William Gibson interview: time travel, virtual reality, and his new book

Our geography is dissolving into the digital


Science fiction author William Gibson’s work, from cyberpunk classic Neuromancer to his more recent, less overtly futuristic novels, is usually more concerned with smart cultural analysis than plotting the mechanics of new technology. Gibson has given us a lens to see everything from high fashion to virtual reality, coining the term “cyberspace” to refer to what would soon become a ubiquitous computer network in the real world (“And they won’t let me forget it,” he quipped after being introduced with that factoid in the TV show Wild Palms.)

But time travel is one of the most mechanical genres around — not necessarily in scientific rationale, but in the rigorous attempt to fit together pieces of the past, present, and future without leaving loose ends or, at worst, unresolved paradoxes. And Gibson’s latest novel, The Peripheral, fits at least a few of its tropes. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and it’s not any less concerned with how our present-day world could look after a few decades. Our review of The Peripheral went up yesterday, but we also got to talk with Gibson last month about predicting the future, insulting the past, and the societal half-life of 3D-printed cronuts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity; it includes mild spoilers for The Peripheral.

How do you write something that could be called a time travel story without getting stuck in exposition or explanation of how it works?

I always liked a story that two friends of mine published in the '80s, in which they got rid of the paradox angle by proposing that each time the past is contacted, it splits into another timeline, so it's actually an alternate reality story rather than a time travel story, and that frees you of the head-hurting or pleasurable, depending on how you look at it, paradoxes of imagining time travel. And in the case of my friends' story and The Peripheral, it frees the future to try to outsource the past. In that story — which is called "Mozart in Mirrorshades" by Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling — the uncaring future is exploiting physical resources from any number of alternate realities with no care for what happens to the inhabitants of those worlds. And I didn't want to do that either, because I didn't want it to be directly physical. I wanted it to be emailing the past and taking it from there.

I doubt if it's any more plausible in terms of known physics, but I found it had a very different feel. I'm continually grateful for not being in the middle of writing a physical time travel story like the ones that I'd grown up on. But as our geography slowly dissolves into the digital, then it gets very interesting. Because if you can sit in a hangar in Kansas and fly a drone bomber over Pakistan, and give yourself really bad jet lag by doing that long enough, where are we actually?

The Peripheral Cropped

"The cronuts are depicted as having run their full natural cycle."
In that vein, I'm curious how exactly you chose the present-day things that you were going to put in. Some of them feel very specifically designed to be dated, like cronuts.

Well, [Flynne’s] time frame is some vague number of years from now, and when the cronuts found their way into the story, the cronuts were already slightly dated. But by the time of the story, probably the only place that people are having cronuts is from one of the global food outlets in this tiny backwater town. The cronuts are depicted as having run their full natural cycle from hot hipster novelty to being something at McDonalds.

What about everything else? You've talked before about trying to create science fiction that's not necessarily predictive but allowing people to situate themselves in the time in which it's written.

Well, I think I'm still doing that in The Peripheral, but there are a couple of other agendas going on, some of which I probably haven't figured out yet myself. One thing I wanted particularly to look at was how we culturally view the past and the people in the past and how we culturally view the future and the people in the future. One of my starting points from looking at that myself, as I started to write, was my own fondness and appreciation of Deadwood. Because I loved that Deadwood sort of opens on this little dirt-street town that we know, really, from our popular culture. But once you're there for a while, we realize that these people in the past, some of them not only aren't rubes, but they're clever and badder than we are! We'd have a really hard time if we had to deal with them directly, because they're both ruthless and very smart, and in their own way very sophisticated.

On the other hand, when we look at the future, in fiction, it's quite common to find the people in the future depicted as decadent and lacking in our vigor.

"The past are hicks, and the future are suckers."

The Eloi [from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.]

Exactly. And I find that comic that we do it that way. The past are hicks and the future are suckers. And we're obviously "the business" somehow, so as I got going with the story, I realized that I wanted to introduce the inhabitants of a decadent far future, or at least something that Netherton thinks of as a decadent far future, to really sophisticated hicks, and rednecks, in our very near present. I mean, Flynne's town — which is never named and indeed the state is never named, nor did I have one in mind — isn't that much of a stretch for us. There are parts of that future that have definitely already arrived in the less fortunate parts of the rural United States.

I do a lot of virtual reality coverage, and I can't get through an interview or talk without someone bringing up the quote from Neuromancer about consensual hallucinations. I'm curious what you think about virtual reality and how you feel about being such a significant part, psychologically, to people.

Only recently, like in the last two months, did I get to try what I get was the latest developer version of Oculus Rift. I couldn't get a full sense of it, because I'm too nearsighted for the accessory lens set to give me 20/20 in the simulation. But in kind of a fuzzy way, I got it. And the first thing I asked the person who was running this demonstration for me was, why couldn't they do this in the late ‘80s, early '90s, when it was the cover of every tech magazine on the planet? I was wondering, why is this all happening now? And the demonstrators said well, you're essentially looking at a smartphone. The smartphone technology and the smartphone industry have evolved to the point where we can do this smoothly, and more smoothly in a few months.

