Maximus Clarke talks with William Gibson about his “speculative novels of last Wednesday”

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.

MC: In your fiction, certain physical objects have extraordinary presence — they become more than just plot devices. The Cornell boxes in Count Zero, the Curta calculators in Pattern Recognition, the mysterious denim clothing in Zero History: they have their own stories, almost their own personalities. You’ve written previously about your fascination with thrift stores and eBay. What draws your attention to a particular item, and what makes you think, “This has got to be in a story”?

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.

MC: Right — SF has often shown us a fairly abstract future, in works like Asimov’s Foundation series.

WG: Yeah, and I think of that as the American future — because Europeans have lived forever happily among their own ruins. The very concept of retro-fitting strikes Europeans as weirdly redundant, because their world is in large part a retro-fit, and they expect what they’re building now to be retro-fitted. In North America, we’ve only recently come to that. Our cultural idea of the future has been something totally brand new, with no dirt in the corners.

MC: You said that you’re not personally driven by nostalgia. But a theme that you’ve been dealing with a lot in these last few books is cultural marketing — and of course we know that nostalgia, or the manipulation of nostalgia, figures heavily into that. Things follow a cycle of being shiny and new to us, and then old and boring, and then “retro.” And a cultural marketer — like your recurring character Hubertus Bigend, the creepy director of the boutique marketing agency Blue Ant — is trying to stay on top of that cycle.

We know that this cycle has gotten very complicated. An old style of jacket can be coming back into vogue as a hipster affectation in Brooklyn or East London, while being viewed as pass√© in mainstream culture, and meanwhile, somewhere in the hinterlands, somebody has continued to wear it “sincerely” since the last time it was popular.

At the same time, you write about certain styles and aesthetic touchstones that are considered, at least by your point-of-view characters, to be classic or timeless: a particular cut of jeans, or a fragment of film footage that looks like it could have been shot in any decade of the 20th century. How do you think particular artifacts transcend that wheel of trend karma and become perennial or iconic?

WG: That sort of very, very short cycle, which you’ve probably noticed has been increasingly short in our lifetimes, reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s definition of fashion as something so ugly that we have to change it every six months. Fashion at that level — I was about to say it repels me, but it’s not worth one’s revulsion. It’s just sad. As for the longer cycles, I think it was Douglas Coupland who told me about meeting an old tailor who very proudly said, “I’ve seen white suits come back three times.” And that was how long he’d been in the business. So that’s a very long perspective.

But I persist in thinking or believing that there’s something other than that: that there’s a kind of quality or virtue leading to timelessness, that some things are strangely atemporal. And whether or not hipsters in Williamsburg think that something is hip — which they only will for three minutes — my characters and I don’t care. We’re looking for something else.

MC: Something that you hold on to whether it’s in, out, back, or whatever.

WG: Yeah. I don’t think I’m like that to the extent that the characters in Zero History are. It’s kind of a mysterious area for me. Is that some species of conservatism? It quite possibly could be. But I’m inclined to see it like a backfire, when you light a small fire in front of an oncoming conflagration. Somehow I see people obsessed with those things as being part of some sort of backfire against an oncoming wall of bullshit, I suppose.

It’s more visceral and emotional than it is logical. And I know that in the world, as indeed in Zero History, even things like that can be turned to utterly bullshit uses. The very, very brief suggestion in Zero History of what Bigend did with the footage [a key plot element from Pattern Recognition] is the most horrible thing in the book (laughs).

MC: You mention the idea of a brushfire. The fragmentation of popular culture induced by the internet has altered the way that trends come and go — they flare up very quickly, and burn out very quickly. Sometimes they don’t get out of their little subcultural niche. On the other hand, the internet can allow for weird cross-pollinations, where people find some old, unlikely artifact, and it gets kicked into wide circulation.

It all makes the job of someone like Bigend more complicated — not that we have much sympathy for him. But there used to be a sort of big one-way megaphone, made up of things like the Billboard charts, the Nielsen ratings, and the bestseller lists. Now that megaphone doesn’t really have that much influence.

WG: No, it doesn’t. I’ve always had a sense of Bigend as someone who presents himself as though he knows what’s going on, but who in fact doesn’t. It’s just my sense of the subtext of the character: he’s bullshitting himself, at the same time as he’s bullshitting all of us. He’s not sure: he thinks that possibly it works the way he says it works. I think that when he’s feeling good, he doesn’t care. He just needs to say something that sounds Bigendish.

