the decay of civilization. Would you put yourself in this category?
No, I wouldn’t. I don’t think of myself as being a Dystopian writer. I certainly don’t think of myself as being a utopian writer, but I’ve been surprised over the course of my career at the number of people who automatically assume I’m some kind of Dystopian. I think the reason for that is I write in English, and I’m a North American person, and I’m a First Worlder. My audience consists fairly – at least the part of my audience I most often hear from — consists of First Worlders who read English. We’re a very privileged lot in terms of what we think is Dystopian. So, some of us read Neuromancer, my first novel, and look at the state of North America in that and go, that’s Dystopian, that’s a terrible situation. There’s no middle class, there’s just a lot of incredibly rich people and even more utterly poor people willing to do all to survive. That’s Mexico. Mexico’s a very, very wealthy country but it has no middle class. It has virtually no distribution of wealth. That was my model for North America in Neuromancer. But there are millions of people all over the world living in situations, and they’ll probably been in those situations for the rest of their lives, that are so much more dire than anything I’ve ever written about.
In one of the essays, you said you discovered H.G. Wells through a comic book as a kid, but eventually came to distrust a particular flavor of italics used by him. By that, had you meant your view of science fiction changed?
I was a kid in the 1950s and science fiction was literally everywhere. Detroit was building science fiction. It was that crazy postwar period that we now celebrate for its wacky visuals. That was really my first experience with science fiction, and then I found early television shows and comics, and then I started reading science fiction. I don’t really remember but I’m pretty sure that my initial response to it was, this is fabulous. The future is just going to be totally cool. We’re all going to go to Mars and there’s no downside to any of this. Then I got a little bit older, I began to observe chilly Cold War paranoia. So we had to do the duck-and-cover drill in elementary school, and the black and yellow fallout shelter signs went up everywhere. That was such a bizarre period in our history, that it’s almost like it’s been excised from memory. People my age who went through it, if you jog their memories about it they get this freaked-out look like they haven’t thought about that for awhile. They haven’t thought that they lived for years with the daily, indeed momentary, expectation of the world ending hideously right then and there because the United States and the Soviet Union were fully tooled up to do that. Second by second, ready to go. So, as we moved into that, I became a little cynical. But that description of my experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis and of the world not ending, and I had been brought to this exquisitely painful, nearly suicidal awareness of just how certainly the world was going to end any minute – when it didn’t happen, and it just sort of went away and the world went on, it wasn’t that it made me cynical but it was the end of a sort of innocence. And it was a good sort of innocence to leave.
Follow Barbara Chai on Twitter @barbarachaiThis message has been edited. Last edited by: Sentinel400,
JANUARY 17, 2012, 3:00 PM ET
William Gibson Calls SOPA ‘Draconian’
Sci-fi author William Gibson recently talked to Speakeasy about his new collection of essays, and we took the opportunity to ask his thoughts on the controversial Internet-antipiracy bill, SOPA.
“I’m not by any means an enemy of intellectual property, and in fact keep a roof over my head because the concept exists,” says Gibson, the author of “Neuromancer,” in which he coined the term, “cyberspace.” “But I think that SOPA as it stands now, or as it stood before they paused to think about it, is extremely ill thought out, and a basically crazily Draconian piece of legislation.”
The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual Property Act under consideration in the Senate are designed to crack down on sales of pirated U.S. products overseas. Proponents say the legislation could protect intellectual property, while critics say the act could infringe on free speech and other rights.
“One of the problems with legislating around emerging technology is that nobody legislates the technology into emergence,” Gibson says. “So, the emergent technology is sort of brought into the world by the invisible hand of the market. Then we have to play catch-up and when the emergent technology is sufficiently radical that it’s pushing all sorts of societal and cultural change, and actually pushing the market in the broadest sense and changing that, we’re in a very awkward situation.”
Gibson says it’s very difficult to legislate elegantly in a situation like this, which has random drivers. As a result, governing the Internet is much tougher than other industries and markets.
Meanwhile, Gibson answered a few other questions for us:
Nowadays, it seems there are two new paradigms: 3-D film and film as an online streaming experience in one’s own home. How would you reconcile these two futures of film?
I’m not convinced 3D is a new paradigm. I think it’s generally (James Cameron’s Avatar aside) a ploy to get people back into theaters, and it doesn’t seem to be working very well at doing that. Online streaming doesn’t really strike me as a new paradigm either, though it’s a new delivery method. The new paradigm is the viewer’s ability to watch a given film repeatedly, and in any order. The DVD boxed set changed the nature of the experience of cinema more profoundly than 3D or online streaming.
Comic books are your childhood – are they also your present and future?
The comic book was a part of my childhood, but it didn’t hold on into adulthood for me. I missed the birth of Marvel entirely, did read the 60s underground classics but nothing else, and have only read a couple of Alan Moore graphic novels since. Probably more my failing than the medium’s.
Ridley Scott broke the news to us a few months ago that he’s working on a sequel to “Blade Runner.” Do you welcome this news, or does it sound a little risky?
If anyone could pull it off, it would be Ridley Scott. But the idea of franchise, rather than one-off films, becoming the actual form, strikes me as decadent. Blade Runner is a classic, on the order of Citizen Kane. What would a sequel to Citizen Kane have done to the original?
Follow Barbara Chai on Twitter @barbarachai
William Gibson @GreatDismal
When Isaac Asimov presented me with the Nebula, he said Necromancer. #everybodypretendedhehadnt #iftheyevennoticed
4:01 AM - 16 Jan 12 via Twitterrific
William Gibson @GreatDismal
RT @gillyarcht @GreatDismal at least he didn't call you Mel. [Got a huge table of free booze and flowers because Bev Hills Hotel misheard]
4:05 AM - 16 Jan 12 via Twitterrific
Monday's Globe and Mail
'You can never know your own culture': William Gibson
From Monday's Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012 6:00PM EST
Last updated Monday, Jan. 16, 2012 9:08AM EST
“Scollard Street!” William Gibson huffs the syllables indignantly.