As far as my cultural association with it, whatever it is that I represent to people in the VR business that would cause them to quote that line from Neuromancer, I guess it's fair enough. But when people can go back and do all of the results on art in the 1980s, I don't think I'll really hold up as being the person who really, really saw that. I think that it's become associated with me in a kind of often really, really dubious attribution that the internet provides. I didn't feel that it was that original, when I was writing.

I had, a decade earlier, read a Harlan Ellison story called "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," which takes place in a virtual world, within the programming of an AI. And you're decades since I read that story. I don't think I've read it since I wrote Neuromancer. It just doesn't have any of our technical language as it came to exist subsequently. But the environment was there. And it probably wasn't the first place I'd run into that riff in science fiction. I definitely felt like I was using a kind of known stock part of this. Not as frequently used in the past as the rocket ship, but still, science fiction readers were going to have no trouble getting their heads around the construct.

And then it didn't arrive. It kind of arrived, made a fuss, and then went away while the smartphone industry evolved the stuff they need to actually do it.

"The real future ... is too peculiar to make entertaining science fiction."

It feels like there are a lot of people trying to make science fiction happen — the Oculus Rift is a bunch of people trying to imitate science fiction stories, in a lot of experiences right now. Do you think that's a good way of actually going about technology, or does it send us down the wrong path?

I know for sure that that happens to some extent, and that people who build real things can be inspired to a real extent by having read a piece of science fiction. But it seems to me that it's a morally neutral proposition. Except… on one or two occasions, things have occurred to me in the course of writing a piece of science fiction that I put into the story and then shortly thereafter went back and removed it, because I didn't want anyone to do it. I didn't want anyone to even think about doing it. And so something that had initially delighted me as being, "Oh, that's obvious! But I don't think anyone that I know of has ever suggested that you could do that," you kind of wake up the next morning and go, naah, I'm taking that out and I'm never mentioning it anywhere. Because I don't want to give anybody that idea.

And that doesn't happen very often. One of the reasons it doesn't happen very often is that I don't purely invent very much of the imaginary future technology in my work. I'm more likely to collage it up out of something that exists now. It might be something that just barely exists now, it might be something that existed in the past that some people aren't aware of. Like the technical future of my books is necessarily, I think, a collage. If, for instance, I had an idea and a scientific rationale for some technology that no one's ever dreamed of, some people would think that that would be really good for me! Because "originality," and I'd be the first person who thought of it. But in reality, I think if I had that, I'd probably wind up finding out that I couldn't actually use it. Because it's too totally unfamiliar.

Along the same lines — and for me beginning to prove it — is trying to imagine what it would have been like if somewhere in the 1960s, some science fiction writer had completely and very, very accurately envisioned cellphones. Cellular telephony, which wasn't even a twinkle in anyone's eye in the '60s, aside from Dick Tracy's wrist radio television and things like that. What if someone had just gotten that and written a novel around it? How would it have been received? I don't even think it would have been publishable. It would just have been too bizarre for people. I don't think it would have worked. The real future, when it arrives, which it constantly does, is too peculiar to make entertaining science fiction, if that makes any sense.

I was thinking of trying — and because I'm mentioning it, it probably means I've decided I won't be doing it — to write a novel in which someone is researching the biography of a prolific but largely unpublished science fiction writer who was born in the late 1920s and lived and kept writing into the early years of the 21st century. So there are these stacks and stacks of rejected novels sitting in a storage segment somewhere. And someone's going through them. And what they discover is that this guy predicted everything. He got everything. But what the reader in the story would know, because they'd be in a version of the real world, is that he got the technology, but he never got what people did with it. So that every excerpt from his unpublished work would be unintentionally hilarious, from his point of view. He wasn't trying to be funny.

"prose fiction is a remarkably efficient tool for that particular kind of storytelling."

Do you think that science fiction's native form still should be text? Do you think the medium for the most effective kinds of storytelling about the weirdness of the present or the future has changed?

No, I don't. I'm slightly prejudiced, and it could completely be age, towards the idea that prose fiction is a remarkably efficient tool for that particular kind of storytelling. Or it can be. You don't really see it optimally played that often. But I don't know. I think it's an impulse we have that can be expressed in whatever form we want to express it in. I don't think anything really, even prose, has completely the edge now. I'm not even sure what it will mean to us eventually.

I often think that if I could know one thing, and one thing only, about the future, it would be what they think of us. If I knew that, I'd be able to infer what had happened, I think in fairly considerable detail. In a way that when we think about the Victorians, what we think about them would appall them. They wouldn't be able to get their heads around it, because they thought they were doing really well.