From the moment in 1984 when William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, was published, the soft-spoken Southerner—who relocated to Canada in the late '60s to avoid Vietnam—has been a hero to the kinds of science-fiction readers who favor mind-expanding ideas over two-fisted action. His early work dealt with the possibilities and travails of a hyper-technological future, but over the past decade, Gibson has primarily been setting his novels and short stories in a time closer to our own, where the technology we already live with is regarded with a sense of alien wonder. Gibson recently spoke with The A.V. Club about growing up in Virginia, becoming renowned as a science-fiction seer, and the process of writing his latest novel, Spook Country.
The A.V. Club: People often point to your early books as being prophetic regarding the coming technology, but do you think it's possible that the technicians read your books and then tried to make them a reality?
William Gibson: Oh, absolutely. I know it to be the case, to some minor extent. There was a time in the late '80s, early '90s, when every government in the world decided to have a huge, lavishly funded virtual-reality conference, and I got invited to all of them. So I met lots and lots of the players in the goggles-and-gloves school of virtual reality. None of them actually became the man who invented television, which is what I think all of them expected to become. But to a man or woman, they all allowed as how I had really helped them out. They had this idea, but they'd never been able to explain to anybody what it was. Once they had Neuromancer, they could just go around with a suitcase full of copies, and when people said, "I just can't fathom what you're talking about," they'd say, "Read this. It's sort of like this." [Laughs.] I don't think they were just flattering me; I think they were actually doing that.
What has emerged in the world today doesn't have very much to do with what I was thinking of in the '80s at all, except in some organic way. Except for my having given people something to call what we call "cyberspace." And in Spook Country, in a kind of a low-key way, whenever people are sitting around having coffee in diners and things, they're talking about how that's all over. "Cyberspace" as a term is sort of over. It's over in the way that after a certain time, people stopped using the suffix "-electro" to make things cool, because everything was electrical. "Electro" was all over the early 20th century, and now it's gone. I think "cyber" is sort of the same way. The things that aren't cyberspace seem to comprise a smaller set than things that are.
AVC: One of the themes of the book seems to be that with all this new technology, it's simultaneously harder and easier for people to remain anonymous. Everybody is tagged to a certain extent, but you can also create a whole different identity for yourself and sort of disappear.
WG: Yes, this is true. And it's harder to keep secrets. Or maybe harder and easier simultaneously.
AVC: In your books, you don't necessarily take a "danger of technology" stance, nor do you take a "technology is great" stance. Your position seems to be to be, "This is what is."
WG: I'm often saddened and dismayed to see myself portrayed as either a Luddite, or as a raving technophile. I've always thought that my job was to be as anthropologically neutral about emerging technologies as possible. We don't legislate emergent technologies into existence. We almost never do. They just emerge, dragged forth by Adam Smith's invisible hand. Then we have to see what people are actually going to do with them, and try to legislate to take account of that. The nature of emergent technology is, as Kevin Kelly once said, right out of control. It's an element of human evolution that's completely out of control. It's sort of driving itself, and I don't see it ceasing to do that. Which is good for me, anyway. [Laughs.]
AVC: As a writer whose work requires certain leaps of imagination on the readers' part, do you fight yourself over how clear you want to be in your writing, vs. how much you'd rather create a sense of disorientation in the reader?
WG: I know what you mean, but I don't usually have to fight anything. I'll give you an example. Something that I'd never done before, I did with this book. I shifted the original opening chapter, so that the book opens with the character Hollis rather than Tito. I decided that there was some unconscious level at which I am, frequently, with the opening pages of a book, attempting to get rid of readers that I wouldn't be interested in. I'll open with three or four pages of such high and wordy weirdness that people who can't hack it or aren't clever enough to keep reading will just go away and leave me alone with the readership I like to imagine I have. [Laughs.]
I made a conscious decision, with this book, to flip those two chapters, so that I open with a character who I thought was more user-friendly, and less metaphysical and metaphorical than the strange clouds inside Tito's head. That's a real example of me doing exactly what you just asked me about, but it's a rare example. Generally, I trust the part of me that actually writes these books—the part I don't have very much conscious contact with—to keep it pretty much on the rails. When I'm writing, I show the pages on a daily basis to a couple of people I trust, to see if any of them say, "Wait a minute. What happened? What is this?" But that actually is very rare. They're more likely to tell me that I've repeated myself. They'll say, "You did exactly the same thing 24 pages ago." The rest of it gets caught in the edit.
