|Summer 2007 Volume 6 Number 2|
|Free at all the colleges in Upstate New York|
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William Gibson: Sci-Fi Icon
By T. Virgil Parker
Science Fiction writers are expected to give the envelope a little nudge. Usually this means dreaming up a new gizmo and running it through an adventure plot. Once in a while though, someone comes along with a whole new envelope, and William Gibson's envelope is bursting at the seams; bursting out of Sci-Fi, at present.
Gibson pretty much invented the genre of Cyberpunk and scooped up every available award with his first novel, Neuromancer . Then he painstaking developed his storytelling power, firing out a hefty number of novels that are still picked over vigorously in chat rooms and message boards. He carved out tools that, when turned at the present day, deftly expose the surrealism we have no choice but to call reality.
Gibson's elaborate vision of the internet- before it existed- and Reality TV- before it existed- has led many to call his work prophetic. Now that his fiction is set squarely in ‘this' world, the results are downright scary. His first effort to bring his Sci-Fi prowess to the present day, Pattern Recognition, was hailed as one of the first significant novels of the 21st Century, and earned him a cozy place on the New York Times Best Seller List.
Spook Country, to be released in August, builds upon the sinister post 9/11 atmosphere of Pattern Recognition . Spook Country partakes of the cloak-and-dagger stuff that is in all likelihood pervasive these days. The story of a smuggler, a former Rock Star, and two rival intelligence groups could easily have veered into the realm of Cheap Spy Novel were it not woven with the postmodern irony that may turn out to be the only sane perspective left to us. The secret cargo from Iraq on which the plot hinges is not the only mystery in this book. The biggest mystery is how this story manages to resonate with the our most menacing headlines without losing the archetypal power and playfulness that William Gibson seems to summon at will.
T. Virgil Parker: Your early Sci-Fi commented obliquely on contemporary issues, but it gave you a very unique set of strategies that you're using to explicate the present.
William Gibson: Well, I don't actually think they're unique because I acquired them through the course of working in the genre of science-fiction, but I also acquired a conviction that what they're actually good for, maybe the only thing that they're really good for, is trying to get a handle on our sort of increasingly confused and confusing present.
TVP: Do you think that from your perspective, reality caught up to science fiction in certain ways? Just by creating so surreal a contemporary landscape that it parallels Sci-Fi?
WG: Well, in a sense, although I think when I started, one of the assumptions that I had was that science fiction is necessarily always about the day in which it was written. And that was my conviction from having read a lot of old science fiction. 19th century science fiction obviously expresses all of the concerns and the neuroses of the 19th century and science fiction from the 1940's is the 1940's. George Orwell's 1984 is really 1948, the year in which he wrote it. It can't be about the future. It's about where the person who wrote it thought their present was, because you can't envision a future without having some sort of conviction, whether you express it or not in the text, about where your present is.
I also started with the assumption that all fiction is speculative. That all fiction is an attempt to make a model of reality and any model of reality is necessarily speculative because it's generated by an individual writer. It can't be absolute. Fiction is never reality. I know I had those ideas to handle when I started writing because I was an English major and I was studying things like Comparative Literary Criticism. I came into it with a kind of mild, post-modern spin, and I think I was a little more self-conscious about what I was doing than someone who would have started writing science fiction forty years before. I think that as I've gone along, somehow that's all geared up with the result that I now find myself writing speculative fiction about last February, rather than the middle of the coming century.
There's a character in my previous novel, Pattern Recognition , who argues that we can't culturally have futures the way that we used to have futures because we don't have a present in the sense that we used to have a present. Things are moving too quickly for us to have a present to stand on from which we can say, "oh, the future, it's over there and it looks like this."
TVP: The present is contingent upon a kind of objectivity that no longer exists.
WG: Yeah, exactly.
TVP: But having said that, isn't it a bit uncanny that all of the dystopian texts of science-fiction appear to be aiming at the present that we're experiencing right now?
WG: Well, I would find that spookier if I had been believing all along that those sort of dystopian themes in science fiction were about some sort of vision of the future. I think they were actually like being perceived in the past when that stuff was being written. 1984 is a powerful book precisely because Orwell didn't have to make a lot of shit up. He had Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin as models for what he was doing. He only had to dress it up a little bit, sort of pile it up in a certain way to say, "this is the future." But the reason it's powerful is that it resonates of history. It doesn't resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history. And the power with which it resonates is directly contingent on the sort of point-for-point mimesis, like sort of point-for-point realism, in terms of what we know happened.
