William Gibson famously coined the term "cyberspace," and gave us a singular vision of the future in early cyberpunk novels Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. In the three decades since, his fiction has crept closer to a recognizably contemporary setting; the gradual change isn't surprising, given his belief that "cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical."
Along the way he's taken on the occasional nonfiction assignment, with the results collected for the first time in his latest book, Distrust That Particular Flavor . The title refers to Gibson's dislike of the "exasperated visionary" tone of H.G. Wells, a voice Gibson hears in much mainstream sci-fi. Rather than imagine himself capable of predicting the future, he explores our fragmented, ever-changing present, curating the choicest bits on his Twitter feed, @GreatDismal. (The name comes from the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge, located near his childhood home in Virginia.) During his recent book tour, he took time to talk about writing nonfiction, his love of cities, and his particular view of the present – all delivered in careful, precise words barely tinted with Southern accent.
You've written ten novels, but this is your first nonfiction collection. In the introduction you quite endearingly disavow any journalistic training, and suggest that this sort of writing runs counter to the work you really want to do. What does writing nonfiction do for you?
Publishing this collection has made me look at that. I realized, not having read any of these pieces, some of them for years, how much of the underlying idea structure of my work came out of this writing. I never realized it before. So now I can see that there was more going on there, at least for me, than I was aware of. They may have felt like they were counter to the main process, but they were actually very much a part of the process. That was one of the reasons I decided to go ahead and publish them.
When you write fiction, you've said you often start with single provocative line and proceed from there, often without knowing just where you're going. Is the nonfiction process similar?
To some extent. If the piece involves describing an actual experience, or a series of experiences, then I'm freed of having to invent narrative. I've had an experience and I turn it into narrative – which is usually not what I do. But if it's an idea piece rather than an account, the process tends to be more free-form.
You also say these pieces are not quite fiction, but they're not quite nonfiction, either. What do you mean by that?
Not being a journalist, I imagined that if I had journalistic training and work experience, I would probably have a program of techniques and rules for approaching the work. But since I'm not a journalist, I don't have those things, and I don't even know what things I'm supposed to have. I wind up doing it with a novelist's toolkit. I assume that – because you can get degrees in journalism from very reputable universities – I assume that people can be trained to be journalists. I've never been entirely certain that anyone can be trained to be a novelist in the same way.
You've written that, "We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting." In one essay ["My Obsession"] you talk about eBay, long before it became a verb, and using the site to collect watches – not creating objects, but chasing them. What makes you pursue certain artifacts?
I think it's an expression of our old hunter-gatherer module. I think that's the module that lights up for everybody on eBay, regardless of what they're looking for. It's the flea-market gene. It's hunting a bargain, sometimes. But when I went through my "watch process," at the end of it I realized it was about information, about trying to master a body of fairly esoteric knowledge, regardless of what it was about.
For somebody else it could have been hockey statistics. It wasn't really collecting; it was about getting the knowledge. I've now forgotten more than I once knew about that stuff. I found that part of it very satisfying. I can't think of any other way to explain that pleasure.
All my life I've encountered people who were obsessed with one particular class of object or experience, who were constantly pursuing that thing. Since I was a little kid I hadn't afforded myself the opportunity, I guess, to have a hobby. So it became a very serious hobby. And then I somehow got to the other side of it, and the obsession went away. I actually feel better about it since it has gone away.
Have you found similar obsessions since then?
I usually have something like that going on, but not to that formal extent. Serious vintage watch collectors are like serious stamp collectors: there's a certain strange formality to the whole thing. Things approximately like that, that I get into, usually don't have this kind of established seriousness.
The way you describe it sounds like a theme from several of your novels, especially the last trilogy. A character's pursuit of a object with an aura becomes instead a way of understanding that aura, and the esoteric information surrounding the actual, material object.
Now that you mention it, I think that's quite true. That's an interesting comparison, because with the watches there was a real-life MacGuffin. Often I'd be in a situation where there was some fabulously rare and tiny and esoteric lost piece of a watch that I assumed was somewhere out there in the world, if only I could find it. A given watch could never be completed until that piece was determined.
"Suddenly this tiny thing appears in a glass test tube on one's desk: it just seems like a weird kind of magic."
A couple of times I found myself communicating with people whose knowledge of those things was so encyclopedic and so esoteric that while everyone else in the world said, "No, that piece doesn't exist. You'd have to have one custom-made," which would be prohibitively expensive – then, in some back room behind the back room behind the back room, so to speak, I would find somebody who would stare into space, accessing his memory and then say, "There's a shop in Cairo... [Laughs] on the top shelf in the closet behind the counter, there is the piece you need. However, it's not for sale. The only way you can get it is to find this other piece to trade the guy..." And then I would be off looking for the other piece.
Somehow that was delightful. It was like a real-life MacGuffin plot. No one's life hinged on it, but it was a lot of fun. Sort of like a strange kind of fishing.
And also, the things that one has to go through to make this tiny, unique object that one only knows from pictures on the internet – suddenly this tiny thing appears in a glass test tube on one's desk: it just seems like a weird kind of magic.
In one interview you mentioned a shadowy figure who claimed to have become a millionaire by selling Beanie Babies. She strikes me as a very Gibsonian character, like Hubertus Bigend: someone transforming esoteric knowledge into wealth.