MC: I have to tell you, I was a web developer during the dot-com era, and worked briefly at a branding agency. Maybe that’s why I enjoy all of the Blue Ant stuff so much, because you nail quite a lot of that world. There really is a sense of enormous self-confidence, among people like that, that they have their finger on the pulse of the culture.

WG: I’m always encouraged to hear that. I think that I actually owe the effectiveness of that to the dot-com bubble, because the dot-com bubble inadvertently exposed me to those personalities. During that era, people would come to me and say, “Come and talk to us. We’ve got the man who just invented the next television! We’re going to market his technology, and we want you to be part of it.”

For the most part, I never went. They weren’t appealing invitations at all. But I got where these guys were at. That was one of the reasons that I never invested in any of those companies. If I had, briefly enough, I could have done very well indeed. But it just didn’t seem like anything one would want to be connected with (laughs).

MC: While Bigend is fascinating, the most compelling character for me from Zero History is Milgrim. We knew him from Spook Country, but the new Milgrim has emerged from the haze of drug addiction that he was in during that book. After rehab, he’s basically discovering his own new personality. He’s moving from being a pawn to taking control of his life… but he doesn’t even know himself what he’s going to do from one moment to the next. Did you know when you finished Spook Country that you were going to come back to this guy? And did you have any sense of how he would develop?

WG: No, and in fact when I finished Spook Country, I had no idea that there would necessarily be a third book. I don’t know exactly what that’s about, but in order to begin a next novel, after having written one, I have to convince myself right down to the ground that there’s a possibility of doing anything at all. Over some months, I create a blank space into which things start to emerge, and what’s always happened so far is that elements of the previous book emerge up front.

Often I experience a kind of disappointment initially, and embarrassment. “Oh no, what are they gonna think? I’ve done it again.” But there’s something very real and genuine about that, so I’m forced to receive Milgrim yet again, as though a stage magician had forced a card on me. The deck is fanned, and I choose one, and it’s Milgrim!

But I subsequently found out that it wasn’t Milgrim as we last saw him, but Milgrim however oddly reborn, and discovering the world for the first time. That became exciting for me, and I was happy again, and grateful. He comes with many gifts for the author. There’s no telling how he’s going to react to things. He can believably notice anything at all. And he needs other characters to explain things to him, which is priceless in terms of exposition.

MC: He’s a character who’s been more or less checked out for a decade. He doesn’t really know a lot about where the culture has gone. But he has a pretty sharp mind, now that it’s engaged. He has an Ivy League education, and thanks to his years of petty criminality, he has an instinct for sizing people up. So he gives you a way to come at the contemporary world as an intelligent outsider. How do you go about conceiving of and constructing a character like this?

WG: Well, the voice of my narrative is always entirely channeled through the point-of-view characters. Being able to do that was, I suspect, the hardest thing to learn for me. I really struggled with that for the first few years of trying to write fiction. I had a powerful sense that it wasn’t going to work until I could get that going. When I was able to get it going, I could only do it with relatively one-dimensional characters.

Someone said that if a fourteen-year-old boy writes a novel, it’s got to be set in a post-apocalyptic world, because a fourteen-year-old boy doesn’t know anything about how the world works (laughs). But if you smash the shit out of it, it’s easy to depict, and he can do a rather convincing job of depicting how people would behave in it.

I think I was in somewhat that position when I began to write. I didn’t have the confidence to depict more complex emotional characterization. Some people have unkindly assumed that this is characteristic of much genre SF and fantasy anyway. So it could have something to do with science fiction having been my native literary culture. But as I’ve gone along, with quite a bit of effort, I think I’ve been able to widen that bandwidth a little.

Milgrim is a good example. But Milgrim was a strange character for me in terms of his arrival. It’s unusual for me to be able to remember the advent of a character, because I think that they often arrive when I’m not actually writing. I’ll be doing something else, and somehow the beginning of a character will be there, and because I’m not writing I don’t take note of it. I sort of shove it aside, and later it drifts back.

When I was writing Spook Country, I was trying to do Brown [a private security contractor, who has Milgrim in his custody for much of the story] as a viewpoint character. It wasn’t working, and I couldn’t get past the first page of what would have been Brown’s first chapter. Brown was breaking into a room to change a battery in a cell phone bug. I just couldn’t get him in the door, and I was getting very frustrated and anxious about this, and thinking I’d gone in a wrong direction.

