Hey folks, Harry here. And wow. Cool, Alexandra DuPont managed to seduce ol William "FREAKING" Gibson himself into an interview that is far more interesting than just some run of the mill.... "So uh um, what's uh happening with um, you know that uh NEUROMANCER film movie thing, huh?" and actually gets... dare I say it.... DEEP. You see, while there seems to have been moments in the interview where Alexandra felt like an inanimate dweeb, as the interview continues you can see her loosening up and becoming, SUPER-INTERVIEWER!!! And ya know what? Cool. If MATRIX was nothing really new to you, and just the realization of a story several textured layers beneath the brilliant cyberpunk work of William Gibson... then this is for you. In fact, Gibson talks a bit about MATRIX... and you MATRIX haters that love Gibson might be surprised... But personally... My favorite parts of this interview are when we move past 'Film' stuff and get into the literate and theoretical mind of William "FREAKING" Gibson. Enjoy this treat from that black latex wearing Alexandra DuPont....
Alexandra DuPont interviews William... freaking... Gibson
Toujours, Harry. Alexandra DuPont here. I had the good fortune recently to chat with cyberpunk author William Gibson. Following are some highlights from our hour-long chat -- including brief comments on his "X-Files" episode and the long-in-development "Neuromancer" movie.
Mssr. Gibson is, of course, the granddaddy of cyberpunk -- that certain breed of computer-obsessed, reality-bending science fiction that influences film and television to this day. He invented the term "cyberspace," and is generally credited with many of the concepts behind virtual reality. "The Matrix," right down to its title, probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for his writing (and, to be fair, Philip K. Dick's). He also wrote that episode of "The X-Files" where the computer's performing semi-omnipotent acts out of a remote trailer and a virtual Scully kicks the crap out of evil nurses. (That's also the episode featuring the woman with the ridiculous eye makeup, which I actually asked him about.)
I'm probably insulting certain readers of this site by even bothering to mention that Gibson's written two trilogies of mostly brilliant, gritty, diamond-hard science fiction (in addition to a collection of short stories and "The Difference Engine," co-authored with Bruce Sterling). "Neuromancer," "Count Zero," and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" imagine the emergence of a mass digital consciousness in an unnamed future; "Virtual Light," "Idoru," and the just-released "All Tomorrow's Parties" imagine the emergence of a mass digital consciousness in a future nearer our own.
Gibson was out pimping "All Tomorrow's Parties" when I talked to him. Here's what he had to say.
I. THE REALLY BANAL QUESTION THAT FANS OF BOTH GIBSON'S WRITING AND "THE MATRIX" SECRETLY WANT TO ASK
A. DuPont: I wanted to get the "dumb" question out of the way right off. [affecting a moronic fanboy tone] So, uh, what'd you think of "The Matrix"?
William Gibson: Actually, I liked it very much. I was extremely reluctant to go and see it --
Q. I can imagine.
A. -- and finally, I was down in Santa Monica doing something, and a friend of mine came over on a rainy day and said, "Come ON, you've got to see this. I'm pretty sure you're not going to have the kind of experience that you're imagining that you're going to have." And I really liked it. I thought it was so well-done, and basically I thought it was, in its subtext, a very good-hearted movie -- in a way that is unusual at that budget level. It didn't have the kind of crypto-fascist subtext that one might expect with that kind of money. I took it to be a fable about the price of becoming more conscious. I thought that was most beautifully expressed by the Judas character's deal he cuts, saying, "Okay, I'll betray this guy, but you've got to guarantee that I'll be in complete, airtight denial about it. I won't know that you exist."
Q. "Ignorance is bliss."
A. Yeah, "ignorance is bliss." It's simple stuff, but I thought it was good stuff. It was a very generous movie -- it really gave the audience a lot of stuff, frame by frame. As far as having been an influence on it, I thought they had digested their Gibson very well -- and also obviously taken quite a lot of Philip K. Dick.
Q. Oh, definitely.
A. And you know, that's fair -- I mean, I do that myself all the time.
II. THE "NEUROMANCER" MOVIE, CHRIS CARTER, AND THAT "X-FILES" CHARACTER'S TERRIBLE EYE MAKEUP
Q. It's been a while since your last book, "Idoru"....
A. Well, I took a vacation. I hadn't taken any time off since 1981, when I started writing short fiction, and I went straight from writing short fiction into writing "Neuromancer." But somehow, when I finished "Idoru," I just woke up one day and I thought, "Well, who am I? What am I doing here? What's my life like? I'll check that out today and see what's going on." And then I got to the next day and I thought, "That was fun."
