William Gibson Talks To EMA About Getting the Future Right
William Gibson photographed by Michael O' Shea
For our Nowstalgia issue, PAPER examined the way the past continually informs the present. Very few people have predicted our constantly-connected world with the accuracy of pioneering science-fiction author William Gibson, whose novels Neuromancer and The Sprawl Trilogy showed a world where we were always connected to the internet back before most people even had AOL accounts. Last year Erika M Anderson, who records and performs as EMA, released The Future's Void, an unflinching look at feeling disassociated in the modern world. Two of the stand-out tracks, "3Jane" and "Neuromancer," directly referenced Gibson's work; coupled with her general internet in web and virtual reality culture and outspoken reputation (just yesterday she released the potent anti-gun anthem "Active Shooter"), we knew she was the ideal candidate to pick Gibson's brain about the past of the future.)
I first encountered William Gibson when I picked up a copy of Mona Lisa Overdrive from the tour van floor. All the new-media nerds I knew were so effusive in their knowledge of him -- they talked about how he had predicted the Internet and coined the term "cyberspace," how he foresaw internet and reality TV -- that I figured his work would be clunky and dense, possibly even awkward and dorky. Instead, I found myself immediately immersed in smooth, inventive prose that gleamed and sped along like a metal alloy not yet invented.
Starting with Neuromancer (1984) and moving through his latest book, last year's The Peripheral, Gibson managed to make sci-fi, a genre traditionally associated with mouth-breathers and soft boys, into something elegant and cool. His influence pops up across many years and mediums, from Japanese fashion to the X-Files to Sonic Youth. I had my own moment when a bad psychedelic experience had me temporarily convinced that there was an actual neuromancer inside of my brain. I made some work about it, and if he was weirded out by that, he was gentleman enough not to mention it.
He remains modest about the prescience of his work, despite his track record. Here the prophet weighs in on cyberspace as a heritage term, income inequality, and explains how we're all just living in a suburb of the Internet.
So I had read that in the '70s you had a bit of time where you made ends meet by being a "picker," which is basically going to thrift stores, finding things that were maybe marked below value, and then reselling them.
Yeah. That's true. Although the version that wound up on Wikipedia makes it sound like it was something I did that I would have had some identity doing. The fact is it was just what everybody I knew had been doing a little bit for years and years and years. Sort of like a side effect of a particular lifestyle where you don't have enough money to buy a new toaster, so you buy a used toaster and you see that, like, a used toaster from 1953 looks a lot cooler. And you get one of those and then you see that at a shop they're selling those for more money than you can get them for at Value Village.
At the time, it didn't feel to me like a way that I was making ends meet. But in fact I was making ends meet in all those different ways. In those ways that people do when they are people who want to be artists but don't quite know what they're doing.
[Laughs] Yes. I understand that. I have been there.
Over the preceding decade or so, the people I'd been friends with had sort of competed with one another to find the coolest shit at the Salvation Army. And in those days there was a lot more amazing stuff, because there was no Internet and no eBay to educate everyone as to what was worth something and what was a desirable collectible.
I'm asking because you have so many amazing objects in your work. Like, just very detailed, very realistic, very beautiful things that maybe don't exist yet. And I'm wondering if that kind of experience of looking back to the past and figuring out what things were valuable and had retained their value helped you be able to extrapolate things that might exist in the future.
Yeah, I'm sure it did. And I know for sure that when I first started in my very earliest attempts to write fiction, like, a paragraph was a stretch. The thing that I found that I could do almost immediately was to describe an inanimate object. Usually an imaginary object. And everything else -- to describe a character, to get a character on the page, was just like, amazingly difficult. Because I have no kind of native chops.
My very first short story was a progression of descriptions of objects. And it has this very weird structure that I was able to frame and make it seem as though it was about an imaginary pathology that's affording this character these memories. But really, it's all a trick. Because all I could do was describe these objects. But I figured out a framework that would allow a chain of these descriptions to have a kind of narrative form and, I hope, some emotional impact. But I was just doing the one thing that I already knew how to do, over and over. And then it was, like, several years before I could actually write anything else, because I had literally exhausted my capability with this one tiny, tiny short story.
Wow. So this is fascinating to me because one of the things I love is that your women characters don't make me cringe, and they feel like real people.
Oh, thank you.
I don't know if you have anything to say about that, but that's definitely something that is super important to me. And so to hear that it's almost an accident or something, or wasn't a lot of hard work...
Well, I think that when I started I had been a native reader of science fiction. It was like my native urge, because I had discovered it when I was 12 or something. And I was like, totally into it and nothing else, really, until I was about 15 or 16 and life started happening on a different level. And I kind of put it away. It's like, "Okay, that's like a childish thing."
