BY MAVIS LINNEMANN BOOK CRITIC William Gibson, acclaimed sci-fi author, noted futurist and coiner of the term “cyberspace,” will be the first to tell you that all his books have actually been about the present — the fact that they feel like the future only points out our chronic alienation from the moment we are in. You see, it’s our fault, not his. His new novel, Spook Country, is actually set in the recent past, 2006 to be exact, and focuses on the edgy exploits of rock star-turned- journalist Hollis Henry, who has been assigned to do a piece on “locative art” — holographic 3D objects d’art that can only be viewed with a virtual reality headset — by a shady startup magazine called Node, a publication Hollis isn’t sure even exists. Along the way, she encounters a magical-thinking tech jockey with alchemical code-writing powers that make the aforementioned ‘locative art’ objects literally appear out of thin air; a Cuban-Chinese immigrant who texts in proto-Esperanto Volapuk and who’s part of tight-knit and cruelly efficient crime family, Ativan-addicted Russian translators and vicious CIA-hired pirates. I won’t spoil the rest for you, but suffice it to say, a Star Trek convention this ain’t. Besides, the dork went out of science fiction the day it became science fact, which was, depending on your perspective, either the day a man walked on the moon or the day Pong went on the market. Because if we are what we consume — and we consume an awful lot of technology these days — then who better to check the thermostat on the human condition than a guy like William Gibson?
William Gibson will speak at the Free Library at 7 p.m. tomorrow, Aug. 16. FREE
Phawker: Your colleague and friend Bruce Sterling once described your work as a combination of “low-life and hi-tech.” You were one of the first writers to sort of point out that the future would be just as dirty and degraded as the present and the past — but with amazing machines. Most sci-fi prior to you painted the future as a clean, well-lit place. Can you speak to that?
William Gibson: I never bought the future as a clean and well-lit place. That’s actually one of the things I’ve come to realize, from living outside the U.S. for most of my life, is American in origin. That’s the American future circa 1950 or so, and around when I was born. And I remember reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when I was 15 or 16 years old and wondering in passing what this whole world of Earth sketched out in the beginning of the book would be like if you were on welfare. What would it be like if you were a space cadet? Certain kinds of science fiction, I always wonder like, “Well, what is it that the mentally ill are doing in this imaginary world'” I don’t know where it came from. It may have come from there were other schools of science fiction right here in the United States, that ask those questions. The people who wrote those stories never became as popular or well-known or iconic as Heinlein and Bradbury and Asimov.
Phawker: In a 1997 interview, you said, “I actually feel that science fiction’s best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going.” The best thing you can do with science today is use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now. Ten years later, you still feel that way?
WG: Absolutely. I’m more than ever convinced. In 1981 when I started to write my first novel, if I had gone to a publisher in New York and said, “I’ve got this great imaginary world for a science fiction novel. There’s this sexually contagious fatal disease that destroys the human immune system, and we don’t yet know how to cure it. We can just sort of slow it down in this imaginary world. Simultaneously what we’ve been doing with our older technology has put the climate out of whack; we don’t know how badly out of whack but the weather is seriously changing, and they’re gonna be major implications from that.'” At that point, I would say, ‘You know, you can’t do that. It’s too much weirdness right there for some people to handle.’ And they would have showed me the door.
Today, the sort of thing we used to think in science fiction has colonized the rest of our reality. We’re living in a sort of overlapping system of purely science fictional scenarios, which affect everyone. So I can’t see how anyone can sit down today and write what as an English major I used to call a naturalistic novel, a realistic novel that tries to explore how humans interact with one another and what’s going on now, I don’t see how anyone can do that without dealing with inherently science-fiction material. Just because something is happening, doesn’t mean it’s not science fiction. I think the tool kit that science fiction developed over the last 100 or 200 years or so is filled with wonderful, wonderful tools that allow us to get a hand on a kind of incomprehensible present. I don’t think there can be too many people today, except possibly the Dali Lama, who can look around say “Yup, business as usual. So life goes on.” Most of that stuff, if you look at it from a sufficient distance, most of that change and chaotic stuff is technologically driven. The technologies involved may be very old, like burning coal, and relatively old like the internal combustion engine, but that’s technology. And I think cities are technology. You can’t do cities without a sort of progressive ant heap of technologies under you to allow you to have a couple of million people living together in the same place.
