Section 2.1 ::  Sterling

Section 2.2 ::  Exile and drugs

Section 2.3 ::  Myrtle Beach

Section 2.4 ::  Anxiety

Section 2.5 ::  Burroughs

Section 2.6 ::  Salvation

Section 2.7 ::  Writing

Section 2.1 :: Sterling

WG:  Initially, I had a lot of reluctance toward going…toward going for it.  And I think that I still had that reluctance up until I met Bruce Sterling, and was introduced to, through Bruce, to some other writers who were trying to do something similar.  And just having company – you know, a little fellowship – went a long…went a long way.

BRUCE STERLING: (visible and seated, speaking from an unknown location, possibly a diner) When Louis Shiner  and I, who were part of the Turkey City group here in Austin , were first reading Gibson’s work in manuscript, we looked at it and said, “Look, you know, this is breakthrough material here.  This guy’s really doing something different.  Like, we gotta put down our preconceptions and pick up on this guy from Vancouver.  It’s the way forward!”  A hole had opened up in consensus reality, and we just, like, saw daylight…

WG:  When I was writing “Burning Chrome,” the short story that intro…you know, where the word cyberspace first…first appeared, I knew as soon as I had the opening scene that I actually had a completely original piece.

BS:  In the early days when he used to send me short stories, I would send them around to people, and I would sort of give them copies of OMNI  that had his stories in them, and send them to people and sort of seek out their response.  And people were just genuinely baffled…

WG:  You know I sat there thinking, “Nobody’s ever done this.”

BS:  I mean, they literally could not parse the guy’s paragraphs.  They could not make sense of…they didn’t understand concepts like cyberspace, for instance, that there was a simulated space, which was inside the computer.  I mean, they literally could not get their heads around that concept.  I mean, “What was the problem…are they hallucinating?  Is it a real space…?”  I mean, these…just these sort of…imaginative tropes, which he was inventing and deploying, were just beyond peoples’ grasp.

WG:  I met Bruce Sterling at a science fiction convention in Denver in the fall of 1981, and read, uh, “Burning Chrome,” the first cyberspace short story, to an audience of four people:  (grins) Sterling, his wife, a friend of mine, and some baffled stranger.  And it was, like, the most fun I think I ever had reading…reading anything, because Bruce completely “got it.”

BS:  We were aware that computers were a bigger social revolution in the making than space flight was ever going to be, or that robots ever had been.

WG:  No one seemed to have noticed that there was a territory there.

BS:  Yeah, when we were first hanging out with computer geeks, it was not something you spoke about in public.  I mean, really…if you went to a party and started talking about your Apple//, people would walk off diagonally…  We turned out to be great glamorizers.  We were able to make computers glamorous.  And…and of course, we weren’t the only ones.  I mean, once people caught on that that was possible, you had Madison Avenue move into the job.  AT&T hires people to tell people that, now.  Its, you know, its become a very mainstream message.

WG:  I had a hunch that it was going to change things in a way that the advent of the (grins) ubiquity of the automobile changed things.  It changed how we dressed, how we eat…it affects…these things affect everything.

BS:  I mean, this was a supermodel among technologies.  It was just a matter of spraying on the hairspray, and slapping on some lip-gloss, and this thing was gonna walk, you know?  They were gonna be cute.  They were gonna be miniature.  They would be designed.  They would be adorable, you know.  The boundaries of the human body would be crossed.

The Voice: What made you choose science fiction rather than some other form of fiction?

WG:  Well, I was…it was my native literary culture, and it was what I had grown up on.  I saw it as a viable, but essentially derelict form of popular art.  And I thought that that was…that was a remarkable thing.  I probably started looking at what was being done then in science fiction, around 1976 or ’77.
WG:  I saw an opening, you know?  I thought, “Hmm,” you know, “I can fill the gap here.  Maybe I can do something…maybe I can do something with this.”  That was the conscious part of it.  The unconscious part of it, I don’t know.  I know that it seemed…it seemed a weird and pathetic thing to try to do.

TV:  Were you still a student when you first got published?

WG:  Yeah.  I figured out that I could make a living, or augment my living by being a student, which was possible in Canada at that time.  If you could maintain a high enough grade point average, they were very generous.  You know, they’d give you loans and then forgive them.  You know.  In fact, I wasn’t even really studying; I was just making…maintaining a grade point average (laughs) and reading, reading books.