A. So I just kept doing that, and I did it for about a year and a half. But suddenly the little bells started ringing on my book contract. But I got connected back to my life as something other than the author of these books, which was long overdue.
Q. It also allowed you to hook up with Chris Carter and write an episode of "The X-Files," which sounds like it's been a good move for you.
A. Yeah, that was fun -- that was the only writing I did in that period. And I was very happy with the product. My partner and I are in the middle of trying to do another one of those with him. We're trying to do a final season of the "X-Files."
Q. Yeah, I really enjoyed your episode of "The X-Files." The only thing I will say, though, is: What was UP with that chick's eye makeup?
A. Yeah, that was really strange. Plus, she was this extraordinarily beautiful woman -- I know because she was friends with a neighbor of mine in Vancouver. I guess it was the makeup person's take on "cyberpunk." Actually, it might be my fault -- because I think when they asked me about the makeup, I think I suggested that thing that Darryl Hannah has in "Blade Runner," where they sort of silk-screened a dark band, sort of like spray-on sunglasses. But instead it was kind of weird. My daughter calls her "Racoony Babe."
Q. [laughs] Yeah, when you take the "Pris" character out of the "Blade Runner" setting and she's not surrounded by flying cars, it does have a slightly different effect. Now, about the "Neuromancer" movie. You've got a music-video director named Chris Cunningham attached.
Q. Is it proceeding the way you want it to?
A. Well, yeah, insofar as nothing's happened -- nobody's come along to disturb us. We're in such an early phase of the thing that there's just these two weird imaginations at work on the idea of what the project might be.
Q. Well, it will be nice to see the Molly character [a total she-badass character that Trinity from "The Matrix" is clearly modeled on, and who appears in the original "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Neuromancer" stories] actually show up.
A. Yeah. See, that was one of the things with "Johnny Mnemonic," was that I never WANTED the Molly character to show up, because if she HAD shown up she'd be part of the "Johnny Mnemonic" franchise. That's why Molly wasn't Molly.
Q. [sarcastically] Yes, that highly lucrative "Johnny Mnemonic" franchise....
A. Yeah. Well, you know, that was always a possibility, too -- so I'm very glad that we kept her.
[Note to our remaining readers: The rest of this interview is about Gibson's WRITING, not inevitably inferior filmic adaptations of same -- with spoilerific discussions of his latest tome, "All Tomorrow's Parties," plus some very large words. Still here? Let's continue.]
III. CONTINUITY GEEKS
Q. If I may become a continuity geek for a second, your novels form two trilogies --
A. [anticipating a rather obvious question about whether his novels comprise one consistent "universe" or timeline, a la Asimov or a shoddy comic-book lineup] No, I'm not doing the Robert Heinlein "future history" thing. I don't think you could get from the world of "Virtual Light" to the world of "Neuromancer." In fact, with the latest three books I don't think I was doing a future so much as a kind of alternate tomorrow. Since I wrote "Virtual Light," I think enough things have changed that I don't think we could get to "Virtual Light" from here. When are we gonna get the black female president -- in time, right? But these books are ten years off.
Q. Yeah, I think "Virtual Light" was set in 2005....
A. You know, it really pissed me off. [The date 2005] is not in "Virtual Light." If you read very carefully and did a calculation based on the date that Rydell saw a particular film, you could have figured out that it was 2005. I think someone at the publisher in New York asked me the date, and I told them, and they put it in the flap copy of the book, so it got out. But I didn't want a date. Like with "Neuromancer," I was very careful -- you can't really date it. I always assumed it was about 2035, but I kept it vague.
Q. That way it doesn't date.
A. Well, that's kind of the poignant thing about science fiction is that it DOES date -- it all has kind of a "sell-by" date. But I was less concerned with that with these last three books, because I deliberately cranked the "futuristic" part in really, really close.
IV. BILL GATES AND THE "BENT ARISTOCRACY"
Q. Now, you reserve no small amount of scorn for billionaires and the media aristocracy in your books -- particularly in this last trilogy. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" in your books -- at least when we're talking about human beings. Do you really think someone like Bill Gates is susceptible to that kind of corruption?