TVP: With that in mind, is it harder for you to write about the present, as the present?
WG: Yeah, it actually is. There are ways in which I find it a lot more demanding. It makes it harder to make shit up. If I get to something like what in Hollywood they call a "story point," something that's not working, like a plot point that's not working for me. When I was writing a novel like Count Zero I would just invent some other level of imaginary technology or invent some part of the back story of my future history that would account for me having a way to scoot past that bit of illogic in the story. I hope I didn't do that too much when I was doing that, but it's just something you can do when you're writing about an imaginary future. When you're writing about a present, whether it's imaginary or not, and there's some major imaginary elements in Spook Country , the rules are different. It isn't the same. I have to come up with something that allows me to suspend my disbelief in my fantastic narrative and which I hope will allow the reader to suspend their disbelief. So actually, it is more work. It requires a different sort of examination of my own sense of the world outside myself.
TVP: Does working through a female protagonist help provide that kind of distance?
WG: I don't know why I do that except that they're better company for me. In the months that it takes me, I have to live with these characters for really a long time in considerable depth. I find it's really a lot more pleasant for me if at least half of them are female. I don't know why that is, but I certainly found it fairly odd. It probably had something to do with some sort of unexamined model I have of what constitutes humanity. Come to think of it, some of it might be that traditionally, the science fiction I grew up with, a lot of which had been written in the 1940's and before, was arguably very much a male universe. And a lot of people assumed science fiction to be a fundamentally male genre.
TVP: That's still largely the case, isn't it?
WG: Well, I'm not sure, actually. Someone made a very convincing argument to me last year that Science Fiction today has become a young adult sub-genre, and as such is marketed to some extent to girls, in a way that it wasn't previously. I probably shouldn't comment on that so much because I read so little genre SF at this point that I don't really know what's going on. When I started writing science fiction, the most radical thing that was going on was Feminist SF, and a lot of which seemed to be coming out of the Pacific Northwest , which is close to where I live and where I lived when I started writing. So that got my attention just because it was a sort radical faction within what I saw as a kind of dead-ended genre. I think like my golden age of science fiction was when I was about fifteen-years-old and the British wave was going on. There was a lot of sort of radical SF happening. When I came back to it in my twenties after having ignored it for years, I was shocked at how orthodox and dull it had become. When I started writing science fiction, what I had in mind was to go counter to that. People like, you know, Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ had an effect on me because they were kicking ass, you know? They were doing something really radical with science fiction and that may have something to do with my having started out. I might have assumed at the beginning that I couldn't write SF and be hip if I didn't have convincing female characters.
TVP: Something unusual in science fiction, your work has always been character-driven.
WG: Yeah, well, it has. I wish I had figured some of this stuff like ten years ago. I could still remember what my original motivations were with stuff. I've been doing it so long that it's just second nature. But I know that when I started writing science fiction, in the last two years of a BA and English Literature at UBC, I had acquired ideas about what novels could do. And of course in getting that degree I had to read a lot of stuff. I had to read fiction more widely than I would have done otherwise, so when I came to writing science fiction I had some ideas that I know I never would have acquired within the culture of writing SF. Like E. M. Forester's idea that if you're in control of what you're characters are doing then you're not really doing your job. And I think that I started with idea that the character-driven thing had to be major and that this would necessarily decrease my control over the material. Since it seemed in my reading of a lot of SF that it's had this kind of creepily didactic function where someone was saying, "I've worked all this out in my head, and the world is like this. Look, I've created a model world which proves my idea of how the world works." And I just thought that that was like worse than useless. It certainly was for me, it certainly wasn't I wanted to read.
TVP: The freaky thing about what you're doing now, to me, is that you're using metaphors that help to reveal things that are going on now. We kind of live in an era where people should be hysterical, but aren't.
TVP: And I think it's because they're not imagining what is going on. I think they're just getting bits of data.
