Interview: William Gibson (2008)

sppokcountryWilliam Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk, knows virtual reality. His books have influenced writers and technologists alike in the age of the Internet. But his novel Spook Country turns the idea of how people create their own worlds on its head, as science creates its own ghostly world of digital phantoms superimposed on our own. Making personal and new communal realities is not just about technology, he argues. “I knew a man who was a global financier of some note, and his strategy was to make everyone operate on his time,” said Gibson. “He’d go to various cities on Larry Time, and all these bankers had to stay on his day. He became his own time zone.”

Set in the same continuity as his last novel, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country is the history of a near-past that never quite happened. In his version of 2006, artists are meta-tagging the world, spies transport information on iPod Nanos, and secrets, as one character tells another, are the very root of cool. Fairly mundane technology for the man who, in his seminal 1982 novella, Burning Chrome, coined the term “Cyberspace” and predicted (or dictated, depending on your viewpoint) the shape of the Internet.

Gibson sees his books as contemporary sociological commentary: His breakthrough near-future novel Neuromancer was really about its year of publication, 1984, filtering that year’s concerns and obsessions through the lens of future tech. But last year is the new future as science-fiction authors struggle to keep up with even outmoded tech. So Gibson calls his more recent work speculative novels of the immediate past.


“That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: The most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery.” – Bobby Chombo Spook Country.

Gibson invented the future by accident. That, he argues, is always the way it works. The godfather of cyberpunk was the man that created a literary model for the psychology of pure electronic communication. During the 1980s and early 1990s, copies of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive) were as much a fixture in the average computer researcher’s book shelf as a C++ manual.

With Spook Country, he creates a near-past in which computer users meta-tag the real world. But if engineers start looking at the fictional nuts and bolts of the machinery, Gibson worries that they may have missed the point. “I’ve always assumed, perhaps unfairly, that the great majority of scientists and technologists miss the core of the text. They tend to focus on the gizmo and the imaginary technology, which is the easy part: it seems to grow out of me like fingernails. They miss the sociological commentary, which for me is what the work is about.”

Raised in rural Virginia, Gibson spent most of his adult life in British Columbia, influenced by the end of hippy culture and the rise of punk. He also credits another cultural influence: Bruce Sterling, who he called “the first person that I ever heard express how technology affects people.” It was that sociological impact, rather than the machines themselves, that interested him. He admits to a certain technophobia, even about the Web that he had been so prescient about. “I completely avoided it until there was no learning curve,” he said, adding that he didn’t even have an email account until the mid-90s. “I said I’d do it when dogs and children could do it.” For him, what is most interesting is how people interact with the technology, even when it doesn’t work so well. “Some people seem to take a perverse pleasure in the difficulty of it, which must be like radio in the 1920s. I remember my uncles would hand-wind their radio coils so they could hear the signal from Cincinnati.”

But just because he wasn’t an early adopter himself didn’t mean he couldn’t write about them, and how the equipment was affecting society at that moment. He explained, “When I began to write science fiction, I came from an academic and literary background – enough to know that science fiction is about the moment in which it was written. That’s the only way we can read it historically. 1984 works best when you know it was written in 1948.” He applies that logic to his own work. “I began with the assumption that Neuromancer would be about 1984,” he explained. “That’s the secret strength of my work, and I’ve constantly been amazed that the way that seemed to be secret.”

Spook Country deals with all the vintage Gibson themes: Social paranoia, corporate power, and the mutation of machinery beyond the inventor’s whim. A sequel of sorts to 2003’s Pattern Recognition, Spook Country sees the return of the shadowy Blue Ant Corporation, a PR agency so innovative and subversive that even its employees scarcely know it exists. From this shadowy existence springs its power as the company and its CEO, Hubertus Bigend, become the ultimate peddlers and controllers of secret information: As one character tells another, “Advertising is intelligence turned inside out.” If that meme sounds familiar, it’s because this is not set in the distant future, but in 2006. A book, Gibson explained, has “bits of pieces of the time it was written, and the past that lead to that day.”

The title Spook Country is a play on words. It is, in many ways, a spy novel about inadvertent spies. There’s ex-rock star Hollis Henry, hired by Bigend to research a story for a magazine that may not even exist; Milgrim, a junkie hacker who may or may not be working for the Drug Enforcement Agency; And Tito, a Cuban-American skilled in a form of spycraft called Systema (which seems to mix free running, capoeira and ninjitsu) who may or may not be trafficking iPods full of data for the Russian mob. All three work for shadowy agencies, making them spooks in the employ of phantoms.

But there are the other spooks: invisible objects around the world, created by artists who are using GPS systems and virtual reality goggles to meta-tag the world and make every location a work of art. Wear the right equipment in the right place, and a flower market becomes a meadow, an office building is consumed by a Mongolian Death Worm, or River Pheonix is lying dead on the ground in front of the Viper Room. What fascinates Gibson is not that it’s futuristic, but that it’s possible now. “It’s not imaginary, but it’s not any less fantastic for being real,” said Gibson. “We’re surrounded by inherently fantastic technology, and we just don’t have a cultural paradigm to examine it.”

