William Gibson Interview (February 2003)

My short list of favorite authors is mostly comprised of fantasists with two notable exceptions: Henry Miller, whose writing seems to provide a portal on a world, a time, that no longer exists, and William Gibson, whose writing prompts me to ponder what kind of world will exist, given time. When I read an author, I often go into the book with a certain set of preconceptions -- I expect to laugh for hours while reading Terry Pratchett, for example. I know I'll be moved in some way while poring over a text by Neil Gaiman. If I'm reading a William Gibson novel, I expect exposure to cutting edge extrapolation of existing technology. Upon discovering that Pattern Recognition would be set not in the future, but in the summer of 2002, I wasn't sure how I would like the book itself.

I found out about Pattern Recognition initially while surfing the web aimlessly. A link on an online forum, a collective blogging site, brought me to www.williamgibsonbooks.com sometime around the begining of January. A forum there was already in full swing, and Mr. Gibson had already put up a few entries by then. I bookmarked the site, and returned every day to watch the forum develop and read the blog entries.

Then I found I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Gibson during his book tour. All misgivings suddenly overridden, I went to the book store the day of release and purchased Pattern Recognition minutes after the store opened. Within the first few pages I found myself deeply engrossed in Cayce Pollard and her footage fetish, her logo phobia, and the corporate world of last summer as seen through her eyes. Any lingering anxiety I may have had about enjoying this novel was washed away by a riveting storyline and an online world I not only recognized, but participated in myself in various forms (and forums).

By the time I had finished the novel, some twenty-six hours later, I realized that Mr. Gibson had succeeded not only in tapping the collective experiences of his fan base, but also in crafting a novel that would enthrall countless new readers. Here is a science fiction novel without the conceits, a mystery novel without cardboard characters, a techno-thriller born from a kind of online poetry. I pondered the book for a week while reading the online blog, and hoped that the "yawning of the tupperware" — as William Gibson referred to Douglas Coupland's metaphor for the novelist on book tour — wouldn't set in, that when we talked he would be as interesting to talk to as he was to read online. I wasn't disappointed.

GMR: Mr Gibson, before we get started I just want to tell you how much I've appreciated all your books.

Gibson: Well, thank you.

GMR: The most asked question in Pattern Recognition, highlighting the post-geographical nature of contemporary culture, is "Where are you?" I'm wondering that as well, Mr. Gibson. Where are you, and how's the soul-delay?

Gibson: Well, I'm in Denver so I've only got one hour of soul delay, but I think I'm like seven days into a book tour so there's like a certain physical exhaustion setting in.

GMR: The tupperware effect that you mention on your blog?

Gibson: Yeah I think it's taken a while to close, but it may pass, as all things must pass.

GMR: Here at Green Man Review, we focus on folk arts, folk lore, and folk culture. What do you believe is the role of the storytellers and mythmakers in today's wired world, and is that role different now than it was twenty years ago?

Gibson: Hmmm. That's interesting. Well, I don't know. It's an interesting question but I'd sort of have to go and look, and think about it. I'd have to go and look at the world in light of that question to give you any kind of meaningful answer. I do notice though, one thing I notice about life on the Internet is that people who write have an incredible advantage, there, and people who can tell a good story have an advantage there as well.

GMR: Now regarding Pattern Recognition, which some reviewers refer to as your most accessible work. Dick Adler of the Chicago Tribune calls Pattern Recognition "a modern fable." There is a kind of contemporary folklore in PR, with the references to Echelon, the mention of light bulbs filled with anthrax in the subways, information embedded in pictures. It certainly isn't traditional science fiction, although personally it gave me the feeling that perhaps today's science has caught up to your fiction. But how has the reaction been to this novel on your tour among your fan base?

Gibson: Well, you know to the limited extent to which I can tell it has been, it seems to have gone down fairly well. I think that some people who, you know, the compulsive repeat consumers of science fiction, who tend to buy science fiction, some of those people are absolutely hooked on the traditional conceit of science fiction, that it's somehow about the future. And that it's not about the world that the guy who wrote it lives in, which is the only world he can know, given that he can't know anything about the future. And he might not even know that world very well.

That's always been where I am writing from, I've always known that I wasn't writing about the future, that I was writing, looking at the present and transmogrifying it in some way, and exporting it through a sort of veil of faux-futurity. Where people might otherwise be too frightened to look at the present would be able to receive it as a sort of plaything and examine it from a different angle.

GMR: Going a little off topic here; as I'm reading Neuromancer for review I've noticed how much of it seemed to come out of, to be born out of the arcades of the 1980s.

Gibson: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And also as you get further into it you'll notice that the Soviet Union is still there, as are mechanical printers and modems, both of which strike me as being peculiarly archaic in that situation. But yeah, that is invariably the case. You know 1984 is always about 1948. You know a book written in 1948 has absolutely nothing to do with the actual year 1984, although it's interesting to draw parallels.