Going over it again after numerous tries, without thinking about it, in this kind of authorial jack move, I thrust this nameless other character physically in front of Brown, and made him open the door into the room, and step in, feeling Brown behind him. There was really nothing there at that point — just a stick figure on the page.

But within a page or two of writing from this point of view that seemed to come from nowhere, I discovered that he was Milgrim. He didn’t subsequently require a great deal of invention. That’s a very unusual experience for me, particularly in a novel. It’s been so long since I’ve written much short fiction that I’ve sort of forgotten the kind of muscles that that requires. But writing short fiction can involve that sort of spur-of-the-moment characterization more often than novels do.

I do sometimes have characters who aren’t point-of-view characters, who are put into the story to serve some minor function or fill out a scene, and they suddenly become hideously full of life, and start changing the course of the narrative, and I’m always delighted — because hideously full of life is at least full of life. The narrative then becomes unstable and inherently more interesting to work with, and has greater potential for going somewhere interesting.

MC: You’ve said that these recent books are set not just in a general present, but in very particular slices of the present. You seem to have a very clear sense of when they’re taking place. You don’t reference dates explicitly… but one way the reader can date the books is by the iconic Apple products. There’s a Macintosh Cube in Pattern Recognition, and a Mac Air in Zero History. But I notice the conspicuous absence of the iPad. Does this mean that Zero History is an immediately pre-iPad story?

WG: Yes! It was written in, and set in, the pre-iPad universe. I’m quite delighted that the iPad arrived when it did, because it more firmly places the narrative in last Wednesday. These are speculative novels of last Wednesday. My conceit when I was writing them is that they were set in the year in which, for the most part, they were written. The Cube was slightly obsolete when the book it was in was written, and ditto the Mac Air. All of the iPhones are obsolete, I would assume — except that the characters aren’t sufficiently concerned with model numbers to be specific.

MC: So you weren’t tempted to go back and shoehorn the iPad in.

WG: No, it would have ruined the entire structure for me. I was very deliberately working on something quite opposite to that. I don’t want these books to be up-to-date, and I don’t want them not to date. They’re novels of what I like to call “the turn of the century.” Now it’s almost over. We’re in the last year of it. So they move from 2001 to 2010, and they’re set in very specific years. That’s exactly what I wanted. An iPad would be an anachronism.

MC: There are elements of comedy and satire in the way that you draw a lot of your characters. We already talked about Bigend as parodying a certain type of personality out of the dot-com era. You also have unlikely collisions between characters: for example, the frail, diva-like computer programmer Bobby Chombo forced to shack up with Voytek, the no-nonsense Polish IT guy and vintage computer collector. I’ve never really seen you get much credit for comedy, but that was definitely one of the levels on which I enjoyed this last book. Is a certain comedic effect something you’re strongly going for? Is it just an outgrowth of your view of the world?

WG: Well, when I finished Neuromancer, one of the things I thought about it was that it was, in certain ways, quite droll. Then it was reviewed as this dark, seething dystopia. I thought, “Hmm, they didn’t see the humor.” But for me, there has always, or at least often, been a satirical element in my work, and for whatever reason, it’s continued to emerge. I was more conscious of it writing Zero History than with the two previous books, but I think they have their moments of humor as well. When I talk about those books with other writers who I feel get what I’m doing, we often talk about it in terms of the comic element of some of the concepts.

I’ve been thinking lately that what may be going on is so much of our perception of “pop” or “art” is cultural expectation. And the things that amuse me about my own work, and which may well not amuse anyone else, are the ways in which expectations aren’t met. One has paid for fish, and one is given fowl. But if the fowl is good, one might come back to the restaurant again.

For whatever perverse reason, I tend to find genre fiction that meets the standard expectations to be not much fun, and not very interesting. What I want for myself as a reader is something that’s got feet like a thriller, and hands like science fiction, but I want it to do something else: ideally I want it to do something that I’ve never seen either a thriller or science fiction do.

Of course the drawback with that is that the reader who’s come in wanting a good science fiction novel or a good thriller comes away thinking, “Well, that’s not science fiction, and it’s not even a good thriller!” (Laughs.)

MC: I found Zero History to be quite the page-turner. The elements of comedy and suspense can certainly have a connection. When you set a group of violently disparate characters on a collision course with each other, I as a reader really want to see how it’s going to turn out.

