California Literary Review

William Gibson: The Father of Cyberpunk

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October 2nd, 2007 at 11:45 am

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William Gibson [Photo by Fred Armitage]

William Gibson took the science fiction world by storm in 1984 with the publication of his first novel Neuromancer. The novel is one of the most significant books in what is now called cyberpunk.

In 2003 with Pattern Recognition, Gibson shifted gears, writing a novel set in the present. It was a much more natural and logical transition for Gibson than for most other science fiction writers because Gibson has first and foremost been a humanist, a writer concerned not with technology and the future but with people who find ways to adapt.

His new novel Spook Country.

This is sort of your first historical novel, in a way, set in a specific date and time in the past.
Well, that’s true, although I think you could’ve dated Pattern Recognition pretty closely from internal evidence. So for me this was my second speculative fiction of the very recent past.
What is it that’s led you to change gears like that?
Well it just seemed like such an obvious transition to me. I started out in the Twentieth Century writing about imaginary versions of the Twenty-first Century and then via that very slow time machine that’s the only one any of us ever get to go on, and somewhat to my own surprise, I found myself living in the Twenty-first Century and I thought, well I can’t go on writing about the Twenty-first Century. But that was my topic.
Now I get up in the morning and check the newsfeed on my laptop and there’s all this material and its better material than I could make up. Crazier shit than anything I ever dreamed up. And I have a toolkit that was in large part provided by science fiction, and the toolkit turns out to be, I think, really good for getting a handle on the world today, which is not that easy to get a hold of.
Do you think you’re less interested in trying to envision a future or, there’s a line in Pattern Recognition, when things are changing too quickly you don’t have a place to stand from which to envision a future?
It’s that. It just doesn’t feel possible. I could make up mid-Twenty-first Century worlds and just leave a gap between here and there, but I wouldn’t be playing science fiction by the rules that I believe in. It has to be logical, it has to have a back story and it would just be a kind of fantasy. I don’t read a lot of science fiction these days, but just browsing in the science fiction section, I suspect that quite a lot more of it now is a kind of fantasy.
It’s not about trying to imagine the Wellsian arc between the present and the future. I think that’s not happening because people just can’t do it. If you want to do mid-Twenty-first Century science fiction in 2007 you’re going to have to account for what happened to global warming, that’s the big one for us. It would be good to touch on the global AIDS epidemic, the situation in the Middle East, immigration in the United States, things like that. And if you don’t touch on that, then what are you doing? What good is it other than a kind of wanky fantasy?
So everything we know has almost impinged on what we can imagine?
I don’t think that H.G. Wells, who I think is a good example because he was passionately, wildly didactic–which is something that I’m not–but Wells was about things to come. He would lay it all out, this is going happen this is going to happen and quite a lot of the time he was right, it turned out. And quite a lot, he was wrong by a mile. But he thought he knew exactly where he was and that he knew exactly where the world was, and that was his starting point to do this arc of extrapolation that he believed in so powerfully.
Well I personally don’t have that confidence. I know where we are. I’m interested in fiction that approaches the question of where we are, but I don’t have a strong enough sense of it. I don’t know. The literary techniques of science fiction are just so excellent, I think, for picking up and examining this utterly peculiar future, or rather present, we find ourselves in. I guess if you’re young enough this could just seem as business as usual, but I actually don’t from my perspective. It’s not business as usual. It’s gotten very strange rather quickly in the way that history tends to complicate and re-complicate sometimes.
In Idoru, the characters spent a lot of time talking about nodal points in history. You seem to be arguing that we’ve passed or are in the midst of one.
Well the nodal points in my fiction were all an attempt at humor on my part. In my fiction, you can’t know what the nodal points are. They’re never large famous events. They’re mysterious. I was riffing on that butterfly syndrome and catastrophe theory, which I don’t really pretend to really understand. I think we may have just passed a nodal point but we’re in the turbulence. The turbulence forward into the timeline. What’s happening today is just more interesting to me now than anything I could make up. I don’t think I could make up anything happening in some future that I imagine beyond the present moment. Which actually I find fascinating. I don’t know if it’s that’s a permanent condition for me, we’ll just have to see.