The celebrated author is scheduled to appear at the Toronto Central Reference Library before a sold-out audience later in the evening and visions of the neighbourhood where he spent the Summer of Love assail his memory.
It was here, in the vanished Village of Yorkville, where the future author lived for a time “in various wonderful sorts of sin,” after leaving small-town Virginia where he had been raised. He has revealed mixed feelings about those heady days, but at the time he was enamoured of the scene enough to give the CBC a tour for the 1967 doc Toronto’s Yorkville: hippie haven. All that is gone now.
William Gibson: Reading the future
“It’s as though they tore down St. Mark’s Place and built the Trump Tower,” he grumbles. “My Bohemia is gone. I can’t even go there and watch kids inhabiting the set.”
He didn’t stay too long in Toronto, fleeing for the easier of climate of Vancouver decades ago. Gibson became an international sensation with his first novel Neuromancer, in which he outlined a strange future world existing in a state he called “cyberspace” – uncannily like the world we inhabit almost 30 years later – and went on to win every major science-fiction award while contributing to making the genre respectable in literary circles.
The audience assembling where the hippie-filled rooming houses once stood has come to hear Gibson discuss his first-ever collection of non-fiction, Distrust that Particular Flavor, which brings together 25 articles, talks and essays written between the age of Neuromancer and now.
As a “practising ectomorph” and a writer who was not only inspired by William Burroughs, but once seemed to be collapsing into a postmodern version of the old wreck himself, Gibson, now in his sixties, is walking a little taller, for which he credits Pilates.
The collection was a long time coming, and Gibson begins the volume by prominently declaring what he calls “my lack of non-fiction credentials.”
“I think my real lack of credentials has to do with my inherent inability not to hallucinate fantastically on the material I’m presented with,” he explains. “That’s really the basis of what I do.”
Each piece is accompanied by its date of publication so readers have the sensation of watching the future unfold before it happens, from a pioneering visit to the end of the Internet – “a site that contains ... everything we have lost” – to a totalitarian vision glimpsed 20 years ago in Singapore, “a coherent city of information” where “information does not necessarily want to be free.” Along the way, in pieces like Dead Man Sings and Googling the Cyborg, he expresses a fantastically expansive world view so concisely as to risk making all 10 of his novels redundant.
By way of personal information, Gibson writes of how he became addicted to buying and selling old watches on eBay, a form of “voluntary autism” from which he claims to suffer no longer. Even as he sports a rather impressive hunk of metal on his wrist – built, he says, from a collection of unused vintage Rolex parts put together in ways Rolex never intended. The object is painted matte black and joined to what Gibson calls his “pipe-stem” wrist with a nylon band.
“If I showed it to someone from Rolex they’d probably have me arrested,” he says.
Claiming to be neither a technophobe nor a technophile, Gibson says he aims for “anthropological neutrality” in observing society coming to terms with emergent technology. Of course he is also a participant in this culture. “The big lesson of Anthropology 101 is that you can never know your own culture because you are it,” he adds, mooting the basic paradox that animates his thinking.
In the 21st century, he says, “technology has come to life, booted itself up and it’s doing its own thing.” Nobody really knows where it is taking us, the famous futurist insists, pointing out that 19th-century inventor Karl Benz never stepped back from his primitive internal combustion engine to wonder what it might one day do to the global climate.
“So what you have in effect is this incredibly powerful driver of history that’s absolutely random,” Gibson says.
The “unutterable weirdness” of the present, he suggests, lies in its capacity for total recall –- beginning with the astounding fact of recorded music and extending to the outermost ends of the Internet, which never forgets. “That’s the much bigger deal for us as a species than the fact that some of us may or may not wind up with chips in our heads,” Gibson says.
“Time moves in one direction, memory in another,” he writes in Dead Man Sings, first published in 1998. “We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.”
He predicts that history itself will become a new form of “speculative fiction” as the past both overwhelms us and in doing so disappears.
“The end point of human culture may well be a single moment of effectively endless duration,” he writes, “an infinite digital Now.”
In that world, the Village of Yorkville lives forever.
Extract: Penguin Books Australia
Distrust that Particular Flavor
AUTHOR: WILLIAM GIBSON
Format:Paperback, 272 pages
THE BOY CROUCHES beside a fence in Virginia, listening to Chubby Checker on the Rocket Radio. The fence is iron, very old, unpainted, its uprights shaved down by rain and the steady turning of seasons. The Rocket Radio is red plastic, fastened to the fence with an alligator clip. Chubby Checker sings into the boy's ear through a plastic plug. The wires that connect the plug and the clip to the Rocket Radio are the color his model kits call 'flesh.' The Rocket Radio is something he can hide in his palm. His mother says the Rocket Radio is a crystal radio: She says she remembers boys building them before you could buy them, to catch the signals spilling out of the sky.
The Rocket Radio requires no battery at all. Uses a quarter mile of neighbor's rusting fence for an antenna.
Chubby Checker says do the twist.
The boy with the Rocket Radio reads a lot of science fiction— very little of which will help to prepare him for the coming realities of the Net.
He doesn't even know that Chubby Checker and the Rocket Radio are part of the Net.