Section 2.2 :: Exile and drugs

TV:  You came to Canada to dodge the draft, didn’t you?

WG:  Well, I had a peculiar experience with that.  I had gone in and basically…told them the truth.  I told them that…that my one ambition in life was to take every mind-altering substance that existed on the face of the planet, and I just went in and babbled about…babbled about wanting to be like William Burroughs.  That seemed to do the trick.  That, and the fact that I promptly, you know, within a week or two, exited the country for several years.  You know, I was very, very lucky in the timing of that, because if I had turned up at an induction center two years later with…with the same line, they would have said, “Don’t worry, son…we’ll make a man of you.”  And they would’ve…they wouldn’t have even let me back out the building.  And I went home and bought a bus ticket to Toronto.  

    But I don’t like to take too much…too much credit for that having been a “political act,” in the sense that political acts are…are sometimes understood.  It had much more…to do with my wanting…wanting to be with hippie girls and have lots of hashish, than it did with my sympathy for the plight of the…the North Vietnamese people under U.S. imperialism. (grins) Much more, much more to do with hippie girls and hashish.

    Consequently, when I got to Toronto, I actually – to my, I think, chagrin, somewhat – I found that it was…I really, really couldn’t handle hanging out with the American draft-dodgers.  There was too much clinical depression.  There was too much suicide.  There was too much hardcore substance abuse.  They were a traumatized lot, those boys.  And I just felt like a…you know, I felt frivolous.  

Toronto’s “Summer of Love” was…it was up there with San Francisco’s, I would imagine.  It was really quite a…it was quite a party.  From an alternative mode of perception, most of the people…I suppose, really, everyone that I counted as a close friend seemed to harbor the unspoken assumption that everything that had gone before us was ending.  It was really a very millennial time, far more millennial than this last year of the century.

TV:  What did you think was ending?

WG:  “The Straight World.” I think that’s what I would have told you at the time.  (laughs)  But the “straight world” didn’t end.  The “straight world” and the other world bled into one another and produced the world that we live in today.

    Drugs were absolutely central to…to that, to that experience.  But they weren’t essential.  They weren’t actually essential to it.  I only know that in retrospect.  At the time I’m sure I would have said that they were…you know, ingesting the right chemical was absolutely, absolutely essential to the experience.  But, in retrospect, no.  It’s simply a matter of…simply a matter of being there, and being somewhat open, open to possibilities.  

    What you couldn’t have told me at that stage of my life – what I couldn’t have told me at that stage in my life that I’ve subsequently come to…come to accept – is that all drugs…all any drug amounts to is tweaking the incoming data.  And you have to be…you have to be really incredibly self-centered, or pathetic, to be satisfied with simply tweaking the incoming data.  Enough of the right drug, and anything is groovy.  Enough of the right drug, and it’s okay to be having open-heart surgery.  Well, you know, who wants…who wants that?

    My experience has been that, beyond a certain point, there’s only pathology.  You’re not dealing with a personality anymore; you’re dealing with a kind of hardwired…hardwired pathology.  You’re…you’re dealing with a chemical entity, a neurochemical entity.  It doesn’t really have much to do with the who is a person…its manifesting in was.  

    Recreational drugs are essentially a wank, and a wank is okay, but you really should know that it’s just a wank.  And I think that’s what we didn’t…what we didn’t know, to use the generational “we”…and what some of us still don’t know.  I was kept from the opiates by having read Burroughs.  I knew from even before I had ever tried any mind-altering substances that heroin was really addictive, and that you thought it wasn’t when you began to take it (snickers) but then you discovered that it was.  You know, the opiates aside, I tried whatever was going.  You know, I sort of prided myself on it. In fact, I was sort of a very regular cannabis user for a number of years, in spite of the fact that I was always had a terrible time with it.  And, you know, I’ve long since come to realize that…that I suffer from “cannabis dysphoria.”  Like, the lowest possible dose of cannabinol makes me incredibly uncomfortable and unhappy. I think it’s just easier to die doing that stuff (laughs) than people are, you know, people are comfortable admitting.  You know, at least people who like to do that stuff.  A certain number of people do their accustomed dose of cocaine, or sometimes even their very first dose of cocaine, and simply drop dead!  You know, a certain percentage of people do.  It’s kind of like, you know, the “street drug” thing is  (laughs) you know, when did you ever hear a drug dealer…when did you ever go to a drug dealer and the drug dealer says, “You know, you should come back tomorrow, this is not very pure.  It’s not too good tonight…come next week.”  It doesn’t happen.   