WG: Yeah, I know what you mean, I think that we have a way of living in the past, I think that our sense of reality, at any given time, particularly in the modern era, lags behind our sense of what's really going on. I think that we need that in order to function, in order to be comfortable in our own skin. I doubt that need even existed before, although it may well have been. The fourteenth century was not an easy time, either. Humanity has gone through some very strange, strange periods and I think that we're going through a very strange one now. A decade ago I was saying that we live sort of back from the moment, we live well back from the windshield of the present moment as it's encountering the wind of the future. I said then that occasionally you would turn on the television and have what my friend Bruce Sterling called a "CNN moment," and in that moment we would be really in the present moment. And it would be like the Frederick Jamison experience, you know? Simultaneously we would be like over the moon about it and scared shitless and experiencing extreme vertigo, but then we would snap back into that position that we always have. After 9/11 I'm not sure if we have that anymore. For me, 9/11 sort of blew that particular metaphor of mind out of the water. But that may be because it literally changed something. I don't know now what would constitute a "CNN moment." I seems like a dated term.
TVP: That's because every moment is a CNN moment?.
WG: Now, what constitutes a "YouTube moment." You know, something has changed.
TVP: I have a feeling that your sense of social responsibility is leading you to pick up certain themes.
WG: I don't know. In a way I hope not. I don't believe that didactic writing can be really good. If I'm figuring out what I think is going on the world, and creating a fiction to illustrate that, I don't feel like really doing what I'm supposed to be doing. When I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, I feel like I'm sort of inviting those characters in for a cup of coffee. And if I surrendered control over the process sufficiently, I won't know what will be there until the narrative closes. And then it will take me a while to figure it out. So when, in Spook Country , for instance, I was in that narrative for a long time. Months and months, with no idea what was in the box. I had no idea. I was hundreds of pages into it and had no idea what was in that container. Or rather, I had like a dozen different ideas of what was in the container. I had to let the narrative inform me of what it was. It's a very uncomfortable way of working, but it's the only way I know to write a book. In the beginning all I had was that scene that became the second chapter with Tito and the old man and I didn't really know anything about them and I just kind of stuck with that for months. Then I got some early version of the Hollis stuff and somehow it built a bridge between the two things and this narrative started to emerge. That sense of "this is how things are" that I think you're talking about is secondary. It may be there, but it's secondary to the process of pulling that narrative out and finding where it's going. Like if I know where it's going, it's dead for me. I can't do it.
TVP: I think one of the reasons that you have so much immediacy is because of that. You're cliffhanging at the same time that reader is cliffhanging.
WG: Yeah, yeah I guess I am. And if I'm not it just sort of dies for me. And sometimes I catch myself writing the novel and when I do that, I have to destroy all of that material. I have to erase the part that I wrote. I mean when the guy who goes to the 7/11 to buy a jug of milk is written in the novel, it's not a good novel. It's just not satisfactory. Whatever part of me can write a novel, I don't have conscious access to. And I ideally don't have any control over it. The stress of doing it for me is trying to force myself to get out of the way of the novel writing guy who refuses to talk me, and who I can't count on to turn up, and who I can't count on to pay the rent, although God bless him, he has now for a long time, but like, I'm never sure that he's going to turn up and I never trust what he's doing. One of the things that I found really quite satisfying about Spook Country is that I have less faith in what the novel-writing guy was doing than I ever had and somehow, because of that, I'm more satisfied with the result. I wouldn't just get on with it, even though it scared me to death, because I didn't understand where it was going.
TVP: So that's organicity.
WG: Yeah, you're right, but it doesn't come naturally to me. It generates a lot of anxiety.
TVP: That's the truth of all the trite things that were being said about Zen in the 70's.
WG: Yeah, probably, it probably is, I just wish there was some easier way to get to it for me but there doesn't seem to be.
TVP: I always get the sense that music is as much of an inspiration to your writing as other writing is.
WG: I think it used to be. I don't think it is in the same way. I know I'm not absorbing as much contemporary music as I did when I was younger. I've got like a lifetime of processing everything I can remember about everybody I've ever known who was a professional musician. In Spook Country it's more about music business and the culture of the music business than the music that us guys were listening to or the music, you know the people they mention. I have no idea what Hollis' band would have sounded like but at some point I had it worked out in my head what labels they would have been on, and that was what mattered to me rather than what they sounded like. I haven't got a clue about that part of it. It just never gelled for me and I think that's something that's different. If I'd been trying to do something like that twenty years ago, I would have had some idea about what they sounded like. This time I had some idea of what the packaging would have been like on their recordings but not what the music was.
