American Culture

Cory Doctorow interviews William Gibson

Cadogan Hall was an inspired venue for this evening’s Intelligence2 dialog between Cory Doctorow and William Gibson, given the themes of Gibson’s last three novels (including the most recent, Zero History, which Gibson is on a tour for). It’s right off Sloane Square and the shopping haven of King’s Road, home of some of the greatest concentrations of flashy brand stores in London. And Gibson has been pondering the meaning of brands, and their increased pervasiveness in, if not dominance of, modern culture. Which has produced some entertaining reading that, while not science fiction, deals with many of the same themes that science fiction writers deal with—particularly the role of those individuals in society, any society, that want out, or want to remain marginal.

Gibson started off with a little spiel (that he was asked to deliver) about how he came to write these books—or how he writes. Which, he explained, was not by starting out with an idea—rather, he “finds ideas through the narrative,” which is not always clearly defined when he starts. He actually referred to the process later on as “the dream state.” Actually, in an evening of great quotes, this was one of them: “I’m totally happy working form the dream state—I just wish it were easier to find it.” Gibson also said he was perfectly happy letting the reader find the theme—these days, he usually waits for someone else to tell him what the books are about. He described his past three books—Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History—as a decade-long pinhole camera exposure of this past decade. The camera didn’t move, and the decade just passed by. (This will make no sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books, I admit.)

Doctorow made the individual/society discussion the starting point of his interview, which it really was—Doctorow, who is a fine raconteur in his own right, pretty much just asked the questions, and Gibson, in his diffident way, would eventually get around to answering them. And Doctorow asked about the running theme of most of Gibson’s novels, that of Bohemia, and how it always seems to survive, and whether we need it to. Gibson went with that for a bit, but they disagreed a bit on what form Bohemia actually takes these days—Gibson seemed to find it interesting that Bohemia is more diffused now. In fact, when he meets someone playing the Bohemian, he assumes it’s a stance, and an archaic one at that. Both Gibson and Doctorow agreed that there appears to be a greater degree of co-existence between “them” and “us,” although Gibson thought the nature of Bohemia had changed, quoting Bruce Sterling (as he often did): “Bohemia is the dreamtime of industrial societies.” Fine, Gibson said, but we’re post-industrial now—is Bohemia the same thing that it was before? That’s not clear.

Doctorow then discussed Gibson’s fascination with Japan, and wanted to know whether Gibson had a similar curiosity about China. Gibson said no, pretty emphatically. He remains fascinated with Japanese culture, both then and now—but has no real interest in China. (Mrs W and I both agreed we felt the same way.) Gibson pointed out he still lives in Vancouver, with one of the largest Chinese populations outside of China itself, so he’s surrounded by aspects of Chinese culture—but it just doesn’t hold the same fascination for him.

Doctorow then moved on to the well-traveled meme about Gibson’s power of prophecy, which is how magazines like TIME like to describe Gibson—“prophetic.” Gibson denied this, of course, as he has in the past, pointing out that science fiction is more abut the period in which it was written than about any success it has in foretelling the future, which is usually accidental. He told a great story about learning about the first half of the 20th century by reverse engineering much of the science fiction written in the late 1940s. What he tried to do in his early books, Gibson said, was to describe how people interacted with certain aspects of technology, without being judgmental about the technology, but by concentrating on the emotional impact it had on people. He was therefore constantly surprised by encountering readers who insisted they wanted that technology, and now.

Doctorow raised a point that he was clearly interested in, and Gibson too, as it turned out—were the two of them too old now to notice changes in the culture when they occurred? Since the average age of the audience was about 35, I would say, and Mrs W and I were clearly among the half dozen in the audience who were over 60 (as is Gibson, for that matter), this was a good question. Gibson’s response was good—he wasn’t sure if it was that, or that changes now just happen in a different way. They both referred back to a 1999 interview Doctorow did with Gibson in which they discussed the fact that change going forward was gong to be exponential, and it sure has been—but not in completely identifiable ways.

Doctorow then moved on to Steampunk, which Gibson made some attempt to distance himself from, surprisingly. He did describe The Difference Engine (which he co-wrote with Bruce Sterling) as “an incredibly peculiar piece of work,” and said it was the only one of his books he enjoyed going back to and re-reading parts of. He mainly thought most Steampunk art was too ornate—he clearly likes minimalism. Must be that Japanese influence. Doctorow had a good one-liner about Steampunk from Cherie Priest—“Steampunk is what happens when Goth discovers brown.”

There was lots more, but it all slipped by pretty quickly. The audience questions were a mix of the occasionally interesting (“was Milgrim a stand-in for you?”) and the inevitably stupid (“what advice do you have for writers?”). And gave the audience, mostly male, of course, with a high percentage of them in black shirts, one more great line: “I find everything increasingly interesting, and I can’t imagine how it’s going to go.” Well said.

Update: Cory Doctorow has helpfully provided a link to a recording of the chat over at his website. Nice of him.

8 replies »

  1. Thanks for this. Interviews with Gibson are often about as off-center as his actual stories are.

    I’m in the middle of Zero History right now and find myself frequently struck by how certain early themes and characters are recycling back into ostensibly new narratives. Bigend is Virek. Hollis is Marly. And somewhere out there is probably looming a grand, collective presence that’s playing the part of the deconstructed Cores, all from Count Zero. And that’s just the start. I hope I can get my head around it enough to maybe do a piece on these echoes once I finish.

    Meanwhile, I look forward to the novel Gibson will one day write, which will be 400 densely packed pages of minutely detailed description of a Victorian-era elevator in some hotel. If there has ever been a bigger fetishist author I don’t know who it might have been.

  2. well, it’s scary how detail oriented he is at times–there were moments in Zero History when I thought I was reading Stephen King, there were so many brand names whipping by. But have to disagree on Bigend–he’s not Virek. Virek becomes less and less human as events move along. Bigend is lots of things, but he’s also very human–probably more so in this than in the earlier books. Keep reading,

    I thought about the Hollis/Marly thing too, and Doctorow actually raised the issue, and Gibson denied it. Of course, he also said that Milgrim wasn’t modeled on him, but then kind of stared off into space and pondered it a bit. So who the hell knows. I think Cayce and Marly make more sense as mates.

    I want him to write something with Sterling again.

    • He can deny Marly/Hollis all he wants, but the structural similarities are clear. I’ll take your word on Bigend for now.

      I was also struck by a connection between Milgrim and Armitage. About a third of the way through the new book we see Milgrim, who has been more or less reconstructed, becoming more himself? “Arriving”? There’s something nearly tangible in the way his personality shifts that’s kind of the opposite of what happens in Neuromancer when Armitage begins coming apart. Maybe something, maybe nothing, but I find myself thinking how interesting it would be if, after all these years, WG is winding back around to a new neo-cyberpunk trilogy of some sort.

  3. There’s audio:

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  4. Just posted a link to Cory Doctorow’s blog with a link to the audio. Sam, finish the book.

    • Every few pages I find another line that makes me think about the links I’ve mentioned. And last night I hit the sequence where Milgrim realizes that he’s disappointed when, despite his paranoia, he discovers that you can’t do some things with computers.

      No, that’s not like Gibson AT ALL. You know, after he got his money for Neuromancer, he bought his first computer. And was disappointed by it because it wouldn’t do any of the cool things he had imagined it might.

      I don’t know where this is all going, but Gibson is simply too good for this to all be an accident.