That fantastical technology is something he indirectly helped create through his books. In the Sprawl sequence, Gibson created a new literary reality. He took the dystopian corporate horror and near-future action visuals of the recently-released Blade Runner and Escape from New York, extrapolated out from the communally addictive qualities of video gaming, and then added that all to the influence of the Beat writers and cultural experimentalists like William S. Burroughs that he had grown up reading. It was a break with, not a continuation of, much sci-fi to that date, which he had considered at one point writing an academic thesis on as a form of fascist literature.

Most importantly, it was Gibson that popularized the concept cyberspace. In Neuromancer he called it “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” Which is pretty alarmingly close to how the Internet turned out.

Gibson compares the impact of his work to that of Arthur C. Clarke, which had a similar psychological impact on the scientific community. Neither could re-write the laws of physics, but both helped set the agenda for technological development by talking about potential machines. “One of the differences between (Clarke) and myself,” he said, “Is that he believed he was writing about the future, and to a remarkable extent he was, because he was a scientist.” Gibson was an author, first and foremost.

Like Al Gore, Gibson didn’t invent the Internet (and, just like Gore, he has never claimed that he did). His key argument was that the system evolved beyond anyone’s vision or control. “In the early 21st century,” said Gibson, “there was some myth that we legislated and made these technologies emerge. I think these technologies have come out of pure and naked need, and then the market met that need. The people who invent new technology never have any idea about how they will affect society. The whole thing is inherently out of control.”

“To some very large extent, the US military is where we get the Internet. It was the product of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) research making its way into the hands of acid heads,” said Gibson. The first backbone machines of the thing that would become the Web were installed as ARPANET – a U.S. military project – in 1969. By the 1980s, it had been joined by systems like the UK-based JANET (the Joint Academic Network), but none of the original designers could have conceived of what the web would be today. “I think that, if the US government had seen what the Internet would have become, they would have shut it down,” said Gibson. “No government would have wanted to fund something so subversive.”

Just as the nascent web powered his early work, GPS is the Maguffin for Spook Country.  For Gibson, it’s only within the well-funded realms of the military industrial complex that such systems could be developed: But they only get fun when they leave the lab: “The military seem to look at everything, and they’re very much in the role of patronage for purely blue sky research. Relatively little of the research they fund will make its way to the battlefield because it isn’t practical. Every so often they release huge amounts of files on failed projects: Like the bomb that made enemy soldiers gay,” Gibson said. “The thing is, they’re up to things like that, but we get the benefit of all that research, because once it’s been done, that leaks out into the world.”

He also doesn’t blame military and corporate engineers for how their research has reached out into society, and the impact it has had.”Most technology is morally neutral,” he said. “I’m sure that none of the telecoms developers that created wireless pagers never knew that they were revolutionizing prostitution or drug dealing, and that they were dooming certain neighborhoods.”

 “Would it all be like this, in Alberto’s new world of the locative? Would it mean that the untagged, unscripted world would gradually fill with virtual things, as beautiful or ugly or banal as anything one encountered on the web already? Was there any reason to expect it to be any better than that, any worse?” – Spook Country

In February 1945, Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Wireless World magazine entitled “V2 for Ionosphere Research”, in which he first suggested the concept of geo-stationary satellites for telecommunication: By May that year, that had become his groundbreaking proposal The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications. But it still took another 20 years for him to see the first geosynchronous satellite.  In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore wrote the article “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits”: It contained Moore’s Law, the idea that computers will double in power every two years. Now that’s estimated to be closer to every 18 months. In 2007, Apple launched the revolutionary iPhone: It took less than a year for the iPhone G3 to make it look silly and outmoded.

That’s partly why Gibson, the man that helped take science fiction out of the ‘rocket ship and laser beam’ ghetto in the 1980s, stopped talking about the near-future and has taken to writing about a recent past that never happened. “The last two [books] have been deliberately written so that the narrative action takes place in the year before they were published,” he explained. “I’m writing speculative novels of the immediate past, because the present is too brief and too volatile to be examined.”

In Spook Country, Gibson has dumped the cyberdecks and AI’s of his early work for more mundane kit: iPods, cell phones, GPS, meta-tagging. As a novelist who tries to be a social commentator, the impact of this kit was fertile and, to his surprise, virgin ground. “When I wrote Pattern Recognition, I’d never read books where people exchanged emails and talked in chat rooms,” he said. This everyday equipment, he argues, is still revolutionizing the world, and even literature still seemingly can’t keep up with what it’s doing right now.  That’s not just for writers, but readers too: Take the simplest and most ubiquitous of modern electronic communication. “I still don’t think we have a convention for the inclusion of email. Do you use quotes or put it into italics or a different font? What margin do we use?”