Related to your idea of nodal points, in a lot of your books, characters on the outside of important events become involved incidentally or by accident and this notion of almost being pawns but somehow they manage to assert themselves in a way that they’re not rolled over by history and I’m wondering how much of that is informed by your own past and being a part of the student protests in the sixties and opposition to the Vietnam war?
Well I certainly never had any reason to feel that I was any sort of pivotal player in those events. I just sort of wandered through them. I think it did give me a feeling of just how you can just wander through huge historically significant events. And while you’re wandering through you’re mainly thinking, wow that was a good breakfast or she’s got a great ass. You’re not thinking, oh it’s the morning of the moratorium. Even having been present for a couple of those things I think gave me a more realistic sense of history, but it never gave me any sense of being a player or a mover and shaker in any way.
Do you think it shaped your idea of how history functions, that it’s not necessarily powerful people. If you wrote about a revolution you wouldn’t write about people in the government or the rebel leaders, you would write about people on the outskirts?
Somehow that is where I go for the truth. Because if I go for the historically central figures, the figures who emerged as central within our current narrative of any particular part of history, that’s always invariably subject to subsequent alteration. Whenever I look at that stuff I feel like I’m verging on the territory of conspiracy theory. It just doesn’t work for me. My imagination would just never cause me to sit down and try to figure out what Hitler was doing. Why Hitler did it. But my imagination would take me to some guy who’s a Weimer dry cleaner and that’s where I would start to find my way into it.
Where does a novel generally start for you and how did Spook Country begin?
With an absolutely blank page and no clue, no ideas and no themes that I want to express. Really, just nothing. But somehow with a need to write a novel. Which by and large at that point, has become contractual. And I sit there in varying stages and degrees of discomfort and if I stay there long enough, something starts to happen.
With Spook Country, it happened as visual impressions from a fairly consistent point of view. And all the visual impressions were of lower Manhattan, around Lafayette and Canal, in winter, mostly in the daytime. And by exploring that material and interrogating it in different ways, I found Tito. He was the one who was seeing that stuff and he started seeing other things and that led me to his family and to the old man, but I didn’t know what anybody was up to.
It was a very nerve wracking book to write because I was a couple hundred pages into the manuscript and still didn’t know what the macguffin was. I didn’t know what was in the box. I had a list of things that I thought it might be but none of them satisfied me. None of them made the book worth it to me. That was a very scary situation. When it finally dawned on me what was in it I felt better but then I didn’t know what they were going to do about it. I knew what was in it and I knew why it was coming but I didn’t know what the good guys would be able to do about it. But that was more like problem solving. I just asked people. What could you do to make things really difficult for someone who’s trying to do what these people are trying to do? I had thought about depleted uranium, but when I mentioned that to a friend of mine, he said, you don’t need depleted uranium, listen to this. And he came up with the thing they actually do. Actually he sent me four or five closely written pages of really exact instructions on how to build that kind of item. Most of which I didn’t use, but it’s better to have more and hold it back.
Is that your usual process in terms of working out a novel?
Absolutely. It’s the only process I’ve had. Anything else would leave me feeling the way I felt when someone’s hired me to do contract screenplay work. If I know how it’s going to end, it’s just deadly. It’s just not interesting. For me, that is nothing to do with the process of writing a novel, at least my process of writing a novel. The part of me that walks around and does interviews is incapable of doing very much in the way of writing a novel. My unconscious is what I’m after and my unconscious is not very reliable. It doesn’t pay taxes and it won’t turn up every day to sit in the chair and type for me. I have to turn up and sit in the chair every day and type and occasionally it does turn up. It turns up in tandem when the book happens. For me that’s inspiration. That’s my big imagination. My big imagination isn’t me sitting around at a coffee shop thinking I should write a novel about—That’s not it. It would be a bad novel. It would be all in my head and for me that would mean it would be dead. For me it has to be coming more from the totality of me and I kinda know when it’s working by how mysterious it’s all seeming to me. And usually how anxious that’s making me. I have very little. It’s not like I have increasing faith in this process. It sort of gets riskier as I go along because I have to trust in it more and get out of my own way more than I’m naturally willing to do.