Phawker: What do you think of science fiction writers who don’t write in the present? Who write about the future?
WG: Well I don’t see how they can do it right now if they’re playing by the strict, old-school rules of science fiction, say the way H.G. Wells did it or even the way Robert Heinlein did it. Because Wells and Heinlein, I imagine, had a really good idea of where we are now, so they could afford to kick back and imagine where we’re going. I don’t know about other science fiction writers, but I don’t feel like I’m all that clear on where we are now. I think I’m expending my creative energy trying to map or match the remarkable weirdness of the present moment.
Phawker: Where exactly on the map is that located?
WG: I don’t know. Spook Country is designed to make its readers ask that question. I designed it that way because I don’t feel that I really know myself. I go on tour and listen to people who’ve talked to people who’ve read the book. Then gradually I get some sense of where we are now and that will give me a place to start from next time.
Phawker: You’ve said that you don’t plan your books before you write them, can you speak to the process of writing novels?
WG: I write them when it becomes necessary in career terms. I’ll avoid sitting down and writing a book for as long as I can. And while I’m avoiding it, I go out to experience things the way anyone does. And while I’m doing it, I’m looking for things that could be — semi-consciously looking — for things that could be part of a novel. When I finally sit down to do it, I get really depressed because I don’t have any big didactic idea or theme, and then I remember that I never had any big didactic theme and that that’s OK. I sort of open myself up to whatever is going on in the back of my mind. It’s unusual for me for a character to arrive at that point. Sort of points of view or camera angles or something start to arrive.
With Tito in Spook Country, as I sat there writing little things trying to get something started, I started getting a lot of interesting imagery of lower Manhattan around Lafayette and Canal in the winter. Of old buildings and fog. And he came, he just sort of came out of the fog. And then I had to figure out what he was up to. Once I’ve figured out a character’s job description, even if its unemployed, I’m on the way. They start generating themselves. But if I make a character up, if the guy whose talking to you makes a character up, it’s going to be a pretty bad character. I’ve managed a few pretty flat characters. I’ve managed to quit doing that. When I look at my early work, some of the characters I go, “Oh, well I just made that guy up. I just sat there in cold blood and say, ‘He’s a red-haired Irishman with a lisp whose wearing a black jacket. He was never real to me.’ “They become real to me. I know for sure when they become real to me [that] they’re more entertaining to the reader. In order for them to be real to me, I have to let them do what they want to do, and they’re not always cooperative.
Phawker: It’s been 25 years since you coined the term cyberpunk…
WG: I didn’t actually coin cyberpunk, I coined cyberspace. Cyberpunk was a journalistic and/or critical label that some journalist or critics coined and applied to a group of people of whom I was assumed to be one. I guess I was, to the extent that I was hanging out with some talking the theory of science fiction, and we were good friends at the time. I was never comfortable with it. And I think the reason I was never comfortable was I was the oldest guy in the posse. Having lived through the Sixties, I knew when journalists and critics show up with their own label for what you guys are doing, it’s over. That always means it’s over. So when the label appeared I thought, “Run, run! Take the fire escape! Don’t let them put that on you. Avoid that at all costs.” The other guys said, “Yeah, put that right here on the back of my jacket.” So I happily, with some pleasure, over the last decade or so I’ve watched its frequency of use fade away. I used to be asked that question every time I did an interview. Now it’s down to about every eighth interview the “cyberpunk” word comes up.
Phawker: According to Wikipedia, you fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft and have lived there for the bulk of your adult life. True?
