William Gibson has been hailed as a prophet and a futurist, but his eye is on the present moment. He talks to Salon about virtual readings, emerging technology and his new novel -- set in 2006.
In William Gibson’s 2003 novel “Pattern Recognition,” there is a line that alludes to, among other things, the plight of the science fiction writer in the early 21st century. “Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day,” a marketing mogul theorizes, “one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration.”
“Pattern Recognition” was Gibson’s first immersion in the contemporary world. Its quasi-sequel, the newly published “Spook Country,” establishes his allegiance to the here and now. The shift from future to present dystopias is a logical one for this one-time cyberpunk, who turned 59 this year. For all the fetishistic detail of his sleek, compact, minutely observant prose, Gibson has always been a big-picture diagnostician par excellence. Like few other authors, sci-fi or not, he grasps with intuitive clarity the psychic and cultural implications of the technologies in our lives.
The aforementioned ad exec, a maxim-spouting Belgian evocatively named Hubertus Bigend, provides a link between the two books. In “Pattern Recognition,” Bigend funded a professional cool-hunter’s quest for the mystery auteur behind a rash of video clips that anonymously surfaced on the Internet. In “Spook Country,” his latest project is a Wired-like start-up magazine called Node, for which he hires Hollis Henry, indie-rock cult star turned freelance journalist, to write a feature on “locative art,” a brand of site-specific installation that utilizes virtual reality holography and GPS technology. Other players negotiating the labyrinth include a Cuban-Chinese data trafficker who worships the saints of Santeria and an Ativan addict forcibly recruited into espionage by a possible CIA-affiliated thug.
Set in the summer of 2002, “Pattern Recognition” perfectly approximated the aching dissonance of the post-9/11 moment. “Spook Country,” which takes place in the spring of 2006, is another vivid freeze frame, registering the particular confusion and anxiety of our ethereal, uncertain now. Speaking by phone from Seattle, the first stop of his book tour, Gibson talked to Salon about virtual readings, the Google-era novel, and post-9/11 reality.
You recently did a reading in the virtual world of Second Life, where you are a kind of patron saint. I got shut out — I didn’t realize capacity would be an issue — but I caught up with it afterward on YouTube. Did the event turn out as you’d expected?
Apparently there’s always finite space in Second Life. I was actually in a room at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver with a live audience so I wasn’t paying much attention to the Second Life aspect, which is probably a good thing in terms of my performance. I had a laptop open so I could see it as if I was watching from within Second Life. What I saw I found a bit distracting — people levitating and sitting on top of the microphone.
How much time had you spent in Second Life by yourself?
Just a couple of hours. I think it only works if you’re hooked up socially. Otherwise it’s like walking around outside a shopping mall in Edmonton, Alberta, at 4 in the morning in December. You never see anybody and if you do, chances are they run away.
Some people have called Second Life the fulfillment of your vision of cyberspace. Does it at all resemble what you had in mind in 1984 when you wrote about a “consensual hallucination” in “Neuromancer”?
It is and it isn’t the vision I had. It’s what the characters in my early novels would call a “construct” — that was a word I used before virtual reality was around. I did imagine constructs where people could appear in avatar form. And in “Idoru,” I imagined these teenage girls leading virtual lives in abandoned corporate Web sites which they’d taken over and altered to build themselves a hideout. Those are the two things in my fiction closest to Second Life, but they’re not really anything like it. It never would have occurred to me to write something about a corporation building a virtual world in which shopping and real estate were two of the most popular activities. It sounds like too conventional a science-fiction novel.
It seems like the word that used to pop up most in reviews of your work was “prophetic.” Now that you’ve shifted to writing about the world we live in, it’s “zeitgeist.”
That would have been more accurate all along. From the start, what I’ve tried is to have a sense of the potential of the present moment. Which is really not the same as knowing the future.
I’d always been resistant to our cultural assumptions about science fiction — that it’s predictive and it’s about the future. All science fiction is in one way or another about the moment in which it’s written, even if the people who write it don’t know that. My fourth, fifth and sixth novels were written in the early ’90s but take place around 2007. Not only is it a world that now could never have happened but the characters, and this was a deliberate decision, act and talk like people from the ’90s. I would always say, I could set one of these in the present and it wouldn’t feel that different. I finally decided with “Pattern Recognition” to call myself on it and see if I could do it. It proved much harder and more disorienting than I had imagined it would be.