Gibson suggests that, somehow, a standard visual and typographic language for portraying electronic communication on the printed page will and must be found. Otherwise, readers won’t know what they’re looking at, because it won’t be standardized between authors. “It’s ultimately a style sheet issue,” he said. “There’s a grand cultural style sheet that all style sheets must refer to, and the grand cultural style sheet has not caught up. I imagine it would preserve all the eccentricities of spelling and presentation without putting (sic) in parenthesis. I suspect that it might be to do with margins. We might adopt some typographical symbol. We need that very badly, to deal with everyday life.”

What this deluge of modernity means for the contemporary writer, he suggests, is that near-future science fiction is dead, because it’s already nearly history. “When I started to write science fiction in the 1960s, the present seemed to be a longer duration, five years or six months. It wasn’t a blink,” he said. Looking back at his Sprawl sequence  he had time to create a recognizable fantasy world that he could elaborate on and describe in great detail. “When you’ve got that long a present, you’ve got that time to build a future and make a case for it.” Now, with technology evolving so fast, writers don’t have that luxury any more. “We’ve long past the tipping point of exponential change,” he said.

But Gibson rejects the idea that this is new and unprecedented. “The Victorians must have lived in a degree of post-traumatic shock,” he said. “If you read journalists writing about how they travelled 16 miles an hour, and how that inhuman velocity affects visual perspective, you’ve got the idea that they were like us. In hind sight, we’re smoothed that into a nice curve, but I don’t think it’s a curve for the people who are experiencing it.” Part of that smoothing process, he suggests, may be a good healthy dose of denial. “We tend to believe we know more than we do. I think it’s necessary for a degree of psychological comfort.”

This may be the new subtext in Gibson’s books. His earlier novels were about controlling or subverting technology. In Spook Country, the characters are trying to simply understand it, hanging on to events as they unfold. That’s very much how Gibson describes the process of writing of his books, although he’s pretty clear about why he starts. “I always need to write another book,” he said. “It’s an economic pressure, and it always happens before I have a driving desire to write about anything in particular. I just start whatever awful, painful process of transferring this stuff out of my conscious and onto the page.”

This starts what he calls “a process of discovery.” He also refutes any suggestion that he has deliberately tried to take the mantle of visionary. “It’s never about any philosophy or attempt at didacticism,” he said. “It’s entirely exploratory. It’s my attempt to take my temperature of how I’m responding to the zeitgeist. A lot of technique, such as it is, emerges almost accidentally out of some fairly naive attempt at literary naturalism.”

This is not to say that Gibson just lets the ink flow.  One of the central characters in Spook Country is ex-rock star Hollis Henry, formerly of fictitious band The Curfew. Like with much of his writing, her character and background came out of his own curiosity. Unlike fellow sometime genre author Ian Banks, who recorded real music as the fake band Frozen Gold for his rock novel Espedair Street, Gibson wasn’t interested in writing a love letter to a particular form of music (When asked to describe The Curfew’s music, he admitted “I had no idea of what they sounded like.”) Instead, he wanted to write about his real experience in talking to music industry survivors. “They don’t talk about it in creative terms,” he said, “They tell the war stories of the music business, and they tend to be ghastly. I was interested in Hollis’ experiences in post-celebrity, and how the body of her recorded work has a life of its own.”

Just as his non-interest in technology sometimes becomes a near-obsessive description down to the nano-circuit, Gibson created a history of indie rock, and The Curfew’s place in it, that only exists in his background notes. “I wound up, through the course of writing the book, with a very detailed gallery of their business career. I was calling up a record collector dealer friend of mine in New York, and he knew which labels they had been with – one of their records came out on Factory records.”

This may be bringing his literary life full circle. While copies of Burning Chrome may have become prophetic works amongst a generation of IT innovators (see part 1 of this interview for more on that), Gibson’s hard-edged, chaotic, sometimes violent early works were also standard reading for many Goths and indie rock kids: Exactly the kind of social outsiders he had always wanted to reach. “One of the things that encouraged me when I published Neuromancer was that I started getting letters from musicians I listened to and architects, and they would begin with ‘I never read science fiction BUT’. I kept those for years, to prove that I was reaching the audience I wanted, who read all literature as speculative fiction.”

While he’s counts himself as part of the sci-fi community and has close friends there (“I think Bruce [Sterling] and I are very much natives of science fiction, but he’s much more a nationalist than I am”), he’s also careful to not be pigeonholed as the guy that writes sci-fi for people that don’t read sci-fi. Instead, he tries to transcend, and that’s also something he admires in other authors. “I’ve always had a big soft spot for Michael Moorcock,” he said, “because he’s consistently articulated that since I was 15, that he could be shamelessly part of any number of genres, and at the same time be a hugely influential literary figure.”

That may be a significant part of what drives Gibson to push and redefine what science fiction is. “Because I was from a very small provincial town in south-west Virginia, I never wanted anything to do with anything that was very small or provincial,” he said. “I’m convinced that genre science fiction is a very small or provincial place. Great things can come from there, but you have to leave.” And again, a musical note – “If the people who invented the Delta blues had stayed there, we wouldn’t have had most of twentieth century pop.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.