ONCE PERFECTED, communication technologies rarely die out entirely; rather, they shrink to fit particular niches in the global info-structure. Crystal radios have been proposed as a means of conveying optimal seed-planting times to isolated agrarian tribes. The mimeograph, one of many recent dinosaurs of the urban office place, still shines with undiminished samizdat potential in the century's backwaters, the late-Victorian answer to desktop publishing. Banks in uncounted third-world villages still crank the day's totals on black Burroughs adding machines, spooling out yards of faint indigo figures on long, oddly festive curls of paper, while the Soviet Union, not yet sold on throwaway new-tech fun, has become the last reliable source of vacuum tubes. The eight-track–tape format survives in the truck stops of the Deep South, as a medium for country music and spoken-word pornography.
The Street finds its own uses for things—uses the manufacturers never imagined. The microcassette recorder, originally intended for on-the-jump executive dictation, becomes the revolutionary medium of magnitizdat, allowing the covert spread of suppressed political speeches in Poland and China. The beeper and the cellular telephone become tools in an increasingly competitive market in illicit drugs. Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity. The aerosol can gives birth to the urban graffiti matrix. Soviet rockers press homemade flexi-discs out of used chest X rays.
THE KID with the Rocket Radio gets older. One day he discovers sixty feet of weirdly skinny magnetic tape snarled in roadside Ontario brush. This is toward the end of the Eight-Track Era. He deduces the existence of the new and exotic cassette format: this semi-alien substance, jettisoned in frustration from the smooth hull of some hurtling 'Vette, settling like new-tech angel hair.
I BELONG to a generation of Americans who dimly recall the world prior to television. Many of us, I suspect, feel vaguely ashamed about this, as though the world before television was not quite, well, the world. The world before television equates with the world before the Net—the mass culture and the mechanisms of Information. And we are of the Net; to recall another mode of being is to admit to having once been something other than human.
The Net, in our lifetime, has propagated itself with viral rapidity, and continues to do so.
In Japan, where so many of the Net's components are developed and manufactured, this frantic evolution of form has been embraced with unequaled enthusiasm. Akihabara, Tokyo's vast retail electronics market, vibrates with a constant hum of biz in a city where antiquated three-year-old Trinitrons regularly find their way into landfill. But even in Tokyo one finds a reassuring degree of Net-induced transitional anxiety, as I learned when I met Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira, a vastly popular multivolume graphic novel. Neither of us spoke the other's language: Our mutual publisher had supplied a translator, and our 'conversation' was relentlessly documented. But Otomo and I were still able to share a moment of universal techno-angst.
HIS LIVING ROOM was dominated by a vast matte-black media node that would put most Hollywood producers to shame. He pointed to an eight-inch stack of remote-control devices.
'I don't know how to use them,' he said, 'but my children do.'
'I don't know how to use mine, either.'
Today, Otomo's collection of remotes is probably part of some artfully bulldozed gomi plain, landfill for Neo-Tokyo. Gomi: Japanese for 'garbage,' a lot of which consists of outmoded consumer electronics—such as those recently redundant remotes. Wisely assuming a constant source, the Japanese build themselves more island out of it.
The sexiness of newness, and how it wears thin. The metaphysics of consumer desire, in these final years of the twentieth century . . .
Two years ago I was finally shamed into acquiring a decent audio system. A friend had turned up in the new guise of high-end-audio importer, and my old 'system,' so to speak, caused him actual pain. He offered to go wholesale on a total package, provided I let him select the bits and pieces.
It sounds fine.
But I'm not sure I really enjoy the music any more than I did before, on certifiably low-fi junk. The music, when it's really there, is just there. You can hear it coming out of the dented speaker grille of a Datsun B210 with holes in the floor. Sometimes that's the best way to hear it.
I knew a man once whose teen years had been L.A., jazz, the Forties. He spoke of afternoons he'd spent, utterly transported, playing 78-rpm recordings, 'worn down white' with repeated applications of a sharp steel stylus. That is, the shellac that carried the grooves on these originally black records was plain gone: What he must have been listening to could only have been the faintest approximations of the original sound. (Rationing affected steel phonograph needles, he told me, desperate hipsters resorted to the spikes of the larger cactuses.)
That man heard that music.
I first heard the Rolling Stones on a battery-powered, basketball-shaped, pigskin-covered miniature phonograph of French manufacture—a piece of low tech as radical in its day as it is now obscure. Radical in that it enabled the teenage owner to transport LP records and the intoxicant of choice to suitably private locations—the boonies.
This constituted an entirely new way to listen to the music of choice. 'Choice' being the key word. The revolutionary potential of the D-cell record player wasn't substantially bettered until the advent of the Walkman, which allows us to integrate the music of choice with virtually any landscape.
The Walkman changed the way we understand cities.
I first heard Joy Division on a Walkman, and I remain unable to separate the experience of the music's bleak majesty from the first heady discovery of the pleasures of musically encapsulated fast-forward urban motion.
In the Seventies, the Net writhed with growth. Gaps began to close. A paradox became increasingly evident: While artists needed the Net in order to reach a mass audience, it seemed to be the gaps through which the best art emerged, at least initially.
I am, by trade, a science-fiction writer. That is, the fiction I've written so far has arrived at the point of consumption via a marketing mechanism called 'science fiction.' During the past twenty years the Net has closed around mass-market publishing—and science fiction—as smoothly as it closed around the music industry and everything else.
As a science-fiction writer, I'm sometimes asked whether or not I think the Net is a good thing. That's like being asked if being human is a good thing. As for being a human being a good thing or not, I can't say—this has been referred to as the Post-modern Condition.
In any case it sometimes looks to me as though lots of us will eventually have a basis for comparison, by virtue of no longer being quite human at all, thank you.