Does your decision to write explicitly about the present have to do with the nature of our particular moment? Is there something about this point in time that demands closer scrutiny than the present (by which I mean 1984) of “Neuromancer”?
I basically agree with Mr. Bigend in “Pattern Recognition” when he argues that our present has become so unutterably brief and ever-changing that we have no ground upon which we can stand and project a future historical arc as H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein were able to. The short form of that is, none of us know what the hell is going to happen next.
If I’d gone into a publisher’s office in 1981 and pitched a novel set in a world with a lethal, sexually transmitted virus that was going to take down huge numbers of human beings, and in that same world, it was determined that we’d completely thrown the climate of the planet out of whack — not only would they not have bothered but they probably would have called security. No one except possibly the late John Brunner, in his brilliant novel “The Sheep Look Up,” has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it.
You said you thought “Pattern Recognition” was a stand-alone book when it came out. Did you have a sense when you started working on “Spook Country” that it would be so directly connected?
Not at first. But you know, there’s a part of me that is a terrible storyteller. If someone forced me to sit down and make up the plot of a novel, it would be the worst thing you’d ever read. I know that from my bad experience at Hollywood pitch meetings. The novels I write come from aspects of myself that I don’t have any conscious access to most of the time. I actually have to be a bit crazy in a clearly benevolent, mostly controlled sort of way.
In your work you’ve always emphasized the subversive uses of new technologies. Would you say that potential has faded, given how quickly things are now co-opted and corporatized?
I think there’s still evidence to the contrary, if you just look at BoingBoing on any given day. I used to worry that there was no more territory in which bohemias could grow, but now I think they grow best on the Web. You don’t need a physical neighborhood where everybody’s into the same outfit and drug of choice. You can’t really do that anymore because it gets marketed back to you as soon as you try it, but on the Web I think you still can.
It’s odd how “Pattern Recognition” — despite being only 4 years old, or maybe because it’s so specifically about 2002 — now reads like a period novel. The idea of mystery Internet footage as an exotic holy grail seems to come from a pre-Lonelygirl, pre-YouTube time.
That’s true, and I’m very grateful that it came out in this tiny remaining window before the emergence of YouTube, which would have changed the whole meaning of the book. People are probably reading it today and thinking, “Whoa, what happened to YouTube, this is an alternate universe.” I always like to imagine a 12-year-old reading “Neuromancer,” getting 20 pages in and turning to his friend and going, “I figured out what the mystery is! What happened to all the cellphones?”
How did you discover locative art? It’s a very resonant illustration of a recurring theme in your work — the encroachment of cyberspace into physical reality.
A friend of mine had been sending me links to locative art Web sites and I found it all excessively nerdy and very conceptual. But I was drawn very strongly to the idea that the entire surface of the planet is literally divided up into a digital grid. I read about geo-caching and geo-hacking, but my needs as a storyteller were not being met. So I came up with something that was like the lowbrow version — locative art that would be on the side of vans or as it would be done by the people whose work is in Juxtapoz magazine. And that generated [the holographic artist character] Alberto and his art, which I like a lot. The cognitive dissonance comes from the idea that this guy’s using it to make memorials to River Phoenix and Helmut Newton.
Those memorials made me think of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash,” or the death and celebrity paintings Andy Warhol did in the early ’60s.
You’re right, but I never actually thought about that. They’re both so big now, Warhol and Ballard — they’re so pervasive in our world. What they were doing, it’s all come true.
There’s always been a political dimension to your work, but “Spook Country” deals, much more than you ever have, with real-world politics.
In 2006, if you invite the zeitgeist in for tea, that’s what you’re going to get.
And like “Pattern Recognition,” it grows out of the aftershocks of 9/11. Do you think our sense of reality — which to an extent is the subject of all your books — changed fundamentally after 9/11?
In “Virtual Light” and the two novels that followed it, there’s an idea of nodal points in history. In the wake of 9/11, I had a very strong sense that there had been a nodal point. The direction shifted in some deep, fractal sense. I suspect that was a pretty common apprehension globally.