Do you write daily and have a set schedule?
When I’m actually writing I write every day and I write a lot. When it’s happening it’s nine to nine sometimes with a couple of breaks and I tend to work longer hours as I get closer to the end. Not just because I want to finish but because by the end of the book I’ve gotten up to speed, which allows me to juggle the whole thing in my head. Which sometimes feels to me like single handedly having to lift and move a refrigerator. I couldn’t just come in cold and do that. I kind of have to work up to being able to hold that much narrative information in my head and work from there. So I work really hard towards the end just because the downtime is costly in terms of revving the engine back up.
Do you do a lot of rewriting?
I do a lot of rewriting initially, probably more in the first 50 pages than otherwise. It takes me a while. I know I’m really into a book when I quit going to the top and going through it all every day when I start. For a long time, I start with the first word and go through the whole thing and making changes on the word processor. This way I can actually rewrite the beginning of it so many times that it vanishes. And then the rewriting is sort of governed by the publishing process. The manuscript sits for a while and then I come back to it and do changes. By then the publisher’s got it and it goes to the copy editor. It bounces back and forth. I make changes at every stage, including stages in the advanced reading copy.
Little changes or more major ones?
Well in this one, mostly little ones. It depends. In this one I was reliably informed like the day before the book was about to go to print that GPS signals don’t penetrate walls and ceilings. That had never occurred to me, that GPS doesn’t work indoors. I didn’t know that because I’ve never actually done any GPS stuff other than ride around in a few cars equipped with talking maps. The guy who told me that also gave me the fix for that which was to have a program written which would automatically triangulate the position of your artwork from the three nearest cell phone towers that are broadcasting around it and overlays that with the GPS grid. That made me really happy because it gave me a little bit more reason for why those artists are so dependent on Bobby. That had seemed kind of vague and bullshitty to me as a plot point. So I had to go through it, use the search function and go through it from the top and try to address every time, every instance of anybody talking about using GPS that way in the whole book. So it differs in that way from the ARC.
I’ve never made what I would consider major changes in a book in the galleys. When I do major changes, it has to be a point of absolute despair with the manuscript and the process and myself and everything else. It’s really not a good point but it’s happened to me every time I’ve written a novel and somehow when I reach that total despair, shortly after that I’ll be able to sit down and working in an odd and kind of trancelike way, I’ll be able to just rip the whole thing apart very quickly and put it back together and have it work really differently. And once I’ve done that I’ve finished. I might have a month’s more work to do but it all goes really really quickly. But with this book I can’t tell you exactly what I did because I don’t know and I don’t because I have a sort of superstition of watching that part of the process. It’s like staying up for the tooth fairy or something. It’s not going to happen. Or maybe it won’t happen next time. It usually involves. When I do that I usually get a sheet of brown wrapping paper, like a roll of brown wrapping paper, and tape it to an eight foot library table I’ve got and do this kind of Venn diagram with colored markers of all the characters from all the way out and it’s narrowing down, characters are dead, characters are disappearing. And that gives it some final form in terms of story. Not necessarily in terms of meaning.
Spook Country has more of a thriller structure than most of your books. How much was that intentional?
Genre structures for me are like armatures in sculpture. They’re like coat hangers thrust through modeling clay. They give me something to hang the whole thing on but in themselves they’re just coat hangers. I know they’re just coat hangers, although in some cases they’re coat hangers that I’m culturally fond of.
My ideal reader feels the same way about genre structure that I do and they don’t take them totally seriously. I’d much rather read a novel that plays with genre conventions than a genre novel that obeys, however excellently, every convention. The reason genre is not taken entirely seriously in lots of fields, and lots of critical writing, is because novels are supposed to be novel and genre is a guarantee that it’s not. That’s its actual function. To say here, another one like this. “When are you going to write another one like Neuromancer? That’s what we’d really like.”