A. Well, no -- not necessarily down to Bill personally. But the tendency is there. You know, there's some kind of literary tradition that I'm following here, where these are picaresque, in a way naturalistic, social adventures -- and they require a bent aristocracy. In "Neuromancer," I had to actually go to the original bent aristocracy and have the Tessier-Ashpools in their private space station. But it says somewhere in the text that they're an anachronism -- that they're kind of dinosaurs of global capitalism.
Q. Right. The corporations are like organisms --
A. Corporations are like organisms and the Tessier-Ashpools are the sort of Howard Hughes end of the evolutionary stick. But the shift in the new books is that the bad guys are tabloid television shows and global public-relations men.
V. ANOTHER COLOSSALLY STUPID, OVERLY BROAD QUESTION, PLUS MISCHIEF
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenge we're facing in the new millennium? [realizing colossal stupidity and obviousness and overly broad nature of query] I know that's kind of a huge....
A. Well, "the millennium" is like Christmas -- it's a Christian holiday. It's only happening because we kind of agreed that day is "Christmas." For me, where we're going is more of what [Gibson's trademark skinny-white-videodroning-obsessed-data-cowboy character] Laney in "All Tomorrow's Parties" calls a "nodal point".... History is a sort of consensual fiction which we perpetually revise -- but we've come far enough along that sometimes now we look back, and in retrospect we can see the emergence of changes that had enormous effects down the road, but which just weren't visible at all to anyone....
Q. In "All Tomorrow's Parties," you made Marie Curie's husband getting run over in 1911 a key "nodal point" in the past. Was that just an arbitrary thing you chose, or did you have a reasoning behind that?
A. In a way, it's a viewpoint joke: Laney and [another character in "All Tomorrow's Parties,"] Harwood are the only two people in the world who have this peculiar sort of pathological vision that allows them to see "OOP! that did it!" Somebody told me when I was in England that there was a Virginia Woolf essay in which she had seriously pinned the beginning of the modern era on a particular weekend in 1911.
Q. Really? I was wracking my head reading the book, thinking, "Well, Marie Curie did research on nuclear material and maybe her husband's death drove her into her research...."
A. Well, I knew that people would. But you can't get here from there.
Q. So there was some mischief in choosing that.
VI. WILLIAM GIBSON PROBABLY SKIPPED BIOLOGY CLASS, PLUS SOCIOLOGICAL PREDICTIONS
Q. In your books, you dwell on the data issues of the future -- issues of hardware and software -- but not genetics.
A. I haven't dealt with it. I don't know why. Biology doesn't grab me in the same way. But if you want great and thoughtful and scary treatments of that, then you could go to my colleague Bruce Sterling. He keeps right up on it.
Q. Sociologically, you get into it quite a bit, though -- you feature a pretty stunning gap between the rich and the poor, technologically and educationally. Is that sociological gap happening the WAY you predicted?
A. Well, the gap continues to widen. For me, the crucial question -- in terms of the real world and how comfortable I am in it -- is, "Is there a viable middle class?" And there still is in most of the industrial Western world, and you have emerging middle classes in other places. And then you have really nasty anomalies where suddenly there is no middle class -- you can't even BE middle class in Mexico City because of their situation with the devaluation. It's a situation where people literally cannot save money.
Q. I also love how your characters have very specific knowledge -- how they'll know nothing about history but a great deal about a particular technology. Is that an emergent trend you see?
A. Well, I don't think that's so much a trend as it is naturalism. You know, one of the things I count on to write these books is my sense of what the real world is like and how it actually works. You need to have that to start from before you start imagining changes and different versions of it. And I find that [increasing specialization of knowledge] everywhere. And I'm sure if you ask a high-school teacher that, they REALLY find it everywhere.
VII. THE "FINAL DIGITAL MOMENT," PLUS OTHER CONCEPTS THAT I SORT OF HAD TROUBLE WRAPPING MY HEAD AROUND
Q. One of the things in both trilogies is the emergence of a sort of mass Jungian collective consciousness out of data. Data in both your trilogies has a kind of shape, and when you insert artificial intelligence into that mix, you end up with a sort of deity.
