On his way for promoting the European issues of Spook Country, his ninth novel, William Gibson was in Paris. We met him in a nice hotel in the Quartier Latin. The Pope of Cyberpunk is about turning 60, and tell us ready to deliver a "full service interview". Good news, we were ready to record it.
This interview was conducted by myself and our friend Raoul Abdaloff from the radio show Salle 101. You’ll be able to hear the full podcast on their website.
ActuSF : Canada is about to adopt one of the most repressive legislation about copyright. What are you feelings about it ?
William Gibson : It’s a terrible and apalling law. I’m very unhappy they’re doing that. It’s a not a law that seems to me to be characteristic of my sense of what Canada has being about. I suspect what happened is that one lawmaker is being hooked up with big music and film interests in the United States. And somehow, the country hasn’t even notice. I’ve seen more about it on Boing Boing than I’ve seen in the Canadian Press.
Raoul Abdaloff : Getting to the point, when reading Spook Country, you only describe our everyday life (it’s settled in 2006), but you focus mainly on Hi Tech elements that are possible, or that already exists. Despite of this, we’ve got the sensation of reading a pure science fiction novel. Which is, for me, kind of a magic trick. How do you do that ?
William Gibson : Well, it’s very easy because the magic trick had already been done. The trick had being played on all of us. If the book has a point to make where we are now with cyberspace, is that cyberspace has colonized our everyday life and continues to colonize everyday life. It’s no longer "the other place". When I began to write, cyberspace was "the other place". But now, we’re in cyberspace, in some sense, all the time, and the other place is the lack of connectivity. The other place is the place where there’s no WiFi or where the cellphone doesn’t work.
ActuSF : With SC and PR, are trying to write the chronicles of your civilization on the way to Cyberpunk era ?
William Gibson : We could (laughs). They could be described that way. For me though, it’s more a matter of something that I’m always been doing in my fictions, but it’s only becoming more obvious and more transparent. The world of Neuromancer, was built from bits and pieces of the world of 1991. There’s no actual pieces of the future, which is now in Neuromancer. And it’s made of bits and pieces of 1991, because it was the most up to date bits and pieces I can find then for my collage. The convention of that sort of science fiction is that the reader accepts he’s experiencing a vision of the future. But when we go back and look at any science fiction from the past, we can always see that it’s all made of bits and pieces of the past. The science fiction of the 1940’s it’s made out of the bits and pieces of the 1940’s. That’s immediately evident to us. And the first thing a twelve years old kid will say today reading Neuromancer, is "Waowww... it’s a word without cell phones ! Something must have happened !". I’ve always known that. I think it’s been a gradual progression in my work, in which I became more obvious. So I think I have always been saying "It’s your future, but your future is now !"
ActuSF : Looking back at Neuromancer, there’s a very heteroclite esthetic. One can see Hi-Tech gizmos all patched from bits and pieces of obsolete objects. That resonates to your style. With Spook Country, your writing is clearer, almost tending tending toward the epure. It evokes the shape of an iPod, and the iPod is mentioned at several occurences all along your book, appearing like kind of an esthetic milestone. Why such a fascination ?
William Gibson : I use the iPod, because I wanted to see whether I could or not hitchike on all of the creative design energy and money that Apple had put in to making this iconical artefact. It would probably have been more realistic to use the very cheap little digital keychains which are easier to conceal but I wouldn’t have had this sort of eye-catching quality of an immediately recognazible artefact. It’s a sort of experiment. But I do admire the typical design of Apple products.
But all of the locative art equipment is taped together out of PC part.
Raoul Abdaloff : This idea of building foresight of future out of elements of present is obviously visionnary, and I would like to know if being labelled as a visionnary writer bothering you, or if, at contrary, it’s something the pleased you ?
William Gibson : Visionnary writer is OK. Prophet is just not true. One of the things that made me like Bruce Sterling immediately when first I met him, back in 1991. We shook hands and he said "We’ve got a great job ! We got to be charlatans and we’re paid for it. We make this shit up and people believe it." And it was actually good to hear. But visionnary... I’ve never quite known what it means. That’s one of those words that’s sort of mysterious. In the United States, in the 60’s, people who wanted science fiction to get more dignity called it "speculative fiction", but when I heard that, I’ve immediately thougth "All fiction is speculative.", and maybe all vision is visionnary. It depends on the people who actually have the vision. You know, if the guy is being visionnary is a fascist, is he really seeing further than the other people ?