There actually were people who either claimed or believed they had become millionaires through cornering the market on rare Beanie Babies. That was a long time ago, 20 years ago. But I didn't entirely make it up.
It's always very odd what people value. The idea of rarity and value and collectibility fascinates me in an abstract sense. It doesn't particularly drive me to obtain things like that; I'm almost annoyed when something I've been interested in becomes valuable. Then it becomes trouble. I have to take care of it.
"If you're able to look at things with one eye in the 21st Century and the other eye in the 20th Century, it provides a kind of perspective that otherwise wouldn't be available."
You also write about, as a kid, feeling liberated by the sci-fi novels that would appear every Wednesday in the local bookstore. They gave you a glimpse of a world far stranger than the one you lived in, but you also had to seek out that strangeness. Today's strangeness seems much more readily accessible. Do you ever wonder about today's youth, who receive their culture in a much different way than you did?
I do. It requires quite a bit of imaginative effort on my part to get a sense of what that must be like. But today's strangeness, while only a few mouse-clicks away from anyone, becomes difficult to find because it has to occur to you to Google it. You may be able to Google everything, but the trick is figuring what you need to Google. Given the near-infinite amount of stuff out there, there's a huge mass of the overall content that none of us will ever see. You could spend your entire lifetime trying to look through all that stuff.
It isn't as though there's no less-trod path. It's simply a matter of figuring out where it is. There are an infinite number of universes of stuff that you can access, but most of us will never see that much of it. So I think people can still find genuinely strange things that no one else they know has ever considered.
That's one of my favorite things about Twitter: You can tweak your feed into a fabulous novelty engine. That's only one thing you can do with it, but it's one of the things I find most entertaining about it.
One essay describes Singapore as "Disneyland with the Death Penalty." I'm curious how that perspective relates to some of the sci-fi futurism of your childhood, the glossy futures you've reacted against in your own work. Singapore, as you describe it, seems ostensibly utopian – it's a benign Tomorrowland – but beneath that it's really quite dystopic, a heavily policed wonderland. Did you consciously make that connection?
Yes, I think I did. It has a kind of heroic futuropolis ethos to it. In retrospect – and I really didn't think of this until after the book had been put together – I think when I went to Singapore I reacted against my first experience of a new kind of (primarily Asian) capitalism, which we now see doesn't necessarily lead to liberal democracy. At the time I wrote that article, China wasn't really happening in the same way; China hadn't gotten that way yet, although now it certainly has now. Singapore was Patient Zero for that kind of capitalist experience. Encountering that for the first time was a shocking experience, and accounts for the vehemence [laughs] of my coverage. If I went to China right now, I would expect it to be that way – it wouldn't shock me.
Were you surprised at the reaction by the Singapore government, which banned Wired?
Once I turned the article in, I thought, "Oh, perhaps I've been a bit harsh. Perhaps I should have cut them a bit of slack; maybe they're not really like that." As soon as they banned the magazine, I thought, "Oh, they really do seem to be like that."
You also write about the allure of cities and how one can experience them, trying to understand the occult information systems that make up cities. Which cities do you find the most fascinating?
London and Tokyo are the two that I have found most reliably fascinating. My new favorite, which I've only visited twice so far, is Berlin. I find Berlin very interesting.
But I'm someone who would rather return to a city that he's visited many times before than visit a new city. I don't know many people who are like that; I like going back to the same place over and over, for years. Because it yields a different experience. If I were the sort of person who went all over the world and only visited each city once, that would be a different sort of experience. I find to really get into a city, I have to go back again and again, and get deeper and deeper into the history and texture of the place.
The three you've mentioned – London, Tokyo, and Berlin – have textures and layers of history that some cities don't.
They do, and I think that's what appeals to me. There's always another layer.
"I think that part of my experience of growing up in the American South in the early '60's was one of living in a place unevenly established in the present."
You once said, "This perpetual toggling between nothing being new, under the sun, and everything having very recently changed, absolutely, is perhaps the central driving tension of my work." That describes a very poignant form of temporal dislocation found in both your fiction and nonfiction.
I think that part of my experience of growing up in the American South in the early '60's was one of living in a place unevenly established in the present. You could look out one window and see the 20th century, then turn and look out another window and see the 19th. My good friend Jack Womack, another novelist from the South, a few hundred miles from where I grew up, had the same experience. He was the person who first pointed that out to me.
That sounds like good preparation for living in the 21st century.
It provides a sort of parallax. If you only have one eye, you don't have depth perception. If you're able to look at things with one eye in the 21st century and the other eye in the 20th century (or possibly even the late-19th), it provides a kind of perspective that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
That parallax is intriguing, given both your strong sense of anti-nostalgia and your refusal to prognosticate in the way many people expect of sci-fi writers.
I don't think nostalgia is a healthy modality. But nostalgia and a sense of history are not the same thing. Nostalgia is a dysfunction of the historical impulse, or a corruption of the historical impulse.
When you looked back (without nostalgia) on the 25 pieces collected in Distrust That Particular Flavor what most surprised you?
There's a certain consistency there that I'm unwilling to look at very closely. But I can see that there are certain things that I seem to always return to, not through any deliberate choice of my own.
Which things do you think you return to?
I hesitate to say. It's one of those things that if I say – I have a superstitious fear of becoming too aware of it. It's like a writer's fear of looking too closely at the source material, else it lose its power. Or somehow stop working.
Read more Verge Interviews and 5 Minutes on The Verge.