William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211  

Posted by Big Gav in

The Paris Review has an interview with William Gibson - William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211.


What was that dissident influence? What were you trying to do?


I didn’t have a manifesto. I had some discontent. It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes.

I also wanted science fiction to be more naturalistic. There had been a poverty of description in much of it. The technology depicted was so slick and clean that it was practically invisible. What would any given SF favorite look like if we could crank up the resolution? As it was then, much of it was like video games before the invention of fractal dirt. I wanted to see dirt in the corners. ..


For a while it was often reported, erroneously, that you typed all your books on a typewriter.


I wrote Neuromancer on a manual portable typewriter and about half of Count Zero on the same machine. Then it broke, in a way that was more or less irreparable. Bruce Sterling called me shortly thereafter and said, “This changes everything!” I said, “What?” He said, “My Dad gave me his Apple II. You have to get one of these things!” I said, “Why?” He said, “Automation—it automates the process of writing!” I’ve never gone back.

But I had only been using a typewriter because I’d gotten one for free and I was poor. In 1981, most people were still writing on typewriters. There were five large businesses in Vancouver that did nothing but repair and sell typewriters. Soon there were computers, too, and it was a case of the past and the future mutually coexisting. And then the past just goes away.


For someone who so often writes about the future of technology, you seem to have a real romance for artifacts of earlier eras.


It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.

My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted. ...


Many readers have argued that the Bridge books offer a theory of technology.


More like a rubbing—like rubbing brass in a cathedral or a tombstone in a graveyard. I’m not a didactic storyteller. I don’t formulate theories about how the world works and then create stories to illustrate my theories. What I have in the end is an artifact and not a theory.

But I take it for granted that social change is driven primarily by emergent technologies, and probably always has been. No one legislates techno­logies into emergence—it actually seems to be quite a random thing. That’s a vision of technology that’s diametrically opposed to the one I received from science fiction and the popular culture of science when I was twelve years old.

In the postwar era, aside from anxiety over nuclear war, we assumed that we were steering technology. Today, we’re more likely to feel that technology is driving us, driving change, and that it’s out of control. Technology was previously seen as linear and progressive—evolutionary in that way our culture has always preferred to misunderstand Darwin.


You don’t see technology evolving that way?


What I mainly see is the distribution of it. The poorer you are, the poorer your culture is, the less cutting-edge technology you’re liable to encounter, aside from the Internet, the stuff you can access on your cell phone.

In that way, I think we’re past the computer age. You can be living in a third-world village with no sewage, but if you’ve got the right apps then you can actually have some kind of participation in a world that otherwise looks like a distant Star Trek future where people have plenty of everything. And from the point of view of the guy in the village, information is getting beamed in from a world where people don’t have to earn a living. They certainly don’t have to do the stuff he has to do everyday to make sure he’s got enough food to be alive in three days.

On that side of things, Americans might be forgiven for thinking the pace of change has slowed, in part because the United States government hasn’t been able to do heroic nonmilitary infrastructure for quite a while. Before and after World War II there was a huge amount of infrastructure building in the United States that gave us the spiritual shape of the American century. Rural electrification, the highway system, the freeways of Los Angeles—those were some of the biggest things anybody had ever built in the world at the time, but the United States really has fallen far behind with that. ...


Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?


No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it’s barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.


What are those major plot drivers?


Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.


And you haven’t even gotten to the technology.


You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.


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