Raoul Abdaloff : In France, the cultural elite tends to pinch their nose when they hear about science fiction, but some authors remain worth the reading, and among others like Iain Banks or Dan Simmons, William Gibson is one of the names that are oftently quoted. What are your feeling about that, are you of such a frame, one can found narrow ?
William Gibson : I was very aware of that frame, when I began to write science fiction, but I began to write science fiction as an adult, and after having being a science fiction fan when I was young. So I can see it both ways, I could remember how it had been for me when I was fifteen and reading science fiction. But I’m looking at science fiction as someone who’s gotten a degree in English litterature and read the cannons of English litterature. So I had it in context, but I also grown up through the sixties counter-culture, and I come through the avant-garde either. So in some sense I felt doubly outside the academic framework. I remember when the professor I felt the most in common with when I was an undergraduate, completly lost me one day when he took me aside and said : "This Thomas Pynchon guy ? Should I read him ? Is he really any good ?" And I just thought "Oh man ! You just don’t understand where I’m coming from !". But what’s happened in the meantime in North America ? That was twenty years ago. The old academia has gone away, and has been replaced by the post-modernist academia that completly embraces genres and scrambles everything. So we don’t have the old school paradigm like "It’s litterature or it’s nothing." I feel that here, but I feel it less than I did twenty years ago. I feel it in Germany, but I feel it less than I did twenty years ago. I think it’s more an european tendency, to hold the nose on science fiction material on which I hold my nose myself. (laughs)
ActuSF : You were talking about what had changed from the counter-culture era, and something can be pointed out in Spook Country. Most of your characters are underground hipsters. Is it because superficiality is the main value of our time ?
William Gibson : I think I’m actually attempting naturalism, so the way the characters relate to the world and the way they see themselves and the way they present themselves comes out of some sort of attempt to model contemporary reality. But I don’t necessarly see them as superficials. I think the characters I focus on is being unusual in the context of the world of the book, because one way or another, they are tempted to be pushing back against the marketing. They living in a storm of branding and marketing, and they all seem to be trying to find some way to push back, if only slightly.
ActuSF : In Spook Country and in Pattern Recognition as well, subcultures are crucial to the plot. Are subcultures a danger, the new way of surviving our era or a sign of decline of our civilzation ?
William Gibson : Not a danger. I’m almost convinced that Bohemias were the creative uncounscious of the industrial age. Now, we’re on the way of becoming some sort of post-industrial civilization. We don’t make the things anymore, we design and contract the manufacturers at actual industrial nations and we brand them and we market them, and that seems to be what we do. An even more modern vision of that, is doing the same with information. If that’s the case, the question is "Can we have Bohemias ? Can we have counter-culture and subcultures ?", because the market harvest the products of counter-culutre so quickly that it never reach its full growth. They harvest it and commodify it and sell it back to the broader public. So I have a sympathy for and a fascination with counter-culture. At the same time, I’m concerned that they may no longer be a viable means of change in society. I’m worry that they may in danger. That subcultures are a sort of endangered species now.
Raoul Abdaloff : And, is writing a way of resisting, and do you consider yourself as subversive writer ? In a larger approach, is science fiction a subversive litterature, or at the contrary, a conservative one ?
William Gibson : When I was a child, science fiction was the first source I’ve found for information. Science fiction was a very very low cultural stream in those days. It was completly below the radar and no one bothered to censurate, and this very conservative time in the United States, science fiction was completly free. So, some of it was very reactionnary and conservative, but some of it was very interstingly radical. And discovering this open channel of strange foreign thoughts was a life saving thing for me, because I knew that I wasn’t alone, and allows some of the questions I had about the society in which I live to cristalize in different ways. I don’t think of myself as being particulary a subversive writer, but I like to think that my work could afford someone else, the extra degree of freedom that I found when I first found science fiction.
ActuSF : The characters of your last two books seem to feel no attachment to any homeland. Is there any particular reason to this ?
William Gibson : Well, I think that I identify to a great extent, with people who transcended tribalism, in one sense or another. I’m interested in people who become culturally fluent. And when I meet young people I’m often amazed they don’t quite seem to have a sense of where they’re from. They’re like the citizens of the airport. And somehow that has always fit with my vision of future. One of the tendency one post 9/11, was for people to retract violently into new versions of their tribalist stances, and that was very unpleasant for me. And it’s a curious thing, because the act of 9/11 emerged from the new version of a very ancient form of tribalism. America wasn’t attacked by country, but was attacked by part of a tribe. But I’m still heading, not for the globalism in the sense we use globalism today, but for the post-national feeling. I’m not opposed to patriotism, but I make the same distinction that George Orwell made between patriotism and a kind of regressive nationalism that automatically disregards and distances anything that isn’t us, whichever "us" could happen to be at the moment.