WG: Well, people can change Wikipedia. I went to Canada in 1967 and I was eligible for the draft. And I was there for about a year and a half and I wasn?t drafted. I went back to the United States for about two years. The system changed to a lottery system and I still wasn’t drafted. My assumption is that I would have either stayed in Canada or tried to go back to Canada, but I still don’t like to take the moral credit for making the decision. I could have just started crying and said, “OK, I’ll go.” I just don’t know what I would have done. That Wikipedia entry makes me sound considerably more like a principal to draft resisters than I really was. I just liked hippie girls and all the other good stuff.
Phawker: Well you still live in Vancouver, correct?
WG: I married a Canadian girl and I’ve lived there quite happily my whole adult life.
Phawker: Has your perspective on America changed since you’ve lived there?
WG: I think that living in Vancouver probably is giving an American the mildest possible ex-pat experience. If you forget what it’s like in the United States, you just get in your car and drive for an hour. I think that it’s given me some kind of ex-patriot perspective. It can make me wince sometimes, or sometimes it can make me angry. Judging from what my neighbors are like in Canada, what the rest of the world, how the rest of the world sees us. It isn’t always the way we see ourselves.
Phawker: A couple questions about movie adaptations of your work — is Pattern Recognition still being made into a movie?
WG: No, I think that one has gone the way of all option deals and mini-planned films. My understanding is that Pete Weir backed out of it after a couple of years. And if there’s no Peter Weir in it, there’s no deal. As far as I know, it’s once again available. It has taken off the ring.
Phawker: It is rumored that there is an anime version of Idoru in production?
WG: There’s a deal and it’s one I haven’t actually paid much attention to so far. The reason for that may be that it may be an animated deal. Thank you for reminding me of that one. It had kind of gone off the radar. I think it would be pretty cool if they did it that way. It would be a good way to do it. One of the things about animated film ideas never get in my face the way the other ones do. No one is asking me, “How do you feel that they’re casting so and so?”
Phawker: Is that a relief?
WG: Well, I don’t worry about it anyway, but people ask me and I have to say, “I don’t care, I don’t care. ”
Phawker: You once wrote on your blog: “The Matrix is arguably the ultimate “cyberpunk” artifact.” Explain.
WG: I’m thinking more of the first film than the whole franchise. I never stuck with the franchise. But I’m on record as saying I very much enjoyed the first film. By virtue of its critical and popular success, and its sheer size as a big, complicated pop artifact, when it came out, it seemed to me like it completed the arc of cyberpunk. Anything you do after The Matrix that’s got cyberpunk tropes in it, it’s gonna be different. It sort of closed the arc. They really did it retro in the movie. You know, like skin-tight alligator vinyl cat suits and stuff [like that]. It’s totally cyberpunk. Mirrored sunglasses, exotic machine guns. It just has every cyberpunk trope going. And a few more. Even though it was in terms of its science fictional subtext, it was much more like a Phillip K. Dick novel than a William Gibson novel.
Phawker: By ‘ultimate’ do you mean the best or the last?
WG: I would be really surprised if someone came out with a bigger, shinier more cyberpunk-flavored piece of pop. I think if you’re doing something like that now, what you’re gonna get is post-cyberpunk; it’d be something else. Cyberpunk is like an ’80s form, and if you do cyberpunk in 2007 or later, it’s actually gonna be like neo-cyberpunk. It’s gonna be something else. If you do punk now, if you’re in a band and you do punk now, it’s not like historically punk. It can’t be. Its informed by everything you know about 1977, but you’re making it 2007.
Phawker: What is your definition of cyberpunk?
WG: Well, low-life and hi-tech as Bruce Sterling said. Cyberpunk was sort of a roots movement that got going in the early to mid-1980s. And the closest thing in pop history, the most informative parallel, is if you think of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and those guys, and Nashville country and the mainstream ordinary wire rack full of today’s science fiction novel had gotten very much like Nashville. We thought. I thought to the extent of it as a movement, which is kind of grand for what it was. It was roots movement in popular music. We were taking it back to the way they’d done it in the late ’60s. There was just some brilliant, very unconventional science fiction in the early- to mid-’60s, which is when I had been a teenage science fiction reader. It had been really big for me. I wanted to try and do something like that. I wanted to play western swing like Hank Williams or something. I didn’t want to be like someone coming out of the radio on Clear Channel.