Meanwhile, in my front room, the family media node is in metastasis, sprouting CDs, joysticks, you name it. My kids, like Mr. Otomo's, cluster like flies.
THE OTHER THING they ask you when you're a science-fiction writer is, 'What do you think will happen?'
The day I reply with anything other than a qualified 'I haven't got a clue,' please shoot me. While science fiction is sometimes good at predicting things, it's seldom good at predicting what those things might actually do to us. For example, television, staple window dressing for hundreds of stories from the Twenties through the Forties, was usually presented as a mode of personal communication. Nobody predicted commercials, Hollywood Squares, or heavy-metal music videos.
With that disclaimer firmly in place, I predict the family media node growing into a trickier and more unified lump. The distinction among television, CD player, and computer seems particularly arbitrary these days, a tired scam designed to support the robots who solder circuit boards. But as to what your integrated Net Node will actually be able to do for you one day, my best bet is that the words for it haven't been invented yet.
Example. A BBC executive working on another vision of 'interactive television' offered me a tour of a small research facility in San Francisco. He was interested in having me 'do' something with this new technology: The lab we visited was devoted to . . . well, there weren't verbs. I looked at things, watched consoles as they were poked and prodded, and nobody there, it seemed, could even begin to explain what it was I might be doing if I were to, uh, do one of these projects, whatever it was. It wasn't writing, and it wasn't directing. It was definitely something, though, and they were certainly keen to do it, but they needed those verbs.
Another example. A week later I found myself in an FX compound situated off a quiet back street in North Hollywood, experiencing serious future-shock frisson. My hosts—young, fast, and scientific to the bone—had developed a real-time video puppet, a slack-faced Max Headroom suspended in the imaginary space behind a television screen. Invited to put my hand in a waldo that looked vaguely like a gyroscope, I caused this sleeping golem to twitch and shiver, and my own hair to stand on end. On the way out, I was given a tape of the thing being manipulated by a professional movie puppeteer. It looks a lot more natural than I ever do on television, but what are the verbs for what those young fast fellows were doing?
We hurtle toward an imaginary vortex, the century's end. . . .
HE GETS UP in the morning and watches ten minutes of Much-Music while the water boils for coffee. The kids aren't up yet because it's not quite time for Dinosaurs. MuchMusic is Canada's approximation of MTV. In the morning he usually watches it with the sound off, unless they show a video from Quebec, in which case he listens because he doesn't understand French.
Because he doesn't like the Net to gnaw at the remnants of the night's dreams. Not until he's ready for it to anyway.
These pieces aren't presented in chronological order, particularly, but this is quite an early example, and the product of considerable discomfort around the idea of just how one does this sort of thing when asked. The very fact of the commission was unsettling, I recall.
What I don't recall, quite, is what I would have imagined 'the Net' to be, at that point, however freely I tossed the term around for Rolling Stone. I knew not Net, when I wrote this, though I had friends who talked Net, and fairly constantly. I communicated with them via fax, yards and yards of slippery, oddly scented photosensitive paper, longer docs coming or going via FedEx, either as printouts or on floppies. So I think it's safe to say that I was pretending to know what 'the Net' might be, when I wrote this. Was it something to do with this 'email' a few people seemed to know how to send between distant computers, or was it some more abstract expression of the totality of cyberspace? I think I opted for the latter, but phrased things in such a way as might seem I was better acquainted with the former than I actually was.
If I had seen a computer with an Internet connection, at that point, I hadn't been aware of it. The first I remember seeing was my own, and that was quite a few years later; I'd waited until they'd made it very simple, which I'd rightly assumed they would, eventually.
But I did own a Rocket Radio when I was a kid, and I did once infer the existence of the newfangled tape cassette from a single brown and tangled roadside skein.
The Datsun B-210 with rust-holes in the floor was my own, parked outside as I wrote.
William Gibson @GreatDismal
Ultimate ebook-signing tool: an industrial-grade white paint marker someone brought last night. Tip makes a super-sharp 3mm line.
Not like a graffiti pen; no drip; precision line; permanent when dry.
Must source one. Would be fun for all sorts of things.
1:36 PM - 19 Jan 12 via Twitterrific
William Gibson @GreatDismal
@mikedelic So the Nissan pens are solid oil? How long to dry hard? One I tried not Nissan, forget brand. "Deco"-something?
William Gibson @GreatDismal
Nissen markers: go technical http://www.nissenmarkers.com/c.../Solid-Paint-Markers
2:00 PM - 19 Jan 12 via Twitterrific
William Gibson @GreatDismal
RT @jrnoded the internets wherein @GreatDismal can bring down the Nissen Markers site with a single tweet.
2:31 PM - 19 Jan 12 via Twitterrific
William Gibson @GreatDismal
In a hotel designed by Philippe Starck. Imagining a Philippe Starck ghillie suit. #pomocamo
William Gibson @GreatDismal
The Philippe Starck hotels are already here, they just aren't very evenly distributed yet.
William Gibson @GreatDismal
One curtained off-lobby corridor in this one evokes an upscale Morlock abattoir. #picturelater
5:39 PM - 20 Jan 12 via Twitterrific
William Gibson | Part 1 | Jan. 12, 2012 | Appel Salon - You Tube:
Uploaded by torontopubliclibrary on Jan 18, 2012
at the Toronto Reference Library Appel Salon.
The 'noir prophet" of cyberpunk (Neuromancer) on his first-ever collection of nonfiction writings. With Hugo Award-winning writer Robert J. Sawyer
Science Fiction and Fantasy
SUNDAY, JAN 22, 2012 9:00 PM GMT
William Gibson: I really can’t predict the future
The science fiction legend tells Salon that if he had a crystal ball, he'd have put Facebook in an early novel
BY MIKE DOHERTY
On the Toronto stop of his book tour this month, William Gibson was asked by an earnest 20-something reader for advice: “Give my generation whatever you think is helpful for it to survive.” Where an author with an inflated sense of self-worth might have dispensed a few pearls of wisdom, Gibson replied that one should distrust people on stages offering programs for how to build the future.