Section 2.3 :: Myrtle Beach

(blurred scenery; beaches, sun on water, gulls, and expanses of land.  A tall, lanky, shadowy figure walks alone, hunched in a coat with collar upturned, loping across the sand.  It is Gibson.  Various different images appear on the screen in a sort of slide show.)

THE VOICE:  Where are we?

WG:  This is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the closest thing…closest thing to a city near where my parents were living in a beach house, when I was born in 1948.

(a photo of Main Street, U.S.A., another of an infant William Gibson, then one of an isolated farmhouse surrounded by snow)

WG:  This was a farm that my parents had rented, I believe, while my father’s construction company put in a lot of these civilian – sort of workaday plumbing – around the Oak Ridge Atomic Project.  My father was working there during the production of the bombs, I believe.  

(Stock footage of an enormous mushroom cloud, then, a young Gibson in front of a black Jeep)

WG:  …Army Jeep of some kind.  

(another picture of a young Gibson)

This is in Virginia Beach or nearby, which is where I lived just prior to my father’s death in ’56.  

Upon his death, within a matter of days, my mother had packed, uh, packed everything up and taken me back to Wytheville, which is a town both my parents came from, in Southwest…Southwest Virginia.  She stayed there for the rest of her life.

(photo of infant Gibson and his mother, Otey, as she fusses over him)

My mother’s death, when I was nineteen, coincided, really, with the beginning of…the beginning of what we think of as the Sixties.   I was in a boarding school in Tucson, Arizona, and we would see the people coming and going from San Francisco.  You know, you couldn’t miss them, really.  There had never been people in America who looked like that.  And they looked like they were having a pretty good time.  So, I knew already that something was going on…no one had given it a name yet.  

What was going on…what was going on inside me, and what was going on in the world outside, were very, very confused for me.  I had no way of…I had no way of sorting, sorting those things out.  You know, it just seemed like the inside of my head was going off, and the outside was going off as well.  I…I know I became very, very isolated for a long time.  I mean, I do, really do think I…maybe it’s just a middle-aged thing, but…but I’m inclined to think that I was crazy, at some level, for a long time.  But its only become…its only become apparent to me relatively, you know, relatively late in life.  And it’s only become apparent because I no longer feel that I am crazy.


Section 2.4 :: Anxiety

(Gibson in the backseat of the car again)

TV:  What makes you anxious these days?

WG:  I think the thing that makes me most anxious at this point in my life is the thought that I might not be able to become as honest with myself as I would like to, as I would like to become.  Because I think that “more real” is always…is always better.  And…but…it’s not necessarily given to us as individuals to be, always be, more real.

I’m not a didactic writer, I hope.  There’s nothing…nothing I want less to be than…than someone couching a conscious message in prose fiction.  But I think one of the…one of the things that I see when I look back, when I look back at my earlier work, is a…a struggle to recognize, and accept, that the heart is the master, and the head is the servant, and that is always the case.  Except when it isn’t the case, we’re in deep, deep trouble.  And we’re often in deep, deep trouble.  So, that’s the way…that’s the way it starts to look to me, now, when I look back at it.  But I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that twenty years ago.


Section 2.5 :: Burroughs

VOICE OF WILLIAM BURROUGHS (with accompanying slow-motion video):  “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no cause for alarm.”

CAPTION:  William Burroughs’ last diary entry – August 1, 1997.

TV:  Did you read William Burroughs’ last piece?

WG:  Yeah, I thought it was absolutely extraordinary.

(the letters of the caption begin to separate and morph, re-forming a new phrase)

CAPTION:  Love – what is it?  Most natural painkiller what there is.  Love.

WG:  It was so wonderful that I almost didn’t believe it.  (laughs)  It was so much what I would’ve wanted his last words to be.  Burroughs’ death was something that I had anticipated for many, many years as being…I didn’t know what would happen to me.   It’s, you know…in some way that I can’t explain, he was just terribly, terribly…terribly, terribly important to me.  But when he went, it was okay.  I mean, I was okay.  It was okay.  I just felt, “Okay.  That’s, like…it’s okay.  He’s gone.”  I didn’t have…I didn’t have a sense of loss, and I didn’t…I don’t think I…I didn’t really have to grieve.  But it was…it was a real milestone for me.  