WG: Indeed. Well, I hope I would never turn the manuscript in if I hadn’t found closure that worked for me. Whenever I find closure that works for me I say a desperate little prayer to the writing gods that I’m not the only one — that there will be some people somewhere who’ll say, “Oh yeah, I get that.” They won’t need the joke explained.

MC: You’ve been focusing a lot in recent years on the confusion between physical and virtual reality. Spook Country featured locative art: digital images superimposed on to real locations. The most dramatic example in the book was a simulation of River Phoenix’s corpse projected on the LA sidewalk where he died. In Zero History, you’ve got miniature flying drones, like the Festo AirPenguin, which has such a strange way of moving that it gets mistaken for a hallucination. It occurred to me that these things are almost like the physical analogue of obnoxious online ads that fly around on our screens, loaded with malware and tracking codes. Do you see this kind of blurring of cyberspace and meatspace as exciting, disturbing, or both?

WG: I see it as inevitable. I mean, in order to stop it, something so drastic would have to happen that none of us would be having a good time at all! It’s just what we do. We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time. I think that’s where it’s at, as people used to say in the sixties. It isn’t as though I have any space in which to stand and say “This is loathsome!” or “This is exciting!” It seems an awful lot like Frederic Jameson’s definition of the postmodern sublime, which if I recall correctly is the mingled apprehension of dread and ecstasy.

Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts — diary entries of individuals encountering those things — it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.

The surprising thing about it — I almost said the insidious thing, but I’m trying to be anthropological — the surprising thing, to me, is that once we have our gramophone, or iPad, or locomotive, we become that which has the gramophone, the iPad, or the locomotive, and thereby, are instantly incapable of recognizing what just happened to us, as I believe we’re incapable of understanding what broadcast television, or the radio, or telephony did to us.

I strongly suspect that prior to those things we were something else. In that regard, our predecessors are in a sense unknowable. Imagine a world without recorded music: I always come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to imagine that, because I have become that which lives with recorded music.

MC: Reading these recent novels, I’ve wondered whether you’ve thought about dipping back into history, as you did with The Difference Engine, and again trying to get inside the heads of characters from a previous era. Is that something that holds any appeal to you as a writer at this point?

WG: Well, the very best tools for writing fiction set in imaginary futures are the tools of the historical novelist. That’s something I’ve taken for granted from the beginning: that serious historical fiction has the finest and most high-resolution tools for depicting alien states of being. So, writing science fiction, I’ve always had some awareness of that. It’s also been important to me, while writing science fiction, that we all live in somebody’s future, and somebody else’s past. Where we are on the timeline is not that big a deal. It’s our nature for each of us to believe that she or he is the very center of the universe, because that’s the way our perceptions are formed.

MC: And that the present is the pivot point of everything.

WG: Right. I forget who it was — some Englishman, possibly Chesterton — who said something to the effect that people make a terribly big deal about the future, but when we get there, it’s just as shabby and small as the present.

MC: And I think what you did early on that grabbed a lot of people’s attention was to refract the future through that kind of lens — to make the future not shiny — to make it just sort of a place. It was the overturning of the utopian “raygun gothic” future, as you satirized in “The Gernsback Continuum,” and its replacement with something that felt more like a real place. I don’t know whether you thought of that story as a kind of manifesto for what you wanted to do, but it feels retrospectively like one.

WG: It was, to some extent. When I wrote it, I didn’t see it as being a manifesto at the start of a career. Actually, how that story came to be written is that I was writing little bits and pieces of non-fiction for fanzines and little amateur science fiction magazines. Someone had given me a book called The Streamlined Decade, which was a sort of paperbound coffee table book of Art Moderne design. And I wrote a review of it, comparing it to Hugo Gernsback’s universe, and submitted it to one of these little magazines. And they rejected it.

It made me angry, and for some reason I sat down and rewrote it as a science fiction story, and eventually sold it. I think by rewriting it as a science fiction story, I sort of pointed it at the genre which I saw as having rejected my arty little review of the coffee table book. It was kind of a good lesson for me in the repurposing of material. When I started writing it as a story, I didn’t particularly expect that it would work.

Then as I proceeded with it, it was building momentum, and actually working, in spite of this unlikely pile of socio-artistic analysis that I was building it with. And the bricolage aspect of it really impressed me. I thought, “Hmm, that’s the way to do this! I thought I just had to sit here and make stuff up, but actually I can import material, and build things out of it, and somehow the thing takes on a life of its own.”


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