Q. Is that just a nifty literary conceit, or is that something you actually see coming to pass?
A. Well, it sounds very Biblical when you put it that way. [laughs] "And he saw it, and it came to pass."
Q. I guess I'm getting carried away with the "prophet" thing...
A. Well, there's something we've been doing a long, long time as a species, and we're the only species on the planet that does it, as far as we know -- and that's that we find ways to extrude our interiority, that we're self-aware in a way that other mammals don't seem to be, and that we communicate that -- from cave paintings and standing stones to temples and cities, all these things we've been building. And somewhere in the last couple of hundred years, that activity started to produce things that in some ways are more than models of consciousness, that are more than models of the nervous system --
Q. Things that take on a life of their own.
A. We've got a situation where most human beings on the planet have their nervous systems augmented -- to the extent that I can sit in this hotel room and watch something happening in Tokyo as it happens, by virtue of these systems that my species has created. So in effect, it's like my sensorium has been augmented by my species to perceive things that previously would have been quite inconceivable to my ancestors. And I think we're doing that increasingly, and it's happening with exponential speed. I don't know what the end point would necessarily be. I mean, I've imagined it -- not so much in my fiction, but in some nonfiction writing that I've done, that the final result of this will be a final digital moment...
A. ...where everything is happening -- that the speed of recall will be so great that all digitally recorded time will sort of exist simultaneously.
Q. You talk about it being inconceivable to our ancestors -- I wonder what will be inconceivable to us in a hundred years.
A. You may not have to wait a hundred years. For me, what happens at the end of "All Tomorrow's Parties" is that in the moment that the idoru emerges from every 7-Eleven in Christendom in a form of realized free nanotechnology, that's when the world as we know it ends -- because that's the emergence of an absolute technological singularity. It just doesn't take effect right away. On the other side of a technological singularity lies a literally unimaginable world. And it's called a technological "singularity" because what lies on the other side of it is as unknowable as what lies on the other side of a black hole.
VIII. THE TOM CLANCY OF CYBERSPACE -- NOT
Q. I thought your nanotechnology stuff in "All Tomorrow's Parties" was really interesting -- the idea of an old watch descending into a bed of nanobots and emerging brand-new. I was wondering: Are there "Neuromancer" fans who are working on nanotechnology and call you and say, "Check out what we're working on"? Do you get any "inside information"?
A. [laughs] In a way, I'd like to pretend I'm sort of like the Tom Clancy of cyberspace, and I hang out with these guys. And sometimes I DO hang out with them, but I'm more inclined to take note of what they're wearing.
A. You know, I listen to them talk about their dating problems more closely that I listen to them talk about what they're actually doing. For me, I'm pretty sure the way I use nanotechnology in these novels actually BUGS the real nanotechnologist to no end. They'd probably be inclined to dismiss me as sort of willfully lightweight about the whole thing. But when you've got somebody promising you a technology that will make everyone immortal and abolish the very concept of wealth, I just kind of throw up my hands and say, "You win -- I can't imagine that." You know -- "There's no work for me here."
IX. WHY THE INTERNET MUST BE AN ACCIDENT
Q. So you see yourself using these technologies for more thematic, literary ends than as a technically accurate kind of device....
A. Well, I've never been TOO concerned about being technically accurate -- but having science fiction as my native literary culture, I've still got these sort of cultural prerogatives where I shouldn't be totally stupid about it. For me, when I look at the world, I see that social change is driven by emergent technologies. And emergent technologies are almost NEVER legislated into emerging -- they just emerge. Consequently, social change is out of control, and it doesn't actually seem to work very well unless we ALLOW it to be out of control. When we allow it to be out of control, we end up with something like the Internet. The Internet emerged accidentally from a U.S. government think-tank project. But if you had approached any government in the world with a proposal for the Internet and told them what it was going to do, they would NEVER have let you do it!
Q. Oh, yeah. Definitely.
A. Because you would have been setting out to do something that would eventually undermine the very reason for there being nations. It could only happen accidentally, and it's been this extraordinary leap into the unknown for us as a species. And we haven't landed yet -- we're in mid-leap. I don't know if we ever WILL land.
Q. Well, landing implies a destination. And there isn't really a destination here.
A. The only destination would be some kind of total global catastrophe.
Q. That's a common theme in your work -- whenever anyone like the billionaire in "All Tomorrow's Parties," or the billionaire in "Count Zero," or the Tessier-Ashpools try to hold on to the technology and make it their own, it blows up in their face.
A. Yeah. It blows up in their face for the sake of narrative drama in those books, but in real life it either blows up in their face or it just dies. It stops working if you try to control it.
X. MR. GIBSON'S NEXT BOOK: NON-FICTIONAL SCIENCE FICTION
Q. With each new trilogy, you sort of dial back the technology and bring things closer to our time. So I was wondering: What's next? Are you going to set a series in the present day? Are you going to go into the past?