Phawker: Mission accomplished?
WG: I think I so, and lots of other practitioners did as well. But you didn’t have any effect on Nashville. They didn’t throw down their instruments and shiny turquoise hats and leave the stage. And so the core of science fiction remains unchanged. The core of science fiction is probably more like Nashville than it was in 1977.
Phawker: Back in 2000 you were quoted in the Economist as saying: “The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed.” How so?
WG: Well, you know, there are places in the world, places in the United States, where you can sit and look around and there’s not too much evidence that it’s not 1852. You have to be way out in the middle of the desert for that to happen. And if you took your technology with you, the future’s distributing itself faster and faster all the time because you can’t leave the global satellite positioning gird, and there’s more and more wi-fi and your cell phone works further and further out. When I said that, I think I actually said that in response to somebody accusing me of dreaming up these dystopian horrible worlds. I said, “Well, Neuromancer is not a dystopia because Africa is filled with people today who would immigrate to the world of Neuromancer at the drop of a hat. And they’d be better off and they’d be happier. So how can it be a dystopia when the places on earth today are much worse?” And there are always places like if you could be instantly matter-transformed to downtown Tokyo, it would pretty much, regardless of where you are, it’ll still give you a littler bit of future shock. They really strive for that. They like to change it up all the time. And that compared to some sleepy little island in the Caribbean, it’s like hugely different. This little island in the Caribbean is like the ’60s or the early ’70s.
Phawker: You have said repeatedly that you are not a gearhead when it comes to hi-tech gadgetry — and in fact your wrote your breakthrough novel on a typewriter — and yet high technology always plays a central role in your novels, how do you explain that disconnect?
WG: I’m always writing about technology and how it affects people. That’s what I’m interested in. I don’t really care how the box they’re playing with works. But I love to observe how their behavior changes when they get close to that box.
Phawker: And what have you noticed?
WG: There are now so many ways for people to get intensely and even emotionally involved with things that are happening to them, but that aren’t physically happening to them. They’re just happening on a screen. And that’s so much a part of the culture that we take it absolutely for granted. There are ways of looking at it that sort of reveal how strange it is. If my great-grandfather, if you told him that he was about to hear a dead man sing and he believed you — it probably would’ve horrified him — if I’m walking into a supermarket and Elvis is singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” I don’t start shivering. I just take it for granted. So there are these dead people who are out there singing, and they’re probably gonna be singing forever. Not only are they singing, they’re earning money! They’re earning more money than any living human ever makes. That’s really strange if you look at it that way. Part of my job description is to get people to look at it that way. Try and remind people that it’s not business as usual anymore. We’re doing things differently and we’re doing them more differently as we go along. And there’s no plan. There’s no plan for any of this. No one legislates that there’s going to be cell phones; they just get invented. Then we try and legislate it after the fact to make sure that what happens from having cell phones is OK. New technologies emerge and they start changing our society in ways that nobody, least of all the inventors of these things, ever intended. That’s the way in which the world is fundamentally out of control.
Phawker: But is that a bad thing?
WG: I’m agnostic about it. About technology. I feel like I can’t meet my job description if I’m excessively paranoid of new technologies; and I can’t meet my job description if I’m excessively hot for new technologies. I have to be in the middle. I have to be neutral and agnostic and as much like an anthropologist as I can manage to be. That said, increased connectivity is all good. In the end. It’s like you’re being given more options for doing the human things that we do. Some of the human things we do are not good things. It’s giving us more options. So I don’t worry about it making us less human. By the same token, I think that what we think of as human is going to change. It’s already changed a lot; we just can’t see it because we don’t have a time scale. If somebody showed up from the 16th century, they wouldn’t think that we were very natural. We’re too clean and our skin is too smooth, and we have teeth when we’re over 30 years old. And those of us who are near-sighted some of us have had our eyes lasered. We’re already kind of post-human critters compared to our ancestors. It’s easy to forget that.
[Illustration by ALEX FINE]