Science Fiction, R.I.P.
William Gibson is still 15 minutes ahead
Published November 18, 1999 in Scope

If you were on the Net in the 1980s, you were probably a William Gibson fan. His Neuromancer trilogy defined the culture of cyberspace and made technology hip. It also unintentionally spawned legions of bad B-movies that can be seen during the day on the Science Fiction Network featuring handsome leatherclad computer hackers jacking into hallucinatory computer spaces with their sunglasses on.

See also...
... by RU Sirius
... in the Scope section
... from November 18, 1999

No longer burdened by his early '90s role as cyberpunk/virtual reality's reluctant prophet, Gibson is now something of an elder statesman. As a popular novelist, along with Neal Stephenson, he's broken out of the SF ghetto. His work lacks some of the speed freek intensity of the famous cyberpunk novels, but his prose has grown denser, and more richly descriptive.

I spoke to Gibson by telephone about his new novel, All Tomorrow's Parties, the latest in a trilogy that includes Virtual Light and Idoru.

GETTINGIT: You've decided to continue to occupy the world that you created in Virtual Light and Idoru. Did you know that you were going to do that when you finished the last book?

WILLIAM GIBSON: I had a hunch. Idoru and Virtual Light seemed to me to have more than the usual number of dangling mystery cables. In order to close the circuit there seemed to be some nodding distance that needed to be filled in. Honestly, it's a quite non-rational process for the most part. But it became apparent to me that it had to go that way.

GI: You had one other trilogy. You seem to occupy these worlds for a fairly long time. Is there some observation you have about writers who tend to do that as opposed to writers who tend to just go from one novel to the next? Is there an obsessiveness or ...

WG: It's kind of awkward. That puts me on the spot because I've always applauded people who decry this sort of strip-mining. But, you know, in my own defense, I think I do something different. For one thing, the books can be read in any order. I don't see them as a sequential section to the narrative. So this one will maybe change your take on the previous one. I sort of like that... twisting your kaleidoscope. There are a number of ways that the thing can fall into place depending on the order that you access its units.

GI: This seems to me to be your most mystical book since Count Zero; particularly in the person of Laney, the central character laying there in a box on some kind of permanently mind-altering drug using complexity theory or whatever to track nodal points. I take it you're familiar with Terence McKenna's notion that you can plot the ingression of novelty through time, and the fact that he created software around that.

WG: No. But at the same time, it doesn't surprise me. It's kind of encouraging to hear that. I think that the character, Laney, is doing this in a fairly unconscious way. Laney is as close as I can come to creating a prescient character. Laney knows that he can't predict what will happen. He is only able to point to places where, for some reason, change is emerging.

GI: Laney knows a nodal point... some change... occurred in 1910, and then there's a point coming up. It's a little bit hard to tell if you're referring to a historical change or whether you're actually referring to Vernor Vinge's science fictional notion of the singularity -- this point beyond history in which it becomes really hard to talk about what human beings are or what they might be doing.

WG: I think what I'm doing there is calling the species-wide concept of history into question. And it's sort of like the butterfly in the butterfly effect.

GI: Right. Rather than some really obvious historical event being the point where a big change occurs, it can be some small thing that nobody really notices.

WG: Yeah, there's no historical logic to why this event changed everything, but Laney can see that it did. I think that in the end of the novel when the naked Japanese girl steps out of fax machines in every 7-Eleven on the planet -- the world ends right then. That's it. The singularity has happened. But the characters get up and make love and have breakfast and look for jobs. So yeah, nobody notices.

GI: How seriously do you take the idea of the singularity? Vinge obviously takes it very seriously and writes about it as nonfiction as well.

WG: In the first place, although I know Vinge, I got it through Stewart Brand... I take it as seriously as I take stuff like that. [Laughing] I don't, like, wake up sweating in the middle of the night anticipating it. It's probably most important to me in the way that it suggests that science fiction has reached a point in time that -- because of historical circumstances -- it's over. Science fiction as we knew it is over because we're probably approaching a point beyond which understanding what might happen -- let alone predicting it -- is over.

Somehow I wound up talking to this guy from a pro-space Web site yesterday and he was desperate to get me to back down on my "I'm not interested in space travel" position. I said, "You know, with virtual reality and evolved telepresence you can stay in Santa Monica and go to Mars or anywhere. And then you can go out to a bar, and then go back to Mars. Why send people?" And he said, "Wouldn't it be because you just want to go?" And I said, "It's so expensive." And then I thought, if Drexler's right about nanotechnology, the whole concept of wealth will instantly become obsolete. People might well go anywhere just on a whim because, in effect, it wouldn't cost anything.

GI: Yeah, that's sort of the upbeat idea of nanotech. Drexler actually talks specifically about how to build vehicles to go into space in Engines of Creation. In Count Zero you had that sort of dilapidated Rasta space colony. That was fun.

WG: It was fun. My notion of space in my early fiction was sort of consciously thumbing my nose at the whole advance into the bright future. So I also had, like, a groovy sort of pop slum like Las Vegas with a bunch of twisted Howard Hughes-like characters living out there so they wouldn't get germs on them.

GI: This book punctures the bohemian notion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone of the bridge people, which was romanticized in the previous books. Now it's become a trendy thing, and there are tourists, and everybody involved has become a small independent entrepreneur. That's so dead on.

WG: Yeah, I have a didactic passage within the book about the possibility of there being no more Bohemias. And that's an idea that I got from Bruce Sterling. I'm interested in that because, in my own lifetime I've seen commodification become so virulent and lightning fast. Any kind of street-generated cool will be mass-produced by the entertainment factory within days and sold back to the next bunch of young consumers. But maybe we don't need it anymore, since we're no longer industrial. Maybe everyone, to some extent, is a Bohemian these days. What I thought of as straight people when I was twenty years old are kind of an endangered species.

GI: Right. Time magazine actually had a cover in '96 or '97 that said "Everybody's Hip." But of course, they can be hip and they can be racist, conformist, unimaginative... whatever. So what does that mean anymore?

WG: I think the stylish dichotomies of our youth have become uprooted and confused [laughs].

GI: Speaking of which, do people still ask you about cyberpunk?

WG: To my really sincere gratitude, it's scarcely been heard on the tour. And that doesn't have anything to do with anything I've done. I've just found that delightful because I thought it would never go away. I've come to the conclusion that what's happening there is that several years ago, you could raise very considerable hackles by stepping out and saying, "I'm a criminally-minded bohemian with a computer." But now that actually has about as much effect as stepping out and saying, "I'm a criminally-minded bohemian with a washing machine."

In the early '90s, R.U. Sirius was a fake media cyberpunk who couldn't hack his way out of a black leather paper bag.