TVP: I get the sense that some of your chapters start with a power chord and end with a kick drum.
WG: I'm astonishingly non-musical for someone who really enjoys listening to music.
There were people who argued in the 60's that the way the individual song was the paradigm of rock or pop, the short story was the paradigmatic form of science fiction. I don't know whether I actually believe that but it was somewhere in the back of my mind. I became a writer who was not much interested in writing short fiction. There's another way in which any one of those chapters, and treat it the same as a story. The chapters become sort of the units, movements or something, of the piece.
TVP: Yeah, in your earlier work, almost in the sense of a montage.
WG: I was always interested in how some novels didn't use montage. Chapter closes, chapter starts, but there was an interesting thing that you could do that joined things, where you choose to join the chapters. I think that was one of the things that led to that whole cyberspace stuff in my early fiction, in that it allowed me to do all this cinematic editing and I could do the equivalent without being William Burroughs arty. The imaginary cyberspace depicted in the narrative let me do things like the equivalent of splicing two pieces of unrelated film. I could change characters in mid-sentence doing that and I think I actually came to the technology more out of the desire to be able to do that than any interest in where virtual reality was going.
TVP: So much of your work is cinematic that I've always been astounded that more of it doesn't end up in film.
WG: I've come to the conclusion that it actually makes it harder, paradoxically. It makes it harder to film because so much of it is about cinema. It may be that any fiction that's too informed by cinema, isn't going to make good cinema. You think it's cinematic because it gives you a cinematic experience in your head , but when a director or screenwriter sits down with it, they're like, "there's not much for us here, really.”
TVP: The whole thing would be CGI.
WG: Yeah, and you know, maybe that's what it needs. Maybe I just have weird film karma, which is possible. Some novelists do.
TVP: I think you've used metaphysics at times in the same way that you use cyberspace as a medium to explore narrative.
WG: At some point it become apparent to me that if I became too carried away with ideas of technological novelty, all I needed to do was look at the history of metaphysics to sort of get that back into perspective. I think that's sort of another semi-conscious technique of mine. Like if I get too wrapped up in virtual reality I sort of go to, like, "what would the 14 th century have made of this?" Would it have wowed them the way it wows us? And often the answer is no. They had their own stuff going on.
TVP: You don't see people really embrace as much as they do adapt .
WG: Yeah, most people just adapt.
TVP: Celebrity is essential to a lot your novels. Where do you think that comes from?
WG: It comes from a sense of that being so much of what we do , or so much what we did . I think we've gone into another stage of that in the last ten or fifteen years. Back in the early 80's when I started writing, one of the things I noticed was that we were making increasingly less of the tennis shoes and automobiles. But what we were really doing was outsourcing the manufacturing of that stuff. What we really were doing was making celebrities. And that was like "the biz," it was what this culture could do.
TVP: In a way that's happening on a whole different level now. I mean almost self-generated.
WG: Yeah, well, I'm not sure where it is now. I sort of suggested, in Virtual Light , there's that show "Cops in Trouble," which was, when Virtual Light was published, quite funny. It wouldn't be the same for like fifteen-year-olds reading that, they would just go "okay." It's like kind of beyond, the irony has evaporated. It doesn't have the kick it had when the book was published because we've gone so much further than that. I mean the evil celebrity-destroying show Slitscan in Virtual Light just seems like, you know, it's all here now.
TVP: Yeah, and I think these shows are somehow less insidious now when they're obviously evil.
WG: Yeah, absolutely. Whenever anything is obviously evil in that way, these days it's got to have quote marks around it anyway. It's like, ‘the glamour.' I always remember Hannah Arendt's idea of the inherent bogusness of the glamour of evil. She said that evil is always like "the now." We just don't want to see it that way, but she argued that was like the adult view and I think she was probably right. It's not glamorous. And so the real world version of the science fiction conceit of Slitscan is just kind of the tone of a lot of our media now. There's no evil genius behind it.
TVP: Right. That's why, I think, without realizing it, I think when you import something into fiction it's easier to understand than when it glares at you from the front page.
WG: It's easier to get a handle on. It's possible to use fiction in a way that lets people directly access the thought without being threatened by it. You turn it into a sort of fun house.