Interview: Back to the future with science-fiction legend William Gibson | Arts

Interview: Back to the future with science-fiction legend William Gibson


  • photo by Michael O'Shea
  • William Gibson
Regulator Presents: William Gibson
Motorco Music Hall
Friday, Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m.
$30 (admits two people and includes copy of book)

William Gibson’s name will forever be linked to cyberpunk, the branch of science-fiction of which he was one of the prime architects. In his seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer, Gibson foresaw life in cyberspace with uncanny accuracy and no small amount of trepidation. He began as a sci-fi writer with literary leanings, but has grown over the decades into a fine literary writer who takes technology and speculative futures as his great themes.

Following a trilogy of novels atypically set in the present, Gibson returns to his futuristic stomping grounds in new novel The Peripheral, which he’ll read from at Motorco on Friday. The book is set in two futures, one in rural Appalachia and the other in a desolated London, which are divided by “The Jackpot,” an apocalyptic cataclysm of military, environmental and disease-based catastrophes.

The INDY spoke with Gibson by phone to learn why he chose to go back to the future now, what he thinks of the new wave of virtual reality tech and how close we actually are to hitting the Jackpot.

INDY: The Blue Ant trilogy was set in the present and dealt with media and marketing. What drew you to those topics at that time?

WILLIAM GIBSON: Those three books were an experiment in using the tool kit I have assembled writing fiction set in imaginary futures. From doing that, I had become convinced that those were actually the most natural tools for attempting literary naturalism in our era. I wanted to try using all of them except the pretense of writing about a future. I thought of them as speculative novels of the very recent past, the year in which they were actually written. I know from glancing through Amazon reviews and whatnot that there’s a certain sector of my readership who never even noticed they were set in the present. [Laughs]

It seemed like there was such an incredible proliferation of technology at that time that the present felt like the future. I wonder if you felt the need to catch up with the contemporary before looking ahead again.

Yeah, my other motive was to recalibrate my yardstick of contemporary weirdness. I think it worked, but the only way to test that was to write something like The Peripheral and see the result. I wanted to test the sense of the strangeness of the present that I had acquired via writing those past three books. Prior to writing those, in a way, I think I was working with a sort of ’80s yardstick. By the time I wrote my sixth novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, the view out the window was as strange as the near-future I was describing in the book. They were essentially made of the same stuff, given that imaginary futures can only be made out of the stuff of the moment in which they’re written, because there’s no genuine access to the real future.

Does The Peripheral begin a new trilogy or will it stand alone?

I hope that it’s going to be a standalone. Of course, I had hoped that for both Virtual Light and Pattern Recognition. But this one is different because it involves a sort of multiverse concept, which has such truly dire potential for genre cheese that I dread the possibility of producing a sequel that would retroactively cheapen the first book. We called them "novels" originally because they were supposed to be novel. I’d rather try something completely different again. 

Haptic technology and virtual reality are hot topics right now thanks to their new consumer applications, and these play a big part in the book—what do you think of this tech’s potential in real life; is it exciting or dangerous or what?

It’s all of the above. It’s ethically and morally neutral until human begins get ahold of it and figure out what they’re actually going to do with it, which is something the developers and manufacturers neither know nor have any control over. The thing that fascinates me about the renewed interest in glove-and-goggles-style VR is seeing it on the front page of every Sunday supplement in the '90s, and then have it not happen. Now, it's happening.   

I was given a demo by someone from Oculus Rift a couple of months ago, and I said,"Why couldn’t they do this before?" [In the '90s], I tried it in a lab in California and each of the pixels was approximately the size of my head, and it was incredibly slow and laggy. And he said, "Oh, this is just repurposed smartphone technology." In the '90s, they didn’t have the industry set up to manufacture the little screens you’re looking at. Now there's a cardboard kit you can buy that will turn your iPhone into a VR headset, and it actually works very well. You just fold up this thing, stick your iPhone in and turn it on.

I’m much more impressed by humanity’s ability to completely block out the entire world looking at a flat screen with a good first-person shooter. That was something that the initial VR guys missed entirely.

Did you find the multiple timelines in The Peripheral difficult to navigate and knit together? Were there any strategies you used or rules you followed to do so?

The most difficult and tedious thing was that there are two very distinct narrative voices, not just the voices of the characters but the voices in which the two threads are narrated. They bled constantly in either direction across the membrane, so that the rural colloquial American character would have a wash of Latinate language from the other side. And the decadent London person would start to sound like a redneck. [Laughs] It would happen every day and it was awful housekeeping, always having to switch between the two. It could make me momentarily tone deaf. Even when I’m doing the readings, I spot little things I didn’t catch.

Is it important to you that your characters have lives and feelings independent of the big ideas you’re exploring through them?

It’s been a gradual thing in the course of my writing that they acquired lives and families. In Neuromancer, I don’t think there’s a single person you could prove ever had parents. Nobody’s married. Well, actually, there are characters with parents, but their parents are like post-human monsters. And if there are children in those early books, they’re monstrous childlike manifestations of bat-shit AI or something.

Those were books I wrote in my mid-20s, kind of consciously channeling my own inner adolescence. I was writing a bit younger than I even was. As I’ve gotten older and written more books, they became more like human beings. This book has a young woman who’s very anxious because she’s caring for her chronically ill mother with few financial resources. Faced with something like that, the characters in Neuromancer would have fled the book. [Laughs

Your novels are known for their prescience. Are there things in The Peripheral that you really hope come true or things you really hope don’t?

Well, I would hope that we as a species would get it together and venture no further into the territory of the Jackpot. But I don’t know how likely that is—in the book, the only thing that enables it is some fairy godmother with a time machine. [Laughs] I don’t think we’re going to get that, so.

It kind of feels like the Jackpot is underway in our world right now. Do you feel that?

It occurred to me when I was working with that aspect of the book how the mythical apocalypse of our culture, all the way back to the original idea of it, has been about a uni-causal event of brief and defined duration. A nuclear war, the Triffids came, whatever. And then everything was destroyed and different. If your cultural idea of an apocalypse is a multi-causal, complexly systemic situation for which your species bears some responsibility, although we didn’t actually know what we were doing at the time, that’s completely different. I suspect that may actually be a more mature way to look at our worst possibilities now. They aren’t going to be the nuclear war, but some kind of rolling multiplex catastrophe. Even the word “catastrophe” doesn’t seem appropriate to the situation I think we’re in at this point. 

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