For many, William Gibson will go down in history as the writer who coined the term "cyberspace," first in a short story and later in his seminal novel Neuromancer. As one of our foremost practitioners of science fiction, his achievements are far greater than this one-word legacy. Recently, he shifted the setting of his books to the present, moving them into a genre called "speculative fiction," which is another way of saying sci-fi set in the present, a la his 2010 novel Zero History.
His latest book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, is very different indeed, a collection of journalism and nonfiction written over a period of nearly 20 years spanning his interests from music to Japan to Ebay and beyond. The essays are full of wonderful insights, including his self-deprecating -- and occasionally verifiable -- opinion that they are not as good as he had hoped they would be. A short, updated postscript follows each piece in which Gibson tells us how he feels about each topic today. It's a winning strategy that only endears him to readers even more.
David Hershkovits: Do you like being a pundit about the future?
William Gibson: Actually, no I don't. It's not part of the job description I thought I signed up for 30 years ago. I suddenly go from being the guy in the basement that writes to a guy talking to people.
DH: Then you shouldn't have been so successful?
WG: Well, I was up for that but it's the being expected to make sense of it afterward part that I'm very hesitant about.
DH: You wrote that you never really felt comfortable with the pieces in Distrust That Particular Flavor while you were working on them. As you reread them for publication, how did you feel then?
WG: Initially I had the same doubts about it, but as we went through the editing process, and I was able to get rid of a few I was more deeply unsatisified with, the body of work started to make more sense to me. I actually found myself seeing that some of my ideas for the novels came from doing those pieces. That surprised me.
DH: Why did you feel it necessary to comment at the end of each piece?
WG: I wanted to be able to sign off on each one. If I said something decades ago that I no longer believed, I wanted to be able to say so. But I didn't really have to do too much of that. That may mean that I don't evolve that much.
DH: Your novels have been described as dystopic. Are these pieces more optimisitc and positive?
WG: I've always been slightly amused by being described as dystopic writer because I feel that what I'm writing isn't as bad as what some people in the world today are actually experiencing. I've never written about a society as messed up as say North Korea. North Korea is real. It's fantastic and strange and sad that it's happened that way for them, yet there they are in this terrible place. And there are lots of people in North Korea who would immigrate to the imaginary world of any of my books at the drop of a hat. They'd give anything to go and live in Neuromancer where they would be much better off. I always think of that when the dystopian label pops up. I try to do a naturalistic science fiction where people have ordinary problems at the same time they are having a science fiction problem. For example, my day got off on the wrong foot because of something that happened in the visible web of cellular telephony which, to somebody of the 1960s, would be science fiction. I've always gotten a kick out of doing that with science fiction because it's something that science fiction skips over. Traditionally, it's not what people went to science fiction for.
DH: You mentioned in the book that science fiction is all about the present. As you noted, George Orwell's 1984 was really about 1948, the year it was written.
WG: That's the only way that I ever found to read old science fiction. The most interesting way of reading it is as a document about the moment in which its written. Orwell got it sort of right but he only got it sort of right for places like North Korea. What we call Orwellian in our society is something Orwell could never have imagined. When I think of Orwell I wonder what he would have made of reality television. What would he have made of the Kardashians.
DH: What do you make of the Kardashians?
WG: They're actually closer to the entertainment industry that I imagined in my later books than anything I ever imagined cyberspace would be like. What I imagined cyberspace would be like isn't what we do every day on the Internet. What the Kardashians are like is very close to what I imagined later.
DH: Do you watch the show?
WG: I really only get it by osmosis. What I was watching when I was writing imaginary stuff that was related to that was the first season of Cops which was in a way the beginning of reality TV in America. I thought that was something new so I worked in seeing how far I could push it in my imagination.
DH: Your work has also evolved in that it's now set in the present. In Pattern Recognition, for example, you're also interested in marketing and business.
WG: I think that marketing is increasingly what we do as a culture. We're much less of a culture that manufactures objects. Now we farm that out and work on the idea of it and selling it later. That's been one of the changes I've seen in the course of my life that I wouldn't have imagined. But Neuromancer is not that much of a marketed world. It had multinational corporations when very few people were familiar with the expression but it wasn't all marketing all the time which what we've gotten to in the 21st century.
DH: There's belief that we are all brands. On Facebook, everyone is a brand promoting imaginary identity that they want to project.
WG: I wouldn't have imagined that either. I wish I had. Doing science fiction in the traditional sense, by the strict rules of the game, becomes constantly more difficult. When the 'I am a brand' thing becomes the folk wisdom how do you do science fiction? How do you do it If something that strange has become what kids tell each other in grade 7: "Gotta be a brand, man."
DH: I know that you were part of counterculture of the 60s. I believe that a lot of the culture that people partake of today had roots then.
WG: My friend is a designer. We were talking about the '60s and the Pantone index -- this commercial index of all the available colors that are used to design things -- and my friend said if the '60s hadn't happened the index would be like a fifth of the size that it is. The '60s made everything all different colors and they stayed that way. I think that the really big changes that the '60s brought we don't even notice. They're not the kind of things that you can necessarily trace back and say, 'Yes, these hippies on a farm did this.'
DH: I think hippies on farms can be traced back. That's one of my favorite examples. Local food, eating organic...
WG: Yes. Whole Foods began as a hippie grocery, I think, in Austin, Texas. 20 years later you're standing in the middle of a real-expensive, post-hippie supermarket that's bigger and brighter than any supermarket in America in the 1950s. That's very strange. I was walking out of a Whole Foods in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago and it was kind of late at night and it's dark here, winter time, and I realized that I was on a street that had been the equivalent of Haight Ashbury in the '60s. I wasn't in Vancouver in the '60s, but I kind of know what that street would have been like, and as I walked out I saw the crowd walking by and it occurred to me that if I was a time traveler from 1967 walking out of that store and seeing the street now I would go, 'We won, we won. Look at these people. They're us.' But it wouldn't be true. I wouldn't be able to see that these hippie boys and girls walking by were really high paid software engineers worried about their mortgages and stuff. But the way it looks would give the '67 time traveler great encouragement. The reality would, as they used to say, freak him out.
DH: Has living in Canada -- off the grid -- given you a perspective on the world at large that is necessary for you and your work. If on the grid in New York, would your work have been different.
WG: I don't think I would have produced the same stuff but I don't know what I would have produced. I say that being someone who's enjoyed New York in all its different iterations during my lifetime. I even like the current one which drives some of my friends crazy. When I'm there I some times wonder what I would have written if I had lived there instead. Maybe fantasies with dragons.
DH: What has replaced the Ebay addiction you write about in Distrust that Particular Flavor? How do you waste time?
WG: I mostly surf around and look at stuff on Twitter. Twitter is my new source of random novelty. It works pretty good for that. I'm @greatdismal. There's a story about that name, but I cant tell you because I have to go.