“Said felt he had to transform every situation he entered”; any less “smacked of victimage.” 3 Quarks Daily excerpts my former professor H. Aram Veeser’s new biography of Edward Said.
A professor emails her old MFA students in South Carolina to tell them how intellectually superior the new ones at Columbia are. I dunno. Columbia has graduated many outstanding writers but also, one professor contends, some demonstrably terrible ones.
In my absence, here’s Maximus Clarke — aka the guy I’m married to — on, and in conversation with, William Gibson, one of his favorite writers. Gibson reads from his new book, Zero History, tomorrow, 9/23, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, at 7 p.m.
William Gibson rose to prominence a quarter century ago with a unique hybrid of science fiction, noir, and grimy realism, set in an amoral, multicultural, commercialized, networked future. Gibson developed his distinctive vision (dubbed “cyberpunk” by others) in a series of short stories written in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I remember discovering his writing around that time in Omni magazine, and realizing, young as I was, that this guy was operating on a whole different level from the conventional SF authors I’d grown up reading.
Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer (1984), won science fiction’s three most prestigious awards, but was soon acclaimed well beyond the confines of the genre. Neuromancer deviated sharply from traditional “space opera” in its subject matter, portraying the cutthroat struggles of global conglomerates, street gangs, and computer jockeys who hack into online systems brain-first. But it was Gibson’s virtuosic style that gained him literary respect.
As an introverted teen, he’d been an equally avid consumer of pulp sci-fi and the writings of William S. Burroughs and friends. As a writer, Gibson developed a blend of clipped, hard-boiled language and dense, sometimes overwhelming imagery. His work has often featured allusions to Asian, European and Caribbean cultures, street-level snapshots of decaying cityscapes, and fragments of consumer technology and broadcast media. Narratives tend to emerge gradually, from the perspectives of multiple protagonists.
Neuromancer and its two sequels were followed by The Difference Engine (an alternate-history tale of a computerized Victorian England, co-authored with Bruce Sterling), and a trilogy of novels revolving around a near-future version of San Francisco. But as the 21st century unfolded in ways that neither Gibson nor anyone else had quite foreseen, he turned his attention to writing about the present.
Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and the recently released Zero History are, Gibson told me, “speculative novels of last Wednesday”: adventures in the stranger-than-fiction contemporary world, as seen through a science-fiction lens. Instead of making alien futures familiar, these stories show us the familiar present in an alien light. They remind us that our age of fetishized fashion, shadowy capital flows, digital art, devious marketing, and military contractors run amok is a deeply weird time to be alive.
WG: Well, it isn’t as though I wander through the flea market, spot something, and think, “Wow, that’s got to be in a story one day.” It’s that I have a kind of vast and half-forgotten library of objects — artifacts, really, because the things that I describe are always man-made. And one of them will be summoned from the library through some unconscious or poetic process when the narrative requires it. I know that sounds precious, but I can’t think of a less precious-sounding way to put it.
I reach instinctively for something without knowing why, and place it in the narrative, and if it strikes a resonant chord with me, I’ll leave it there. There probably are times when the thing that arrives from the library proves to resonate oddly with where the narrative wants to go, and it has to be taken out and replaced with something resonates more in tune with the rest of the structure.
But I myself have wondered why I do that — why I depict a universe of man-made objects, with people walking among them (laughs). My best answer is that it’s the way I perceive things. And I also suspect that the narratives of objects are more available to us when the objects themselves have become slightly decrepit. So I think my interest in old things, and worn things, isn’t about nostalgia in any conventional sense; it’s about the revelation of the narrative of how that object came to be in the world, and what it once might have meant to someone.
It feels to me as though those objects also serve the purpose of humanizing the environment that the reader encounters them in. That was more consciously valuable to me when I started trying to write science fiction set in some imaginary future, and wanted to bring life to environments that have often been depicted as quite sterile.
Nobel laureate Herta Müller, whose work depicts the brutality of totalitarian Romania, is stunned to learn that the real-life hero of her latest novel was an informant. (Via.)
The King James Bible, “the founding text of the British Empire,” will soon be four hundred years old.
“All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books!” Elif Batuman takes on creative writing programs in the latest London Review of Books. (See also.) Batuman’s blog is a delight.
Biographer James Campbell calls for a fully annotated edition of James Baldwin’s correspondence.
My Cracker Barrel ornament story will be included in the Significant Objects book, forthcoming next year from Fantagraphics.
“To read William Gibson is to read the present as if it were the future,” says Scarlett Thomas, because “the present is becoming the future faster than it is becoming the past.”
Elizabeth Jenkins, a novelist and biographer whose work garnered the admiration of Hilary Mantel and Virginia Woolf, among others, has died at age 104.