I like thriller. I kind of like the thriller armature. All three of the Bridge books had thriller armature and science fiction clothes and really a kind of nineties attitude. The thing I always like about those books is that I was trying to make it evident that these characters were like nineties people acting in a science fiction movie. Which is what made Rydell fun. [Rydell being one of the central characters in Gibson’s Bridge trilogy.] He wasn’t like a guy from the future of Knoxville, he was like a guy from Knoxville confronting this kind of Blade Runner land. Sort of like Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye brought backwards. Altman had Marlowe from the past, somehow he’s a modern guy who’s actually a forties guy, he behaves like a forties guy and is just baffled by this hideous cognitive dissonance and sadness of his having to live in the early seventies.
Do you go back and reread old work?
Not unless I’m forced to for business or sometimes for creative reasons. The only exception being The Difference Engine, the book I co-wrote with Bruce Sterling which I read bits of every couple of years and snicker happily. It doesn’t feel like I wrote it. And actually it doesn’t feel like Bruce wrote it either. It’s as though it had been written by some rather creepy but funny character we had known together at some point but is no longer around. I’d like to read more of that guy’s books. I don’t want to write them, but if that guy wrote more books, I’d buy them.
Have the two of you ever talked about writing another one together?
We’ve talked about it. He actually had a great idea for another recursive science novel that was just a wonderful idea but there hasn’t been a time where I was really creatively free to do it. That took longer. My involvement in writing The Difference Engine which was as total as any involvement I’ve ever had in writing anything solo, but different, lasted longer than my involvement with any of my other novels. It took us a couple of years to do that. It was lots of research and lot of absorbing, just sponging up Victorian pulp fiction and reading years and decades of the London Times front pages. And for the thing that he proposed doing it would have been that much again and I was about to start Pattern Recognition so I really had my hands full.
But if I go back and read my own solo output, I just go, oh that’s pretty good, oh that’s horrible how could I have done that, oh this is pretty good, and it’s always different. It’s like my superego won’t leave it alone so I just keep my superego away from it and then my superego leaves me alone.
You’ve been writing and getting published for more twenty years, almost thirty now.
Well, really since 1981 or so.
Can you look back and still see yourself in the work?
Pretty much so. I see it and I remember to some extent where it came from. Some of it I find kind of baffling, but for the most part I go, oh yeah, that’s my life. And it is my life. It’s funny, it is my life. It could never be decoded, not in any way that anyone could ever hope to decode but in the way that I have to spin this stuff out of the reality around me. There’s a lot of things put to very odd purposes sometimes. It’s kind of like. I’ll be rereading something I wrote a long time ago and it will suddenly start to function as a kind of elaborately coded diary. Not that it’s autobiographical in any way. But it’s studded with cornell box pieces made of other things that happened to be handy at the time.
As with history being a speculative narrative that’s being continually revised, one’s sense of one’s self is continually revised. So it’s not like I’m always looking back and going oh there he is again. Sometimes I look back and go, I’ve got your number. You didn’t, but I do. I know why you’re really doing that and what that really stood for. And sometimes not. There’s recognition in doing that but it’s kind of like that Oscar Wilde line about mirrors and cats are both inherently unhealthy and you shouldn’t spend too much time with them and it’s the same way about reading one’s own fiction. There’s something slightly distasteful about the idea.
  • David Goldstein

    I read Gibson’s latest after finishing Dorothy Dunnett’s “Niccolo Rising” series. It felt like an outline of a book compared to the richness of Ms. Dunnett’s work. His threadbare approach to writing bores me.

  • Dave W

    Dorothy Dunnett?????!!!!!!!!! What were you thinking?

  • Ed

    I wouldn’t knock Dorothy Dunnett – her Niccolo series is impressive and the Lymond series even more so if you don’t mind a bit of Renaissance Latin/French thrown in. I have a lot of respect for good historical fiction because you have to be creative and know the past well at the same time. I look forward to Gibson’s book and appreciate the interview.

  • John

    Following another reading of Mona Lisa Overdrive, I was curious to see what William Gibson thought about the outdated 21st Century technology he describes in the Sprawl Trilogy (eg the use of cassettes), and the possible failure of Japan to assume global supremacy. Thankfully no explanation or apology is provided and the reader is left to enjoy the novels in their original form.

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