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

Published January 22, 2012 9:00PM (EST)

William Gibson    (Michael O'Shea)
William Gibson (Michael O'Shea)

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" [2001] 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.

By Mike Doherty

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