ActuSF : And talking about geography, what turned you on "geohacking" ?
William Gibson : The GPS grid for me is very, very convenient symbol for the extent which cyberspace is no longer something that’s over there in computer, but is where we’re sitting right now, and what, one way or another, we’re interacting with. I’m now recording this interview for radio, but I’m recording it for website too we’re creating web content, and if we could see all the wireless packets of informations moving around us in this neighborhood right now we’d been seeing this tremendously busy world that we’re living in. If we could see the pulses of every RFID and every car on the street will be surrounded by sort of Johnny Mnemonic’s vision of cyberspace. But we can’t see it. It’s going on invisibly on the background and we take it for granted. I thought that finding a way to cause people reading this book to need to envision the GPS grid, rather than just taking it for granted was a good way to encourage a different sort of consciousness of where we’re living today.
Raoul Abdaloff : You’ll soon turn sixty, and decoding our world is an exhausting way of living. Are you sometimes feeling old ?
William Gibson : Sometimes, I feel like a time traveller, cause the only way that we can really travel in time is just to get older. It’s a very slow time machine, but there’s a extra element of amusement for me in being alive in 2008, because for the past twenty years or so, I wrote about an imaginary 21th Century, and now I find myself in the actual 21th Century, which is actually much more complexly strange and surprizing than everything I was able to imagine, or for that matter anything I’ve ever read. No one thought it would be like this. It gives me great pleasure to use the tools that science fiction gave me to interrogate this unimaginable present we are living in.
Raoul Abdaloff : As we’re talking about history, how do you consider the cyberpunk right now ? Do you believe you evolved a lot along the years, or, at the contrary, do you think you’re still writing the same things ?
William Gibson : I hope I have. Cyberpunk was something I was always ambivalent about, because cyberpunk was a critical and journalistic label. That was applied from outside to my work and to the work of similar other writers I was associated with. Most of those other writers were younger , and they hadn’t paid the experience I had had coming trhough the counter-culture in the sixties. And one of the big lesson was if you were doing something interesting and if journalists came in a attached a label to it, that meant it was over. So when the journalists came at our door with this cyberpunk label I said "No ! No ! Don’t let them put that on you !", but all the others said "Yeah, yeah ! Put that on the back of my leather jacket. That’s cool !" So I went along with it, but I actually assume that as soon as we were labelled as cyberpunk, we had been contained, and we’d been successfully discarded from the body of mainstream science fiction, which, subsequently, had no need to change. If we hadn’t been labelled, we will had a chance to spread the infection. But in fact, we didn’t, and the main body of science fiction today is, in my opinion, not very relevant to contemporary experience. The science fiction I would like to read, which Im’ almost unable to find, is science fiction it could not have been written a decade ago. That should be the most viable science fiction, and science fiction we need today. And most of the science fiction written today, could be written twenty years ago. Or thirty. Or forty. Most fantasy written today could have been written in the fifties.
ActuSF : Your reputation was built on your writing style, but aren’t you afraid of gibsonize yourself ?
William Gibson : Hmmm... not if I can continue to change, or at least by my own point of view. The danger of going on too long for a novelist, is that one ultimatly becomes a parody of oneself. But I find it impossible to continue without changing the parameters at the start of the work. And I know when I’ve done that, because it went harder to write a book. And Pattern Recognition and Spook Country were both extremly difficult books for me to write. Because in both cases I’ve changed in different ways, the basic settings of what I was going to do. In Pattern Recognition I decided it will a single narrative view point follow her version of the story in realtime, with relatively little ellipsis. Then, all I wanted was a couple of other things, but they’re very simple very basic changes. But when I attempted to do it, I find it incredibly difficult to do it, cause I was used to a different style of writing. But even if it’s difficult, I realize that it kept me awake trhough the writing in different ways, just because it was challenging. And I’ll attempt to continue trying to do this, as long as I feel like continuing of challenge myself.
Raoul Abdaloff : To put an end to this interview, a quite common question : what are you working on now ?
William Gibson : I’m working on... Well... I can’t say I’m working on something. I’m approaching and circling something, and I can’t quite see what it is. I mean, it must be a novel, but that’s all I really know about it at this point. So that’s mean I’m entering a necessarly very painful and insecure period where I have to go for having no idea to having some sort of characters that graudally lead me into the text. Because I’m very inefficient in terms of planning. I don’t find out until my fingers are on the keyboard, and then it starts to happen. But I fully expect the next two or three month to be very uncomfortable and strange, until I settle into what the next book could be.