As much as people look to Gibson as a prophet, the science-fiction writer who invented the term “cyberspace” (in the 1982 short story “Burning Chrome”) helped conceptualize the ways we interact with the Web (in 1984’s “Neuromancer” and later works) and foretold the explosion of reality TV (in 1993’s “Virtual Light”) is notoriously reluctant to predict the future. The title of his new collection of journalism and essays, “Distrust That Particular Flavor,” is taken from a piece on H.G. Wells where Gibson explains his suspicion of “the perpetually impatient and somehow perpetually unworldly futurist, seeing his model going terminally wrong in the hands of the less clever.” Though he’s often able to extrapolate from the present with great prescience, Gibson prefers to probe, not prescribe.
“Distrust” is the Vancouver-based Gibson’s first book of nonfiction; mostly it deals with aspects of technology, and his prose, as in his novels, is always vivid and keen-edged. And yet the newly written afterwords he appends to each piece can be unflinchingly self-critical. Some articles are very much of their time and place; others cram startling insights into a mere few pages. Still others read like provocative responses to Frequently Asked Questions – one is even titled, “Will We Have Computer Chips in Our Heads?” (The answer? “Maybe. But only once or twice, and probably not for very long.”)
Over a bagel and cream cheese at Gibson’s hotel, the morning after his Toronto talk, the lanky writer, with his friendly drawl, furrowed brow and perpetual mien of engaged curiosity explained how his fiction and nonfiction overlap, and how he plans to dream up more imaginary futures out of the weirdness of the present.
How do you feel when a young reader asks you – or orders you – to “Give my generation whatever is helpful for it to survive?”
Oh, it’s complex. I feel old, and unwilling to be the golden geezer. At the same time I feel sort of avuncular. When I was that young man’s age, I wouldn’t have asked that of anyone. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone over 30 was capable of saying anything much that I should be believing anyway.
Does it hearten you in a way that he asked this, as maybe now there’s less of a perceived gap between generations?
I suppose so. I didn’t really have a problem with that question; I just had a problem thinking of any piece of advice. I should have said, “Never pass up a chance to use the toilet,” and “It’s a good idea to eat three reasonably sized meals a day. Take care of your gums.” [laughs] This is the kind of advice you can actually give younger people.
In your piece about Steely Dan’s album “Two Against Nature,” you write, “I’m starting to feel like a reviewer, which makes me intensely uncomfortable.” Your nonfiction, in general, resembles your fiction in that it’s presented as one person’s direct experience. Are you more comfortable with this method of writing than with a kind of omniscient critique?
Yeah. With the nonfiction, I have an instinctive need to present the material as simply as, “This is what I think it is.” Whenever I sense myself moving into pundit mode, I like to stop and check my motivation. Am I just doing it for some extra attention? Do I actually believe what I’m saying? It makes me a very poor television guest, because I’m incapable of saying anything without qualifying it. It’s very hard for me to produce the sort of demonstrative sound bite that that medium runs on: “X is x, don’t you know?” And mine is like, “Well, I sometimes feel that x is x, but then again, it can seem like y.” The medium doesn’t know what to do with that – at least the kind of trad television that we’ve got.
That said, your nonfiction pieces do tend to start out with strong, declarative sentences, even though there are nuances later on.
Well, that’s probably an attempt to do the culturally accepted thing … When I move into a different form, somebody’s paying me for it, and I have to produce on a relatively short deadline, I become a cultural chameleon and start to emulate, say, the look and feel of a Wired article. There are artifacts of that attempt at camouflage in all of those pieces, and it always made me feel a bit reluctant to bring out a collection like ["Distrust"]: some of it seems forced in a way that I would be uncomfortable with in my fiction. [In nonfiction], the reader wants to be immediately assured that this is somebody who knows what he’s talking about. So I jump into the middle of the stage, make a declarative statement, and possibly by the end of the piece I’ve completely reversed my opinion! [laughs]
You write that you’ve been “mining” one of the pieces in this book “for over a decade now,” for both talks and fiction. Does this mean you have an ongoing relationship with your texts in general?
Someone who’s very familiar with my work can read this new book and see where the nonfiction later bled into the fiction. The flip side is that unless there’s a very pressing professional reason to do so, I very scarcely reread my own fiction. I could not, if it were required of me right now, give you précis of the plots of my earlier novels. I remember scenes and characters somewhat, but I haven’t read them for 20 years, and I know “Neuromancer” very well because I’ve had endless, largely pointless, talks with filmmakers about turning it into a movie. Something someone gave me at the signing last night reminded me that in “Virtual Light” [from 1993] there’s a country song called “Me and Jesus Are Gonna Whup Your Heathen Ass.” I thought, “That is kind of predictive, pre-9/11.” It isn’t really predictive; it’s just that the tendency was there in the culture to think that way, which is why I wound up putting it in the book.
In an afterword, you mention that writing the piece “Dead Man Sings” “was entirely a matter of taking dictation from some part of my unconscious that rarely checks in this directly.” Certain passages in the book are quite poetic in an unexpected way, and I wonder if they might have come from a place other than the organizing journalistic brain. Do you ever write something and then figure out what it means later?