I had a sense that he had had a couple of really deep, really powerful resolutions that came to him, came to him very late.  One piece of his I read, he spoke of – no, it might have been an interview – he spoke of going into a sweat lodge ceremony, possibly a series of them, and being relieved, finally, of that which he had always referred to as “The Ugly Spirit.”  And before he died, he spoke quite movingly, and lovingly, of…of his wife, whom he’d killed in a blackout in Mexico City.  And…and he seemed to have come to terms with that.  It just seemed that, at the end of his life…at the end of his life, he was…he was okay.


Section 2.6 :: Salvation

TV:  What about the rest of us?  What’s going to save the rest of us?

WG:  Acceptance.  Acceptance of the impermanence of being, and acceptance of the…the imperfect nature of being.  Or possibly the perfect nature of being, depending on how one…how one looks at it.  Acceptance that this is not a rehearsal for the…that this is it.  (laughs)  This is the deal.  This is your life.  Basically, I don’t know.  You know, all the fridge magnets of the New Age have a certain…a kernel of truth in them, I think.

TV:  What about religion?

WG:  I remember (pause) consciously…consciously rejecting it at some point when I was twelve, or thirteen, or fourteen years old, insofar as I decided that that was not…whatever…whatever might be “going on,” it wasn’t going on for me in The Church.  That wasn’t where it…wasn’t where it was happening.  And that’s kind of continued as a constant for me, that I don’t feel like it’s happening in The Church.  Although, I think it can…whatever “It” is, that it can happen there, (grins) perhaps, you know, in spite of all odds.  I think of religions as…I think of religions as franchise operations.  Sort of like chicken, chicken franchises.  And…but that doesn’t mean that there’s no chicken, right?  (laughs)

It’s difficult to…it’s difficult to articulate.  Actually, by the time you get it reduced to something, by the time you get it reduced to something that…that you can…you can talk about, you don’t really…you don’t really have anything.  I mean, language is such an extraordinary thing, but at the same time, it’s just like the giant monkeys standing up and making noises that sound like “GOD.” (laughs) Like, what does that…what does that convey?

TV:  What’s happiness to you?

WG:  Hmmm.  Happiness is, I think…happiness is being in the moment, and not being…not living in anticipation, and not living in recollection, but being in…in the moment.  Which is, you know…sounds very simple, but the actual practice of it can become incredibly complicated.  And I don’t think anyone really achieves it…achieves it with any constancy.

Section 2.7 :: Writing

(image of an old, Royal typewriter, the kind on which Gibson reportedly wrote NEUROMANCER, banging out the words as Gibson speaks them)

WG:  When I first started trying to write, I remember going to a…going to a professor of mine and saying, “How do people do this?  How do people ever do this?  I don’t understand…how do fiction writers do this?”  And he looked at me.  He looked at me a while and then he said, “They have rich inner lives, I think.”  It was extremely painful.  It was extremely strange and…and painful.  And, I, in retrospect, I don’t really understand why I persisted.  I took it very seriously, and went away and started thinking about what sort of “rich inner life” one would have to have.  I felt that I had no native…no native talent for it.  It came so…it came so hard to me, and yet I wanted, you know, I desperately wanted to be a writer, and to be able to be a writer of fiction.

TV:  But why did you want to be a writer?

WG:  (exasperated) I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  It was just, you know, it was there.  I had been…I had been a reader all my life, you know?  And if…if you could make a living being a reader, like, being a really good reader, I’d be, like, you know, really comfortably off from being a reader, and I wouldn’t have had to become a writer…something like that.  Like many people who had been lifetime readers, I had aspired to…to be a writer.  But I don’t know why.

What I found I had to do, to start to write fiction, was to rediscover the mechanism of “daydreaming-as-play,” that I had had as a child.  And there aren’t too many activities that resemble writing fiction.  I think a child’s daydreams, or someone’s masturbation fantasies, might be…might be the closest, you know, in terms of using actual parts of the…parts of the brain.  Those are similar…similar models.  I think the process of…of, uh, fantasies of anxiety, probably, are a similar…similar thing.  Imagining yourself having a very hard time, and getting into a great detail in order to make it more convincing and increase your anxiety.  That probably uses a…uses some similar…takes up some similar territory in the brain.

