William Gibson

Cult-favorite writer William Gibson isn’t just the author of 10 novels including the iconic Neuromancer and last year’s Zero History. He’s also a well-known critic of the way we think about science fiction and our relationship to technology. Gibson will be in Chicago Oct. 16 to talk about “Technology’s Tomorrow” with Northwestern University’s Bill Savage as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. The A.V. Club talked to Gibson about his first foray into non-fiction, his contributions to science fiction, and watching Jersey Shore in Mumbai.

The A.V. Club: The title of your conversation at the Chicago Humanities festival is “Technology’s Tomorrow: Sci-Fi With William Gibson.” So what’s next for science fiction?

William Gibson: I don’t actually think of science fiction as primarily a predictive form. That’s its cultural reputation and that’s what lots of people believe it is, but my approach has always been that it’s invariably about the day it was written in. Regardless of what the author tells us, it can’t really be anything else. There’s no way it can be about the future, except it pretends to be the future. It’s like reading 1984. What it’s actually about is 1948, the year it was written. You see Orwell responding to various aspects of the world he lived in, which was changing, since the world always is. You can see that he got some of it right, but a lot doesn’t really fit with our experiences at all. Our experience today is the result of emergent technologies driving us somewhere.

AVC: Is there any particular technology you’d like to see that would make your life better?

WG: My mind doesn’t work that way. I watch for emergent technologies and pay attention to what people say they’ll be good for, then see what we actually use them for. It never occurred to me that a tiny telephone with a wireless transceiver would do whatever it is that it’s done to us. [Laughs.]

One of the funniest things about Neuromancer, which I wrote in 1984, is that there are no cell phones. If I were a 14-year-old reading it today, I’d be about two chapters in and think, “What happened to all the cell phones?” Becoming quaint so quickly in science fiction is unavoidable. Either we won’t see the technologies that are emerging ahead of us, or we won’t be able to see the uses that people will put them to, which are almost never what they were intended for.

AVC: Your first collection of non-fiction, Distrust That Particular Flavor, comes out in January. Have you always wanted to write non-fiction?

WG: I’m a reluctant writer of non-fiction, in part because I don’t really feel qualified. I have the toolkit of a novelist, and no training as a journalist or science writer. But I’ve been surprised to realize how much of my fiction over the years has been steered by getting non-fiction assignments and agreeing to go meet someone or look at something. I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone and have to think about these things differently.

AVC: So what are the essays about? 

WG: One is about the future of digital film; another is about Orwell’s version of the future versus what we live in today. It’s a very mixed bag. There are 25 pieces, which range from my review of a fairly recent Steely Dan album to musing on where the Digital, with a capital D, might be headed.

AVC: Are they new for this book? Or have they been published elsewhere?

WG: Most of them have been published elsewhere, but there are some talks that have never been published.

AVC: You’re really active on Twitter. What’s the appeal of that versus other forms of social media?

WG: I think it’s the simplicity that appeals to me. It’s a very simple idea, and the experience isn’t really structured. It’s completely wide open in terms of who you find yourself interacting with. The simplicity of Twitter’s structure makes it possible for a greater variety of things to take place there, and I can’t think of how I’d improve on that. Of course, they’ll probably keep “improving” it until it doesn’t work as well. Every time they add a new functionality, it becomes less straightforward.

AVC: I scrolled through your feed a bit, and you remark, “Successive RTing eventually gnaws the original tweeter off the end.” What do you think about this collective consciousness that’s emerging through technology?

WG: That’s a good question, and I was wondering that myself just yesterday. I don’t think it’s answerable though, because while we can’t yet say what broadcast network television did to us, it obviously did a lot. It changed the world, but as to how, I don’t think we can know. There’s the anthropological argument that you can’t be objectively aware of your own culture. So Twitter is doing something to people, myself included, but I don’t know what it is.

AVC: You’ve said in interviews that you’re not a very technical person and not interested in how technology works, but rather how people behave around it. What gadgets do you use?

WG: Gadgets are usually the last thing I think about, and if there’s something new, I’ll get to the store for the final shipment of the first generation when it’s on sale. So I have last year’s stuff. My tech choices endlessly disappoint a big sector of my readers. I have a 4-year-old MacBook and a 2-year-old iPad. And some kind of fairly smart phone.

AVC: So do you use the MacBook to write?

WG: Actually, and it’s the one thing I thought it wouldn’t be good for—I use the iPad. I’m sort of a miserable typist because I’m so slow, and the touch screen keyboard isn’t a problem for me. Then I e-mail it to myself and take it to the final stages in a word processor. But for first drafts, I use the iPad.

AVC: What do you think about reality television today?

WG: I’m a quite proud of what I anticipated about reality television from my books in the early ’90s, which I based on the early seasons of Cops and on the amazing stuff I had read about happening on Japanese shows and the British Big Brother. Nobody here followed those shows, but they were just crazed, weird, invasive things. So I took that and exaggerated it, to what I thought was a ridiculous extent. But what I arrived at is something that doesn’t even seem outrageous today in terms of what we’re doing now. It’s an amazing thing, and something I watch people do.

AVC: You watch other people watch reality TV?

WG: Yeah! Just watching people watch it is incredibly interesting. What interests me is when people of one culture and class start following individuals from other cultures and classes. With Jersey Shore, billions of people around the world who have never been to New Jersey, and will never go to New Jersey, watch it. It’s become part of our mythology. Some kid watching Jersey Shore in Mumbai is incorporating what the guys there do into his self-model of masculine behavior. It’s horrific when you think about it.

AVC: That is really scary.

WG: I know. It’s strange that it’s going on and must be going on everywhere to some extent. I wish there were reality television for Mumbai, so we could watch that.

AVC: Your books, especially your later books, feature art prominently. Have you tried more consciously to explore art in your work?

WG: When I started trying to write science fiction, I made a list of things I couldn’t find in science fiction, and one of those was an awareness of the arts. So I wound up making that central to the worlds I’m describing in my books. It’s a part of the world that I naturally pay quite a bit of attention to.

AVC: Which contemporary writers are doing a good job with science fiction?

WG: Oh there are a ton, but one who comes immediately to mind is Nick Harkaway. He’s an English writer whose second novel is about to come out. I haven’t read that one, but his first, The Gone-Away World, is the freshest thing in science fiction that I’ve read in years.

AVC: When you’re not reading science fiction, what else are you reading?

WG: I actually read everything else much more than I read science fiction. It’s a relatively small part of my reading diet. I read a lot of non-fiction, because it’s hard for me to read fiction when I’m writing a book. The part of me that writes books overlaps with the part of me that reads books. So when I’m working on a novel, the last thing I want to do is read a novel—but I like to read something every day, so really good non-fiction does the trick. Plus I get to reuse it in a way, in my writing, that I don’t when I read other people’s fiction.

AVC: What are you working on now?

WG: Now that my non-fiction collection is pretty much wrapped, I’m in the early stages of my next novel.