I very seldom compose anything in my head which later finds its way into text, except character names sometimes – I’m often very much inspired by things that I misunderstand. Have you ever seen Brian Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies? One of them is “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” That’s my favorite. [At a] hotel in New York a couple of days ago, the young woman who checked me in said what sounded to me like, “Thank you, sir; my name is Tyranny. If there’s anything you need …” I’m not enough of an extrovert to go, “Your name’s what?” … For the rest of the day, I was thinking of young, benevolent female characters with the first name “Tyranny.” Possibly an Asian character, where it’s kind of an ESL issue. Those things inspire me, but what you’re talking about is a result of the process of composition having spun itself up to a certain wonderfully flaky level, where it says something that I transcribe without quite being able to understand it. I’ve learned to trust that, and it seldom lets me down. Occasionally if I look back at something I’ve written I’ll find one of those that I don’t understand, but that’s a bad thing – the unconscious has dealt me a bad hand.
Last night [fellow science fiction author] Rob Sawyer pointed out how opposite his idea of creativity was to what I describe in the introduction to this book. He said that he had to be able to decide beforehand what [a book] was about, how he was going to do it, and then as he went along, he would compare what he was composing to this directive that he had arrived at prior to the work. To me, that’s absolutely incomprehensible; the part of me that sits here having this conversation with you is incapable of doing any very original literary work. The part of me that creates stuff is right now largely offline and unavailable, and I couldn’t summon it if my life depended on it. I have to make myself available and hope it turns up. To me, that’s where the good stuff comes from. It’s like, William Gibson doesn’t get ideas for novels while I’m walking around in the world … [He stops and grimaces.] That scared the shit out of me, because a friend of mine that’s a publicist in New York once told me that the worst sign in the interview is if the author ever starts to speak of themselves in the third person … so I did that for effect.
If you’re traveling somewhere, are you simply aware that what you see around you might seep into something you write, or do you actively seek to have experiences that may be useful?
As William Burroughs liked to say, “A writer always gets his pound of flesh.” No matter what I’m going through, I can always step back and go, “This is material.” [He pulls out his iPad, encased in a black sleeve, and calls up a picture he took of a house in Key West with strange curved shutters that open out into awning-like structures.] I could get a whole novel out of that house. That’s got some mojo going on! Not just the window, but the front door has got at least one layer of inch-thick plywood, no hinges.
I’m a fairly visual writer; I can get an awful lot out of really closely examining a photograph like that. It’s a very interesting exercise that I would recommend to anyone. Take any photograph – preferably a photograph that contains relatively little information (no humans or animals in it) – and catalog everything visible. It usually can’t be done in less than a thousand words, and it can’t be done well in less than about two [thousand]. It always leaves me thinking that pictures really are worth a thousand words, at least, that the visual matrix is so incredibly rich with stuff and meaning, that there’s actually no place to stop. People who have tried it find they stop because they just get exhausted.
Your first three books were set relatively far in the future from when they were written.
For my own purposes I assumed that “Neuromancer” was set in 2035, but I was very careful to keep out of the book anything that would allow anyone to date it by internal evidence, which I think was a smart move, considering the longevity that it has strangely enjoyed.
The next three were set in the near future, and your latest three have been set in an “imaginary present.” Are you working your way around to the past?
I once thought I was, but I think I’ve actually worked my way around to the future again. The first three were full-on “This is the future” genre sci-fi books; the next three were like the ‘90s in high cyberpunk cosplay mode. Those [characters], for me, hadn’t been altered by history at all. They were like ‘90s people, but inhabiting this satirical set. I never saw a critic or a reader even remark on that. They accepted them as folk from the very near future, and noticing the lack of response to that was one of the things that emboldened me to write “Pattern Recognition”  and then the next two books ["Spook Country" (2006) and "Zero History" (2010)], which are speculative novels of the very recent past, in that they are each set in the year prior to the year in which the book is actually published, with huge amounts of internal evidence of when it is. A lot of people said to me, “Why are you doing that? It’s going to date it.” I said, “I want to date it. It’s in some way a description of life, and I want to know which month these imaginary events supposedly happened in.”
The other thing that sent me on that program was a worrying sense I had, by the end of my sixth novel, that my yardstick of absolute quotidian weirdness was actually an ‘80s yardstick. In order to accurately judge the degree of cognitive dissonance I’m inducing in the reader with my fiction, I need a yardstick of how weird the world is right now, and by the time I got to “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (1999), the world outside the window was fully as weird as the world of [the book]. Then we abruptly found ourselves in the post-9/11 era, when the 21stcentury seriously began, and my yardstick was just too short. I couldn’t navigate. Where those last few novels have fit for me in the process was getting myself a really contemporary early-21st-century yardstick of weirdness. And now, if I want to write something set in a future rigorously imagined from this incomprehensibly strange and complex world we now live in, I’ve taken the measurement of that, to some extent, by writing the fiction, just by opening myself further to the weirdness of it.
So now I’m feeling my way towards what that could be. As always at the beginning of the process, I’m completely overwhelmed. It seems to be either impossible or hideously difficult to describe the future of social media from the point of view of characters who would be participating in it, perhaps even while they’re sleeping, and not be paying its workings any mind. A huge part of the work in writing “Neuromancer” was a kind of stage-managing on behalf of the reader. I want the reader to be experiencing something akin to culture shock constantly and be slightly off-balance in an enjoyable way, but never fully lost. It’s a very complex and tedious business to keep the reader supplied with reliable information about the strange place that the reader’s entering, and yet keep it out of sight so that the reader doesn’t have the text issuing what science fiction writers of my day were taught to regard as the “expository lump.” It becomes strategic – the more novel the environment you’re describing, the more complex the act of providing the reader with the oxygen of meaning. A totally disoriented reader generally won’t stick around.