As for how it changed us, when I think about that, what comes to me is a time [author] Bruce Sterling and I were doing something at CNN in Atlanta. This was after the Oklahoma City bombing. We were standing there looking down into the studios. Bruce went into the gift shop and bought these two tacky-looking shot glasses and said, “I’m going to put these on top of my television set for those CNN moments.” I said, “What’s a CNN moment?” And he said, “When you look up and see the federal building in Oklahoma City lying in smoking ruins, that’s a CNN moment. That’s as contemporary a moment as we’re allowed.” His idea is that in order to protect ourselves, we live somewhere in the past, we keep a buffer zone of about five years between us and contemporary reality. Or we did at that point. But when a CNN moment happens we’re suddenly right in the present and it’s shocking and disturbing and quite remarkable, but then we withdraw again. I think that he was right, but I think that 9/11 somehow blew that out of the water. The idea of a CNN moment doesn’t apply in the same way anymore.
There’s obviously an element of exhilaration to something like a CNN moment — or whatever the equivalent is now — if it’s the way we can most fully experience the present.
Absolutely. It’s what Fredric Jameson called the “postmodern sublime,” which he characterized as the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy. That’s very much to the point in terms of the times we live in.
In both “Pattern Recognition” and “Spook Country,” because you’re dealing with real-world locales for the first time, there’s a level of specificity that comes off as almost journalistic.
One of the hallmarks of cyberpunk, again according to Bruce Sterling, was hyper-specificity. It’s something I really value in fiction as a reader, and I can’t imagine not doing it. We live in a world of objects.
Is most of your research done online?
It depends what I’m chasing. If I find something online and it seems resonant I’ll use it. Because I’m not a journalist, resonant trumps accurate every time. With online research, there’s a major surf factor. I’ll often go looking for one thing and by accident find something else so much cooler. That’s how I found Volapük, the Russian slang for the Cyrillic approximations on American keyboards. Before I was online, I would spend a ridiculous amount of money on magazines, and I would have a six-inch stack beside my computer. Whenever the prose stopped coming I’d reach over and flip through a magazine. Magazines are by definition aggregators of novelty, so I’d get a condensed hit of what a bunch of journalists thought was novel and interesting, and often it would just spark something. The Web has taken over that function.
How do you think Google has changed your work — not just the process of writing but the end result?
It’s changed the way I view a novel as I’m working on it. It seems to me there’s a sort of ghostly, spectral hypertext that surrounds any novel now. It’s as though everything we write is a hypertext link. Sometimes I’ll think, well, somebody’s going to Google this term I just used and it’s going to take them back to where I found it. And that’s strange.
Someone is essentially doing a hypertext version of “Spook Country” at Node magazine, with chapter summaries and various annotations and illustrations.
Yeah, I’ve seen that. The amount of effort involved is a bit scary. The entries I’ve looked at have been remarkably accurate. Oscar Wilde said mirrors and cats are both inherently unhealthy to pay too much attention to, and I think that sort of Web site is in that category for me.
Did you do much fact-checking for the last two books, since you’re dealing with real technologies in the real world?
I do try to run the version that I’m turning in to the publisher past technologically literate people to see if I’ve made any howling mistakes … But I don’t look at the technology that much. I look at what people do with it. That allows me to see the forest in spite of the trees. I remember the first few years after “Neuromancer,” techies would write passionate diatribes about what a stupid bullshit book it was because there was never going to be enough bandwidth for this stuff to happen. I wish I’d kept those because I was perfectly ignorant of actual computer science; I made the right guess. I didn’t even know what bandwidth really was, but I just assumed there would be a whole bunch more of it, very shortly, enough for the cyberspace of “Neuromancer.” And here we are doing it.
There’s an image of you out there as an avid technophile, which I know you’ve tried to dispel.
There was also an image of me as a hard-bitten Luddite and I’m not that either. For 15 years or more, it was always “That William Gibson, he only writes on a manual typewriter.” I did write a couple of novels on a manual typewriter, but that was before people had PCs and I couldn’t afford an electric typewriter. It wasn’t a freaky, fetishistic thing. But that Gibson-the-Luddite meme became a good thing to hang a story on.
I’ve always felt a serious obligation to be absolutely agnostic about emergent technologies. I think a case can be made for technology being morally neutral. I think what scares people most about new technologies — it’s actually what scares me most — is that they’re never legislated into being. Congress doesn’t vote on the cellular telephony initiative and create a cellphone system across the United States and the world. It just happens and capital flows around and it changes things at the most intimate levels of our lives, but we never decided to do it. Somewhere now there’s a team of people working on something that’s going to profoundly impact your life in the next 10 years and change everything. You don’t know what it is and they don’t know how it’s going to change your life because usually these things don’t go as predicted.
To get back to Fredric Jameson, I find that both dreadful and exhilarating.
Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image. More Dennis Lim.
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