GMR: Along that same line, how do you perceive this book in terms of genre? Where would you like to see it on the library shelves, in the science fiction with your other works, or in the mainstream fiction, once it's moved off of the new release wall?

Gibson: Well, I'd like to see it both ways. (laughs) I'd like there to be the genre that I represent to be the William Gibson novel. That would be the ideal outcome for me, and they could, you know, put them on either shelf as they liked.

GMR: Did you meet any real life coolhunters while you were working on this novel?

Gibson: No but I've met a few people I've took to be that over the years, whether or not that was their job description.

GMR: One of the underlying themes of Pattern Recognition seems to be an updated shamanic quest for healing. What prompted this idea of soul-delay, of waiting for one's soul to arrive, and soul-retrieval?

Gibson: Well that's something, that soul delay idea is something that my friend and sometime colleague Bruce Sterling has said for years, and I don't know whether it's something that he made up or it's something that he picked up elsewhere. Whenever we'd be anywhere jetlagged he'd — and I'd complain about it — he'd say the soul can't travel more than 100 miles an hour. It's gonna take a couple of days for yours to get reeled in on its silver thread.

GMR: That's a great metaphor.

Gibson: Yeah, it's a great metaphor, so I happily appropriated it and started the book not really thinking that it would become a sort of motif that would run through it, but that's often the way these things work.

GMR: On the "Q & A with Gibson," hosted on your current site, you talk about the loss of psychogeographical space, and how globalization has, to some extent, eroded that spirit or essence of place away. In contrast, [in Pattern Recognition] you focus on the differences between London and New York City, and to a lesser extent Tokyo as well. How important is this idea of Genius Loci versus mass marketing and cultural homogeny to you in your writing?

Gibson: Well, I don't know, I can't tell you. It must be of some significance, because it's there and I've focused on it. I focused on it during the writing of that book, but it's not something that would, you know, I open my eyes in the morning and go, "Holy shit, we're losing psychogeographical space as I lie here."

GMR: Through the character of Hubertus Bigend, you say, "For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on." In that same passage, you go on to say that "we have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios." How much of this is your character speaking, as opposed to your own sentiments regarding the future?

Gibson: Well, I wouldn't have this smart scary guy out in front spouting that if I didn't think, if I thought it wasn't worth considering. So I think it is worth considering.

GMR: I've kind of imagined you as knowing people in the high tech cutting edge end of things in a sense, so what trends do you see on the horizon, for the future?

Gibson: I really haven't been thinking that way. I don't actually.... I probably think less about the real future than a normal person does, and somehow that's a function of having written this sort of faux-future stuff for so long that I seldom think about it. I mean I occasionally think about the world in which my children.... when I think, you know, I try to imagine the world in which my children might live and it's like a completely different experience than the experience I have of sitting down and working out a piece of fiction. So I don't know, I'm not actually a good candidate for a "next hot thing."

I don't actually know very many people. I don't have very much to do with anyone in the computer industry or like everything anyone, anybody walking around on the street who has access to a browser and fifty dollars a month to buy magazines has access to all, exactly the same material I have. Occasionally I'll -- occasionally I get lucky because a reader will turn up who has some specialized knowledge that they've been saving for me. They'll say, "You could really use this," and I'll go, "Oh, okay, thank you."

Somebody, actually, here's one. Somebody told me the other day about a technology that's already been developed, that's actually been developed in an advertising context, where you target people with this, some kind of beam, and their body becomes a speaker. So the one individual walking down the street targeted by the beam hears an audio message or a piece of music. Nobody else around him hears it. And this is presented to me as an advertising thing, but I immediately thought of the military applications.

GMR: Psychological warfare.

Gibson: Yeah, exactly! (laughs) It's diabolical. Or the sort of political applications. The premier of the enemy country is becoming increasingly frantic because he's hearing these voices. (laughs)

GMR: That's great! And lastly, are there currently any characters lurking about in your mind waiting for their stories to be told?

Gibson: No, absolutely not, they never come around that way. There's a very blank and barren period that I have to get to sort of the very beginning of it, very beginning of a book, where my job is to create some sort of symbolic framework in which a character may decide to arrive. But that arrival is very slow and piecemeal.

GMR: So you kind of go from a world-building aspect rather than a character-based aspect when you first set out to write?

Gibson: Not exactly, because the characters have to call the world into being. You know initially there's just this kind of blank, empty, absolutely empty featureless space. And into the featureless space I put things. Like physical objects, or, you know, imaginary physical objects of some sort. Some physical attribute of the character might come to me, or a locale or something. And the character starts emerging, just a little bit, enough to be interrogated.

GMR: Okay. Thank you very much for your time.

Gibson: Well, thank you.