I initially started…started by trying to write little “units” – “units” of fiction.  And I remember, you know, labouring for months on end on an opening sentence, and being very frustrated with it, and finally getting something: this very long and over-elaborated sentence, which went nowhere.  It was something like…something like…

(the screen goes black, leaving only a series of movements between black screen and the emerging white text of the phrase, superimposed on, and interspersed with, the “targeted numerals” of the Academy standard leader tape, changing, animated typefaces, and various font variations of the phrase)

Seated each afternoon in the darkened screening
room, Halliday came to recognise the targetted
numerals of the Academy leader as sigils
preceding the dream state of film.

And I actually worked on that so long, that I could still remember it, remember it twenty-some years later.  And it went nowhere at all.   I mean, that was simply it.  It was like one of those Ballardian paragraph-stories.  And it was very consciously Ballardian.  It was like a little, little pastiche of J.G. Ballard.  But it went nowhere, and I remember wondering about that.  Like, how did one introduce movement?  

And I just kept…kept going…kept going back to, you know, kept going back to the…that activity, and trying different things.  Until, finally, it started, it started to move a little bit.  What I did with movement…because…I became so frustrated with my inability to physically move the characters through the imaginary narrative space, that I actually developed an early form, in my fiction, a sort of early form of imaginary VR technology.  That served to, you know…that sort of covered my ass, in terms of not being able to move the characters, ‘cos they could simply “change channels.”  And it was some sort of recorded-memory technology.  And all they had to do was switch tapes, and they’d be in a different…they’d be in a different place.  And I was spared the embarrassment of demonstrating that I didn’t know how to get them up and down stairs, in and out of vehicles at that point.  So, in a way, that sort of invention began…began out of necessity and inexperience.  But it opened up an interesting territory.

Section 2.8 :: Cyberspace

I’d gotten to a point…I’d gotten to a point in my early fiction – and, you know, we’re really talking, like, two or three attempted short stories – and I’d gotten…I’d gotten to a point where I needed a “buzzword.”  I needed to replace the “rocketship” and the “holodeck” with something else that would be a…a signifier of technological change, and that would provide me with…with a narrative engine, and a territory in which the narrative could take place.  And I didn’t realize…I don’t think I realized that…quite what a tall order that was.  And in the way that people sometimes do, I solved the problem in a very offhand…in a very offhand way.  All I really knew about the word cyberspace when I coined it was that it was…it seemed like an effective buzzword.  It was evocative and essentially meaningless.  It was very suggestive of…it was suggestive, of something, but it had, like, no, you know (pauses) no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.

(Gibson raises his eyebrows in a sort of befuddled-genius-cum-sage-magician expression, a kind of innocent amusement)

TV:  But it’s not just the word, it’s the idea of a virtual reality inside a computer network.  Where did that come from?

WG:  (suddenly as if from the inside of some video-world) My input for doing that was, uh, my experience of the very first SONY Walkman® as a really intimate interface device that I could carry around.  My observation of the body language of kids playing those early, plywood-sided arcade games…like, I saw the kids playing those games and I knew that they wanted to reach right through the screen and get with what they were playing with there.  And I thought, “Well, if there’s space behind the screen, and everybody’s got these things at some level, maybe only metaphorically, those spaces are all the same space.”  And as soon as I thought that…I, you know…I had it.

(in a nanosecond, images culminate in a dizzyingly edited paroxysm:  Gibson on a black-and-white screen, warping and undulating in and out of scale, interspersed with his mouth proclaiming the coinage in hyperzoom, with a spectral explosion of pixels, more intense tight shots of kids ardently battling Galaga or Ms. PacMan, ancient, bitmapped video forms, game scores and synthesized audio all pulsate in unison, while Gibson, half-frozen in slow-motion, looms like a monochrome icon of a future-bygone era)

It’s interesting that it’s become common parlance.  I had no idea.  I had not idea that that would…that would happen.  It’s a…it’s a…it’s a strange…it’s a strange thing for me.  I mean, I see it…I see it in every newspaper that I open.  It’s become…it’s become part of the language.  Which is very, which is very nice…but I simply marvel that that’s…that’s happened.  ‘Cos I had no idea.  I had no idea that no one else would do it.  It’s…it’s a very singular and peculiar thing. (grins)

Cyberspace, one day, might be the last usage of the prefix, “cyber,” because “cyber” is, I think, “cyber” is going to go the way of “electro.”  We don’t use the prefix…we don’t use the prefix “electro” in…in pop-cultural parlance much anymore.  Electricity being…it being taken for granted that most things are electrical.  And I think that, at this point, it could be most…taken for granted that most things are computerized.

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