Nestled in the middle of Distrust That Particular Flavor, the first collection of non-fiction essays and magazine pieces from cyber-fiction dean William Gibson, is a curious little nugget published in 2003 in the rock ’n’ roll fanzine Ugly Things. “Skip Spence’s Jeans” recounts a visit in the early 1970s to the Bay Area, where a twentysomething Gibson met the titular musician, who played in the psychedelic band Moby Grape before recording his own uniquely troubled, instantly mythologized solo album, Oar. After three pages of painstaking description about Spence’s striking cowboy wardrobe—twill riding jacket, Western-style business shirt, meticulously reconstructed Levi’s—Gibson wraps up the piece with a single, startling line. He never forgot that brief encounter, he recalls, “and it was only a year or so ago that I heard ‘Oar’ for the first time.”
He makes no effort whatsoever to describe the music or his own belated introduction to it, or, say, how Spence might have represented the disillusionment of the post-hippie era. Yet it’s a testament to Gibson’s clinical skills as a writer (and first-class observer) that he can make a fleeting, long-ago first impression sound like a revelation, albeit one on a very deliberately small scale.
Gibson’s highly regarded shelf of speculative fiction, beginning with the 1984 benchmark novel Neuromancer and up through, most recently, the trilogy that ended with 2010’s Zero History, has earned him a hefty utility belt of all-purpose accolades—coiner of the term “cyberspace,” early prophet of the Internet/reality TV/videogames, etc. Yet he has always downplayed his capacity for predictions: “I look for bits of the future that are already here,” he said in a 1999 interview, “and I make note of it.”
He often seems a little uneasy with the visionary mantle that’s been placed on him, and even more so when asked to write outside Interzone. Asked to contribute a preface to a republished anthology by one of his heroes, Jorge Luis Borges, Gibson, in an addendum, calls the assignment “a ridiculously unearned honor.”
“I have never felt entirely comfortable with the pieces collected here,” he readily admits in the introduction to Distrust That Particular Flavor. Despite his misgivings, the book culls some insightfully fussy essays from the back pages of Time, Wired, Rolling Stone, and other outlets on subjects as diverse as Hollywood, 9/11, and his infatuation with fine watches. As with his fiction—the realm in which he’s clearly more comfortable—these pieces return repeatedly to Gibson’s obsession with the uncertainties of what’s next, and our collective, never-ending efforts to figure it out. (Several of the pieces here involve Gibson’s travels in the East; routinely asked why his fiction is so often set in Japan, he explains, “Because Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future.”)
That sense of being perpetually unsettled by the near future is what defines Gibson’s writing. He’s always been up front about his own paradoxical aversion to technological advances in the real world. In the 1999 piece about his eBay obsession with vintage watches, he comically skewers his own ironic lack of computer savvy: When he had his first website designed, “I kept having to go into my kids’ bedrooms and beg for Web access to look at it, which bugged them.”
Yet for all Gibson’s self-effacement, he has highly evolved powers of observation. Distrust That Particular Flavor includes a key example of his occasional journalism, “Disneyland With The Death Penalty,” a 1993 piece that got the assigning magazine, Wired, banned from Singapore. At the otherwise immaculate Singapore airport, Gibson nearly got himself detained for snapping photos of a wayward scrap of crumpled paper. Though he’s often lauded as a big-picture man, these pieces make one thing clear: He’s even better with the little details.