A. Well, I'm playing with the idea of finding out whether the world today is sufficiently strange and disturbing that I could produce a book that would give a reader the experience the reader expects from me, yet when they emerge from the book they would say, "Wait a minute! That wasn't even science fiction!" or "Wait a minute! That WAS science fiction, but it was also completely contemporary reality with next to nothing made up!" It's very challenging, and I'm kind of edgy about setting myself up to do it. But something in that direction may be where I might be headed.
Q. Well, I certainly wouldn't want to jinx anything by having you tell me, but...
A. Well, I'm playing with it, but it hasn't yet completely entangled me. If I play with it sufficiently, it probably will.
XI. MR. GIBSON vs. THE ART-WORLD TRICKSTERS
Q. Here's something I've wanted to ask you about: Didn't you once, like 10 years ago, write a story that could only be read once off a diskette?
A. Well, I wrote a long, narrative free-verse poem to my father, which was going to be packaged in its initial form on a diskette that was encoded so it would erase itself. And that end of it was being handled by a bunch of New York art-world tricksters I'd hooked up with. And they were very successful in getting an enormous, disproportionately huge amount of publicity for this thing. But they were not successful at all in actually producing the artifact. So it's kind of an interesting question today as to whether or not any of these were ever really made. I don't have one -- I've seen a photograph of one which I suspect to be either a forgery or a kind of dummy prototype that these guys in New York produced, and I don't know which. I mean, these were very elaborately and expensively packaged things. You didn't just get a disk -- you got this kind of art prop that you could kind of carry your disk around in, and it was a large object. The outcome for me was actually kind of poetically correct and satisfactory, in that someone got a hold of a copy of the thing kind of early on, cracked the supposedly uncrackable code and posted the poem on the Internet ,where it remains to this day.
A. And the longer it stays there, the more for some reason it decays. So every year or so, I have a look at it, and I find that lines have changed and it's sort of mutating into something else.
Q. A digital version of Burroughs' cut-and-paste technique.
A. Yeah -- it's like it's being cut and pasted by cyberspace itself.
XII. "THE GUY WHO WRITES THE BOOK"
Q. You know, your prose is really lean, and I was wondering how much self-editing you do -- how many drafts you put a book through.
A. Well, I don't actually do drafts. I wish I did, because if I could do that I'd probably be a lot more productive. I sort of start out putting words in a row and continually revise the whole thing as I go along. And there is a point at which I somehow know when a piece of it is done. I look at it and say, "That's cooked." But otherwise, it's a matter of going through it and looking for words that just somehow aren't the right words and taking them out.
Q. How many hours do you write a day?
A. Well, it depends on what stage I'm in. For the bulk of this book, I wrote about three or four hours a day, in something that pretty much approximates a sort of nine-to-five situation -- I'd get up early, drive my daughter to school, have breakfast, go down, answer the mail, start writing, take a lunch, go back, do some more writing. And that's like an optimal day. When I'm closer to the end of the book, and the buffer gets overloaded and I'm trying to hold the whole structure in my head and figure out what it needs next, it sort of demands I spend more time doing it. And when I was younger, I could get into 12- to 14-hour writing days at the end. But I can't do that any more because, you know, quality control kind of becomes an issue. It takes more, shorter sessions to maintain the right polish on the thing.
Q. You say you try to keep it all in your head. Do you do a lot of prep, or do you just jump in there and start writing?
A. I just jump in. I usually have no more than a very, very vague apprehension of what the end of the thing is going to be. I don't think I could sustain my own interest in the process if I had it all plotted out. I remember being very, very impressed as an English major reading E.M. Forester's opinion that if you were a novelist, and you rather than your characters were in control of where the book was going, you definitely weren't doing your real job. And that stuck with me. It's hard to explain to people who haven't been there, but I believe that absolutely. When I meet another writer of fiction, one of the bonding (or non-bonding) issues for me is when I discover whether or not the human being I'm talking to who writes these books is WHO WRITES THE BOOK. If I'm talking to the guy who writes the book, we're probably not going to wind up being that close -- because NOBODY ever gets to talk to the guy who writes my books, not even me. [laughs]
Q. So there's a dichotomy there.
A. Yeah. My job is to sandpaper down the membrane between my conscious and my unconscious, and let my unconscious do the job. I mean, the hardest thing I ever have to do is just get out of the way and let whatever produces this material do its thing. I wish it were easy. [laughs]
Q. It really isn't, is it?