If somehow in 1985 you had the idea for Facebook as the idea for a science fiction story, and you sat down to write it, you’d have all those problems, because the artifact that the character is encountering and interacting with is incredibly complicated and would require a huge amount of exposition or totally adroit set-handling.
An interview with William Gibson
By Jesse Hicks on January 24, 2012 12:47 pm
William Gibson famously coined the term "cyberspace," and gave us a singular vision of the future in early cyberpunk novels Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. In the three decades since, his fiction has crept closer to a recognizably contemporary setting; the gradual change isn't surprising, given his belief that "cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical."
Along the way he's taken on the occasional nonfiction assignment, with the results collected for the first time in his latest book, Distrust That Particular Flavor . The title refers to Gibson's dislike of the "exasperated visionary" tone of H.G. Wells, a voice Gibson hears in much mainstream sci-fi. Rather than imagine himself capable of predicting the future, he explores our fragmented, ever-changing present, curating the choicest bits on his Twitter feed, @GreatDismal. (The name comes from the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge, located near his childhood home in Virginia.) During his recent book tour, he took time to talk about writing nonfiction, his love of cities, and his particular view of the present – all delivered in careful, precise words barely tinted with Southern accent.
You've written ten novels, but this is your first nonfiction collection. In the introduction you quite endearingly disavow any journalistic training, and suggest that this sort of writing runs counter to the work you really want to do. What does writing nonfiction do for you?
Publishing this collection has made me look at that. I realized, not having read any of these pieces, some of them for years, how much of the underlying idea structure of my work came out of this writing. I never realized it before. So now I can see that there was more going on there, at least for me, than I was aware of. They may have felt like they were counter to the main process, but they were actually very much a part of the process. That was one of the reasons I decided to go ahead and publish them.
When you write fiction, you've said you often start with single provocative line and proceed from there, often without knowing just where you're going. Is the nonfiction process similar?
To some extent. If the piece involves describing an actual experience, or a series of experiences, then I'm freed of having to invent narrative. I've had an experience and I turn it into narrative – which is usually not what I do. But if it's an idea piece rather than an account, the process tends to be more free-form.
You also say these pieces are not quite fiction, but they're not quite nonfiction, either. What do you mean by that?
Not being a journalist, I imagined that if I had journalistic training and work experience, I would probably have a program of techniques and rules for approaching the work. But since I'm not a journalist, I don't have those things, and I don't even know what things I'm supposed to have. I wind up doing it with a novelist's toolkit. I assume that – because you can get degrees in journalism from very reputable universities – I assume that people can be trained to be journalists. I've never been entirely certain that anyone can be trained to be a novelist in the same way.
You've written that, "We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting." In one essay ["My Obsession"] you talk about eBay, long before it became a verb, and using the site to collect watches – not creating objects, but chasing them. What makes you pursue certain artifacts?
I think it's an expression of our old hunter-gatherer module. I think that's the module that lights up for everybody on eBay, regardless of what they're looking for. It's the flea-market gene. It's hunting a bargain, sometimes. But when I went through my "watch process," at the end of it I realized it was about information, about trying to master a body of fairly esoteric knowledge, regardless of what it was about.
For somebody else it could have been hockey statistics. It wasn't really collecting; it was about getting the knowledge. I've now forgotten more than I once knew about that stuff. I found that part of it very satisfying. I can't think of any other way to explain that pleasure.
All my life I've encountered people who were obsessed with one particular class of object or experience, who were constantly pursuing that thing. Since I was a little kid I hadn't afforded myself the opportunity, I guess, to have a hobby. So it became a very serious hobby. And then I somehow got to the other side of it, and the obsession went away. I actually feel better about it since it has gone away.
Have you found similar obsessions since then?
I usually have something like that going on, but not to that formal extent. Serious vintage watch collectors are like serious stamp collectors: there's a certain strange formality to the whole thing. Things approximately like that, that I get into, usually don't have this kind of established seriousness.
The way you describe it sounds like a theme from several of your novels, especially the last trilogy. A character's pursuit of a object with an aura becomes instead a way of understanding that aura, and the esoteric information surrounding the actual, material object.
Now that you mention it, I think that's quite true. That's an interesting comparison, because with the watches there was a real-life MacGuffin. Often I'd be in a situation where there was some fabulously rare and tiny and esoteric lost piece of a watch that I assumed was somewhere out there in the world, if only I could find it. A given watch could never be completed until that piece was determined.
A couple of times I found myself communicating with people whose knowledge of those things was so encyclopedic and so esoteric that while everyone else in the world said, "No, that piece doesn't exist. You'd have to have one custom-made," which would be prohibitively expensive – then, in some back room behind the back room behind the back room, so to speak, I would find somebody who would stare into space, accessing his memory and then say, "There's a shop in Cairo... [Laughs] on the top shelf in the closet behind the counter, there is the piece you need. However, it's not for sale. The only way you can get it is to find this other piece to trade the guy..." And then I would be off looking for the other piece.
Somehow that was delightful. It was like a real-life MacGuffin plot. No one's life hinged on it, but it was a lot of fun. Sort of like a strange kind of fishing.
And also, the things that one has to go through to make this tiny, unique object that one only knows from pictures on the internet – suddenly this tiny thing appears in a glass test tube on one's desk: it just seems like a weird kind of magic.
In one interview you mentioned a shadowy figure who claimed to have become a millionaire by selling Beanie Babies. She strikes me as a very Gibsonian character, like Hubertus Bigend: someone transforming esoteric knowledge into wealth.
There actually were people who either claimed or believed they had become millionaires through cornering the market on rare Beanie Babies. That was a long time ago, 20 years ago. But I didn't entirely make it up.
