Interview with William Gibson

SF Locus William Gibson was born in South Carolina, grew up in Virginia, and settled in Vancouver in 1972. His first story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose”, was published in 1977 in Unearth.

Gibson’s early “cyberpunk” stories “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), “New Rose Hotel” (1981), and “Burning Chrome” (1982) prefigured his groundbreaking first novel Neuromancer (1984), winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Seiun, and Ditmar awards. It became the definitive work of the cyberpunk subgenre, with which Gibson has been identified ever since, and was followed by Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). 

Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote Nebula finalist The Difference Engine (1990), which defined the steampunk subgenre. His next novels — Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999) — formed a loosely connected near-future trilogy. With Pattern Recognition (2003) he began writing about the present and the near-past, looking at the contemporary world through a SFnal sensibility. His latest book Spook Country (2007) is loosely connected to Pattern Recognition.

Excerpts from Interview: (you can read the whole interview by buying November issue of Locus Magazine)

“One of the things I like about doing book tours is that I get to find out what I’ve been writing about — after a week or so, themes start to emerge. So far the interviewers have been focusing on ‘Is Spook Country science fiction?’ and do I think the present is scary?

“I was really pleased when reviewer John Clute said Spook Country was my first comic novel. It’s satirical, and some of its satirical energy comes from playing with genre forms. In some ways it borders on being a parody of a thriller, though I don’t do irony very well. I’ll be trying to do a parody of a thriller, and the gears will slip and I’ll end up doing it straight — people are being very athletic and things are blowing up.

“The novel revolves around a group of characters searching for a mysterious shipping container. One of the things I’ve found myself talking about a lot is that I didn’t know what was in the container until I was several hundred pages into the manuscript. That had me scared to death, because none of the things I’d imagined might be in the container were working for me at all. (I’d originally planned a whole subplot about it, one that went in a completely different direction.) Things like that haunt me, because I don’t get many ideas. I’ve always felt doing book proposals was the least honest part of my process. I go in and say, ‘It’s gonna be like this,’ and I’m always amazed that any of the characters or anything I’ve mentioned make it into the book because of the way I work. I’m not conscious about what I’m doing — I’m just doing it.

*

“I never plan things. I start writing them, and it’s like a magician forces a card on me: ‘Pick a card!’ I couldn’t start if I knew what I was going to do. I come to this blank page, and if I said, ‘C’mon, Mister Beginning, emerge into the narrative,’ it would never happen. Ideas seldom occur to me, but I bump into things. If something ‘sticks to the buffer’ long enough, it will work its way into a book.”

*

“The 21st century is weird, man! I got there by the slow time machine, living my way to it. In a world like this, what constitutes the mundane? None of this is very mundane anymore, because it’s all touched by this kind of multiplex weirdness. We’re here, and it’s weirder than anything I’ve ever read in science fiction, except Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. That’s the closest thing to a prediction of where we are that I can think of. Brunner found a way to have all the overlapping science fiction scenarios of a world like the world where we live in one book. (He borrowed the technique from Dos Passos, but that’s good.) But if you had gone to a publisher in 1981 and pitched a science fiction novel where there’s this disease called AIDS and there’s global warming and this list of 20 other contemporary things, they would have called security!”

*

“Having grown up in the village of science fiction, my take is that if you’re writing it now and not accounting for the arc of future history that will get you from there to here, you’re not really playing by the rules. You’re writing a kind of fantasy. Charles Stross is doing science fiction, but the most stimulating thing he’s done, the piece gave me the most sense of wonder of anything I’ve read in a long time, was his essay about how there’s never going to be any space travel or colonization of space. That hit me like ‘Wow! What if?’ I really felt something shift in me. That piece was extremely culturally provocative within science fiction, and it really impressed me.

“Years ago, Bruce Sterling said to me, ‘You know, the moon is a really harsh and ugly place and nobody’s ever gonna live there. You could probably get the technology together to live there, but I don’t think anybody will. When Columbus sailed for the New World, he wasn’t planning on living at the foot of a frozen volcano. He was going somewhere good.’ It really made me question my childhood, going back to the very beginning of my relationship with science fiction (which was pre-literary).

“It was always an article of faith for me when I was a kid that space travel was going to happen and if you couldn’t see that you were parochial. Since I grew up, I’ve met a lot of parochial people. But when I read Stross’s essay, it suddenly seemed quite believable to me that having an unexamined, underlying cultural faith in space travel might actually be extremely parochial. It might be limited to a certain point along the time frame. What if the world isn’t flat?”

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