Pushing Back at the Shabbiness of Simulacra: An Interview With William Gibson

Cover of Canadian Notes & Queries - Issue 81 In January 2011 I was given the opportunity to interview William Gibson for issue 81 of Canadian Notes & Queries, despite not being a journalist and having no real experience conducting interviews—this was, in fact, only the second interview I’d ever conducted, the first being a last-minute assignment to talk to Dave Clark, formerly of the Rheostatics, when he stopped by the community radio station where I was volunteering as host of a contemporary world music show. The interview was posted on CNQ‘s website for a time, but was taken down after their recent redesign. Since the rights have long since reverted to me, I am reposting it here for posterity1. Special thanks to Mr. Gibson for being so graceful in the face of my inexperience, and saving me from myself.

William Gibson is a visionary author who revitalized science fiction with the hard-boiled cyberpunk novel Neuromancer in 1984, and who has continued to push its boundaries ever since. Gibson has written six near-future science fiction novels (the Sprawl trilogy and the Bridge trilogy), as well as The Difference Engine, with Bruce Sterling, a steampunk alternate-history set in Victorian England. In 2010 he released Zero History, his tenth novel, and third in a loosely connected series of genre-defying techno-thrillers with contemporary settings. Beginning with 2003’s Pattern Recognition, they are often referred to as the “Blue Ant” or “Bigend” trilogy, after the fictional advertising agency that appears in all three books, and its owner, Hubertus Bigend. Also in 2010, Gibson’s first new short story in more than a decade, “Dougal Discarnate,” was included in the anthology Darwin’s Bastards, edited by Zsuzsi Gartner. August C. Bourré interviewed William Gibson via email in early January 2011.

August C. Bourré: You’ve said before that science fiction is your “native literary culture.” Has your view of that culture changed since you began writing? Is it still a single culture? Was it ever?

William Gibson: I think the key to this is Dennis Danvers’ “narrative strategy” of SF, but opposed to the genre of SF2. The narrative strategy is a lot older than the genre. I’d date the genre as we’ve known it to Hugo Gernsback. I grew up as a reader amid the genre, but the narrative strategy was present too, to whatever extent.

I suspect that I was rather quickly drawn to the edges of SF-as-genre. A lot of the core texts of mid-century SF never attracted me. Quite by accident I went from Heinlein juveniles to Alfred Bester, and it was the Bester that stuck. And I was reading Bester during SF’s New Wave incursion, being introduced to Ballard and probably even Borges by Judith Merrill’s Year’s Best SF collections, which were really splendidly subversive. So by the time I was fifteen I had no sense of the genre being one thing; quite the opposite. I’d had my first exposure to a revolutionary schism in art.

AB: I’ve recently heard it suggested that the Industrial Revolution was in fact the (or perhaps a) Singularity3, and I wonder if you think SF—the narrative strategy—might have emerged as a way of coping with that.

WG: I’ve never thought of it that way, but probably because the idea of the Singularity has always looked to me like a sort of secular Rapture. One of [the] impulses that led to The Difference Engine, though, was a sense [Bruce] Sterling and I had of the Industrial Revolution having been a far deeper and more intense shift than we ordinarily, culturally, give it credit for having been.

AB: You’ve never shied from the science fiction label, but some, literary authors in particular, will bend over backwards to avoid such associations, even when borrowing heavily from the conventions of genre fiction. Beyond marketing, do those kinds of rigid divisions matter?

WG: Readers who are excessively concerned with genre, and the boundaries of genre, don’t strike me as particularly sophisticated readers. And that can be true on both sides of that fence. The fence itself I regard as parochial, but nothing the literary side has ever said about SF has bothered me quite as much as SF’s subcultural use of “mundane” as [a] descriptor for the whole of literature that isn’t genre SF. I haven’t encountered that usage for decades, but it was quite prevalent when I began writing.

AB: A number of interviewers have asked about your use of Twitter in Zero History, but I’m more interested in the Gabriel Hounds line, which is this very high quality, very rare brand of denim clothing. Like Cayce’s Buzz Rickson jacket in Pattern Recognition, it’s an almost fetishized revisiting of an older fashion, an older technology, yet still highly functional in addition to being cool. Is this how nostalgia plays out in an increasingly atemporal culture?

WG: That stuff is all very literally real, and I watch it playing out in our culture. I don’t know what it means, but I find it poignant, and admire and am friends with some people who do it. My friend Kiya, in San Francisco, will sell you a pair of $600 jeans, but only if you really want them. If you ask him why they cost that much, he’ll probably shrug and tell you you don’t need them. And his clientele isn’t particularly wealthy. Passionate, in a way. But I don’t see it as nostalgia, which I assume ordinarily to be the conservative modality. It’s about pushing back at the shabbiness of simulacra, maybe. Kind of a William Morris move for the 21st Century.

AB: The relationship between physical and digital space has always figured heavily in your work, but both the Sprawl trilogy and the Bridge trilogy had strong ties to a single place even when they weren’t explicitly used as settings, an element that’s gone from the Blue Ant books. Despite that, the relationship between the physical and the digital seems even stronger, just more distributed. Has there been a shift in how you see location as a concept?

WG: In Spook Country I made the point that cyberspace has everted, colonised the physical. That was a big deal for me, and I signaled it by actually using “cyberspace,” a word I hadn’t used in fiction since Mona Lisa Overdrive. The eversion continues to distribute itself, and here we are.

AB: In your conversation with David Mitchell at the International Festival of Authors one of you—and I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten who—raised the point that authors of historical fiction require a very similar set of tools to those of science fiction writers. Are the tools required for writers from different genres becoming more and more similar in general?

WG: That was me. That’s always been true. Imaginary futures are history backward. What we call genre fiction is often much less demanding, and promises in effect to only surprise in ways that won’t surprise us. The purchaser of an airport thriller isn’t buying it to experience, say, an unreliable narrator. But any genre can, potentially at least, be written to any level. The westerns of Cormac McCarthy, say. Though the mechanisms of genre as commerce and subculture exist to prevent that happening.

AB: You wrote yourself into the not-quite-a-ghost-story “Dougal Discarnate,” something I don’t recall seeing in your work before. How did that piece come about?

WG: I entirely misunderstood what the collection was meant to consist of! I somehow thought that that it was a collection of Vancouver stories, with some stress on psychogeography. No idea where that came from. It was a break from writing Zero History, so I opted for first-person as least familiar, biggest change.

AB: Was Dougal named for parapsychologist Serena Roney-Dougal, by any chance?

WG: No. Not sure where it did come from. I had a sense of it sounding archaically Canadian. I wouldn’t name a character that directly after anyone. The names are important to me, but not in any way I can easily explain.

AB: Having spent three novels with Hubertus Bigend in the here and now, I wonder if you have any sense of what’s next?

WG: As usual, I have no idea. I’m not even entirely sure that Bigend is fully ready to let me go.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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