It's always very odd what people value. The idea of rarity and value and collectibility fascinates me in an abstract sense. It doesn't particularly drive me to obtain things like that; I'm almost annoyed when something I've been interested in becomes valuable. Then it becomes trouble. I have to take care of it.
You also write about, as a kid, feeling liberated by the sci-fi novels that would appear every Wednesday in the local bookstore. They gave you a glimpse of a world far stranger than the one you lived in, but you also had to seek out that strangeness. Today's strangeness seems much more readily accessible. Do you ever wonder about today's youth, who receive their culture in a much different way than you did?
I do. It requires quite a bit of imaginative effort on my part to get a sense of what that must be like. But today's strangeness, while only a few mouse-clicks away from anyone, becomes difficult to find because it has to occur to you to Google it. You may be able to Google everything, but the trick is figuring what you need to Google. Given the near-infinite amount of stuff out there, there's a huge mass of the overall content that none of us will ever see. You could spend your entire lifetime trying to look through all that stuff.
It isn't as though there's no less-trod path. It's simply a matter of figuring out where it is. There are an infinite number of universes of stuff that you can access, but most of us will never see that much of it. So I think people can still find genuinely strange things that no one else they know has ever considered.
That's one of my favorite things about Twitter: You can tweak your feed into a fabulous novelty engine. That's only one thing you can do with it, but it's one of the things I find most entertaining about it.
One essay describes Singapore as "Disneyland with the Death Penalty." I'm curious how that perspective relates to some of the sci-fi futurism of your childhood, the glossy futures you've reacted against in your own work. Singapore, as you describe it, seems ostensibly utopian – it's a benign Tomorrowland – but beneath that it's really quite dystopic, a heavily policed wonderland. Did you consciously make that connection?
Yes, I think I did. It has a kind of heroic futuropolis ethos to it. In retrospect – and I really didn't think of this until after the book had been put together – I think when I went to Singapore I reacted against my first experience of a new kind of (primarily Asian) capitalism, which we now see doesn't necessarily lead to liberal democracy. At the time I wrote that article, China wasn't really happening in the same way; China hadn't gotten that way yet, although now it certainly has now. Singapore was Patient Zero for that kind of capitalist experience. Encountering that for the first time was a shocking experience, and accounts for the vehemence [laughs] of my coverage. If I went to China right now, I would expect it to be that way – it wouldn't shock me.
Were you surprised at the reaction by the Singapore government, which banned Wired?
Once I turned the article in, I thought, "Oh, perhaps I've been a bit harsh. Perhaps I should have cut them a bit of slack; maybe they're not really like that." As soon as they banned the magazine, I thought, "Oh, they really do seem to be like that."
You also write about the allure of cities and how one can experience them, trying to understand the occult information systems that make up cities. Which cities do you find the most fascinating?
London and Tokyo are the two that I have found most reliably fascinating. My new favorite, which I've only visited twice so far, is Berlin. I find Berlin very interesting.
But I'm someone who would rather return to a city that he's visited many times before than visit a new city. I don't know many people who are like that; I like going back to the same place over and over, for years. Because it yields a different experience. If I were the sort of person who went all over the world and only visited each city once, that would be a different sort of experience. I find to really get into a city, I have to go back again and again, and get deeper and deeper into the history and texture of the place.
The three you've mentioned – London, Tokyo, and Berlin – have textures and layers of history that some cities don't.
They do, and I think that's what appeals to me. There's always another layer.
You once said, "This perpetual toggling between nothing being new, under the sun, and everything having very recently changed, absolutely, is perhaps the central driving tension of my work." That describes a very poignant form of temporal dislocation found in both your fiction and nonfiction.
I think that part of my experience of growing up in the American South in the early '60's was one of living in a place unevenly established in the present. You could look out one window and see the 20th century, then turn and look out another window and see the 19th. My good friend Jack Womack, another novelist from the South, a few hundred miles from where I grew up, had the same experience. He was the person who first pointed that out to me.
That sounds like good preparation for living in the 21st century.
It provides a sort of parallax. If you only have one eye, you don't have depth perception. If you're able to look at things with one eye in the 21st century and the other eye in the 20th century (or possibly even the late-19th), it provides a kind of perspective that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
That parallax is intriguing, given both your strong sense of anti-nostalgia and your refusal to prognosticate in the way many people expect of sci-fi writers.
I don't think nostalgia is a healthy modality. But nostalgia and a sense of history are not the same thing. Nostalgia is a dysfunction of the historical impulse, or a corruption of the historical impulse.
When you looked back (without nostalgia) on the 25 pieces collected in Distrust That Particular Flavor what most surprised you?
There's a certain consistency there that I'm unwilling to look at very closely. But I can see that there are certain things that I seem to always return to, not through any deliberate choice of my own.
Which things do you think you return to?
I hesitate to say. It's one of those things that if I say – I have a superstitious fear of becoming too aware of it. It's like a writer's fear of looking too closely at the source material, else it lose its power. Or somehow stop working.
You're our resident archivist.
Albert's path is a strange and difficult one.
The Sentinel 400-series: for all your archival needs!
The Lithos School of Curiousity is now enrolling
Albert's path is a strange and difficult one.
This made me smile big:
"...but I like a placebo,"
Bill.png (114 Kb, 69 downloads)
Albert's path is a strange and difficult one.
Gibson and Coupland at the Key West Literary Festival
Albert's path is a strange and difficult one.
Okay, who was that at 01:35? ; )
And: hey, I wonder what that deadly McGuffin was...
I wondered as well.
Nobody we know, I'm sure. (Minx was at work ^^)
Albert's path is a strange and difficult one.