Notes from an evening with William Gibson

Some of the good bits

Saturday, September 22, 2007

For the stage interview, author and interviewer sat in simple, stackable 
 chairs on a small, raised platform at the front of a large conference room.  Paper take-out cups from Bridgehead sat on a small
 table between them.
William Gibson, centre; Adrian Harewood, left

These notes are a partial summary of an event held at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Anything the least bit clever in the material below is a paraphrase of something said by William Gibson, Adrian Harewood, or a member of the audience, even if it’s not explicitly a quotation. Even the explicit quotations aren’t exact.

Adrian Harewood animated the evening well, and William Gibson, with the slightest excuse, turned out thoughtful little essays of just the right length. The audience was generally very responsive, chuckling at the clever bits and muttering “yes, yes” at various apt comparisons. He couldn’t mention a piece of Science Fiction that someone in the room hadn’t already thought of. SF is his native literature, what he learned to read reading, and he’s not alone.


The “locative art” in Spook Country doesn’t, as far as he’s been able to determine, currently exist — what’s currently called locative art is high-mindedly conceptual, and the version in the novel is more like urban graffiti. It’s based on a concept popular in the era of “goggles-and-gloves” VR, (and, though he doesn’t mention it, previously addressed in Virtual Light) called “‘Blended Reality,’ one of those bad buzzwords: when you hear it, you don’t want it — unlike ‘cyberspace’,” he adds, with a twinkle of conscious immodesty.

We probably won’t be using the word “cyberspace” in ten or fifteen years, because it’ll be in everything, implictly. “When you go to buy an iPod, it doesn’t say ‘Electric iPod’ on the box.” Already, phones aren’t phones any more.

He didn’t come up with the term “cyberpunk,” and recoiled when he first heard it. If he were asked to come up with a musical description, a popular musical reference, he’d pick “Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings go to Nashville.” The audience was markedly silent, either embarrassed at having missed his point or patiently waiting for the punch line. Gibson, who counts a town in Virginia less than 400 km from Nashville as a childhood home, sat with equal patience and silence. Adrian Harewood, picking an event closer to Ottawa: “As opposed to ‘Dylan goes electric’?” Gibson feels that he had his Dylan goes electric moments while writing Neuromancer, thinking “ahah, they’re gonna hate this.” But the “uncles of Science Fiction” were more accepting than he’d imagined, saying “that’s all right, come on in. We don’t care what colour your hair is.”


Gibson retains his American citizenship, even after years living in Canada. “I’m dual,” he grins, “I’m bi.” Adrian Harewood, poker face, over the laughter of the audience: “Why do you choose to be ‘bi’?” It’s remarkably difficult to get rid of American citizenship, replies Gibson, perhaps facetiously, “because they want you to keep paying taxes.” But he thinks of himself as a person from Virginia who lives in Vancouver, in terms more of “psychogeography” than “national branding.”

William Gibson came to Toronto in 1967, having decided for reasons that he no longer remembers on that destination over New York while standing in a bus station in Washington, D.C. He told customs that he was coming to Expo, because he knew we were having one and figured that they’d have to let him in to see it, but he didn’t get farther than Toronto. He subsequently left, returning a few years later to realize that it was, of all the places he’d been, where he felt most at home.

Stranger than fiction

Our world, he says, has too many moving parts to be a practicable science fiction future, and has been for some time. You could have had AIDS or climate change or the consequences of September 11 in a book, but not all at once. John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar came closest to capturing our contemporary complexity, but they’re scary enough that Gibson says he didn’t peer too deeply into them.

Adrian Harewood suggests that in addition to being funny, Spook Country is somewhat dystopian. Gibson didn’t quite know what to think when he read that this was his first humorous novel — he thought they were all pretty funny. Utopia and Dystopia are mirror extremes, and neither our world nor his book is all the way in the Dystopian direction. “As we sit here, there are plenty of people on Planet Earth having a perfectly nice weekend.”

His last couple of books aren’t futuristic, but science fiction isn’t about the future anyway. What’s scary about Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it’s made of 1948. He doesn’t really miss the days when Science Fiction lacked legitimacy, taking some small umbrage at the New York Times’ failure to mention Neuromancer until 1996. “Science Fiction isn’t any more about science than country music is about the country,” he notes (or quotes?) to his own and everyone else’s delight. “All fiction is speculative,” he says, “fiction that doesn’t know it’s speculative is fiction written by naive people.” He aspires, at his age, to write in his own genre — William Gibson novels. Reviewers have identified Spook Country as such, some of them meaning it in a good way. Writing well is like lying as hard as you’ve ever lied, lying for your life.

Flea markets of the future

If I’d asked him a question, and I didn’t, it probably would’ve been about whether he ever feels like he’s in a William Gibson novel. I did get an answer, in a way, in his final remarks. He likes “obsolete media platforms,” he says, and once, long before he got into writing Science Fiction, he was at a yard sale or flea market and saw these rusty old reels of wire, like old film reels, in a box under a card table. He asked what it was, and was told that it was sound recordings.

“On what?”

“On wire. It’s what came before tape.” Wire recording involved magnetizing reels of steel wire.

“You mean there’s voices and music on there?”

“Probably, but there aren’t any machines left to play it any more.”

He said that this discovery made him feel like he was in the future: the people who made the wire-recorders never imagined their work sitting in a dusty box under a card table in a parking lot, and he likes to imagine seeing the latest new technology there.