AVC: You've continued to set your books in kind of a noirish world. When you walk through real life, do you see the world that way? In terms of dark shadows, shadowy figures and things like that?
WG: I think there's quite a bit of that around. I don't much live my life as if I was living in a Raymond Chandler novel, which is probably a good thing. [Laughs.] But there are moments when—depending on what neighborhood I'm in, or what city I'm in, or what channel on television I'm watching—my eyes get really wide and I go, "Chandler wasn't even close. This shit is truly dire." We live in pretty extreme times. Some pretty dark stuff.
I don't know what constitutes "noir" in 2007. I mean, would The Wire be noir? I don't think so. Actually, noir—I was taught in college—is a kind of baroque pop version of literary naturalism. Anyway, that's the way some critics have looked at it. I think that a show like The Wire is the closest we come these days to naturalism. It's a genuine, authentic attempt at naturalism. I've never really attempted naturalism before, but I value it a lot, so all of its more baroque forms have been very valuable to me. One of them, I think, is noir.
I haven't thought about stuff like that since I was an undergraduate. [Laughs.] I'm amazed I can still do it.
AVC: You were born in South Carolina. Did you spend most of your youth in the South before moving to Canada?
WG: I grew up in southwestern Virginia. I was born in South Carolina, but only because my parents had a vacation cabin or something there on the beach. I was like a summer baby. But I did grow up in the South. I grew up in serious, serious Appalachia, in a very small town. I was thinking about that this morning, and I thought that the thing about growing up in the South in the 1950s and early '60s was that it produced memories that look like the 1930s and 1940s. It wasn't the South of today. It was this old, old, old, backward, weird, isolated kind of South, the pre-television South. I think that contributed a lot to my worldview, and the way I look at things as a writer. I could simultaneously see this ancient Cormac McCarthy kind of reality in this Southern mountain world, plus Sputnik and Twilight Zone on television. The gap between where I lived and the media universe was much wider than it possibly could be, now that everybody's online. I mean, my grandmother refused to call the Civil War the Civil War. She called it the Northern Invasion, and she wasn't joking. She was a very, very old lady. My mother was born in 1907, believe it or not. I was raised by Edwardians. My grandmother gave me a little bronzed bust of Robert E. Lee when I was 5 years old. Seriously, we were scarily Southern. She couldn't conceivably understand the world today.
AVC: Do you get back to the South much these days?
WG: Not very much, aside from Atlanta, which I visit occasionally. I haven't been back to my hometown for about 10 years. It doesn't much figure on the book-tour circuit. I sort of stay tuned into it though, through the Internet. I think I'd be less surprised at the changes just from following it online. I read local newspapers kind of at random from small, Southern towns, just to savor it. But yeah, I mean, television did it, basically. I think the South is extremely different, and it'll be that much different again in another 20 years. It's become the place that's changing fastest, I guess because it had the most changing to do.
AVC: The character Tito is Cuban-Chinese, which seems to sort of speak to the idea that borders are dissolving. Do you think that's the way the world is moving, to the dissolution of regional distinctions?
WG: Well, I've always been interested in people who aren't from anywhere in particular. I think it's all melting. This has been true for as long as I can remember in my adult life. If I meet someone and discover that they're an absolute, very earnest nationalist, it's unlikely that I'm going to get much closer to them. I don't understand them. It doesn't matter where they're from, I just don't get it. I'm a multi-national kind of guy, I think.
AVC: There's a sense in Spook Country that your three protagonists are living through a fragment of a much larger story. There's a lot going on, and they're part of it, but they're not the main part of it. That seems to be a trend in contemporary fiction: stories that take place on just the outside fingernail of something much larger. Did that occur to you at all while you were writing?
WG: I'm not a very intentional writer. I try to be as unintentional as possible. What I basically try to do is invite the zeitgeist in to tea. I haven't been reading much contemporary fiction lately, but if you're seeing characters operating on the outside of things that they can't fully comprehend, then you're seeing part of the zeitgeist, and I think you might also be seeing an emergent, new kind of realism, where the individuals that write books are willing to admit to themselves—and to some extent to the reader—that they don't know what the hell is going on. I mean, if they're trying to be really honest, and they're not just trying to sell some conspiracy theory, they're writing about characters who don't know what the hell is going on, because… well, we don't.