I didn't really reject it; I just lost track of it. And then when I was in my mid- to late-20's, and it was like, "I'm an artist of some kind, but I don't actually do anything. What is this? If I'm going to do things, I should do it really quickly. Otherwise, I'm just going to have to get a job." For some reason, and I'm still not clear why, I got the idea that science fiction might be possible.
So I went and looked at what was happening, and I started flirting with trying to write science fiction. And I looked at the science fiction that was being written. And it was not the science fiction that I remember having been so totally entranced with in the '60s. And the stuff that I really came to love in the '60s, was like, very '60s science fiction. It was the hip science fiction of the '60s. And that was seriously kicking ass. I looked at it a decade later and it was like Nashville country, and I was remembering Western swing and bluegrass, which was weird, because I knew for sure that this was a completely viable, 20th-century pop form. I had taken for granted that it would become just much more kick-ass and wonderful than it had been when I really loved it. So I thought, this is great, because it's fallen on hard times and nobody's really done anything. It's like folk music and Dylan hasn't gone electric.
Right. So you wanted to plug it in. What were some of those things that resonated with you at that time?
Well, back then the corner newsstand still existed, and I had sort of been mournfully eyeing the little digest-sized subscription magazines with this sad kitsch artwork on the covers. And then I'd look over and there were these American editions of Heavy Metal, which are all translated French comics for the most part. And that looked wonderful. That looked really, really appealing. And that kind of science fiction was sort of happening elsewhere, on other platforms.
It seems like sometimes for a big change to come in art it almost has to go out of fashion and get so bad that it's really uncool. And you can kind of swoop in and make it new again.
Yeah, I mean, I think that's true. That's sort of the eternal thing in pop, in various forms. And I always thought of science fiction as a kind of literary pop. And that had always been a big part of what I like about it.
So at that time that whole scene was kind of coming together, and I'm imagining some sort of Gentleman Loser bar existing in my mind somewhere. Did it feel kind of like a hip scene? Or -- I mean, sci-fi has always had kind of a patina of nerdiness around it...
[Laughs] I don't know if it's just a patina!
[Laughs] Okay, swarm, cloud.
I think it has a kind of infinitely deep core.
You get credited a lot with being prescient, and I hate to even bring it up, because if you Google your name, it comes up in every single interview. But you kind of disavow that. Is that, like, a legal thing? Or is that just Southern modesty?
Well, it's true that I don't always get it right. There's a ton of evidence for that. But also, it isn't what I think that I do. What I think I do is not predict what's going to happen, but allow people momentarily to see how totally weird the present is. And I think that's what people actually get from my work. To look up and see how the world really is and go, agh! But then they'll duck back into where they live, which is where I live, too. It's like I'm trying to expose our unthinkable present.
But the cultural assumption about what I do is that I'm predicting things. So I go through the motions. And sometimes I get it right. But really, often I don't get it right. But it's kind of cultural requirement that comes up in media about me, saying that I get it right. It's like this really ancient, ancient thing. It's like you go see that woman who lives in the woods, and she knows what's going to happen in 50 years; it's like every fairytale. It's this very, very ancient human thing, to want there to be people who can do that.
But I know intimately that it's not what I do. Say there's a 12-year-old who's reading Neuromancer for the first time. If she's really smart, she gets 10 or 15 pages into it and she's thinking, "Okay, it's got to be about what happened to all the cellphones." I mean, that's what I would have done. Because that's weird! They don't have any cellphones. And what was for a while one of the coolest moments in the book hinges around the bank of payphones in an airport in 2030. And you can't even find a bank of payphones in an airport in 2015!
I think you're a little hard on yourself about the cellphones. You've got a lot of other things that are pretty cool and pretty forward-thinking.
When I started doing this, I took it for granted that you couldn't predict this stuff, or that you wanted to predict this stuff. When you wrote it, it was like buying an ice cream cone. It starts melting right there. It melts. And it just keeps on melting. Because for me, a lot of the active pleasure of reading old science fiction had always been how amusingly and interestingly they got it wrong.
Sometimes you get it right. Without really thinking about it very much, I predicted what reality television would feel like. The culture of reality television feels like before it really existed. And the only thing that I had to work from was one show called Cops.
I think it's easier and somehow more reliably done with cultural predictions than with technology and gizmos and things.
As far as reality TV or Internet stars, do you see a future for that? Or are we pretty much at the peak right here?
It seems very dodgy to say that anything has peaked or is over. That's kind of my experience from life and reading history: that things come back. There seems to be a kind of law of return. And with Internet stars, the concept of an Internet star implies someone who is only a star on the Internet. But that in turn implies that the Internet has boundaries.
And I don't think the Internet actually has boundaries like that anymore. It's like, who is a celebrity today who doesn't have a really massive Internet presence? It doesn't really happen. Even if they're not working it, somebody will have it for them. So the idea of people who have never had any kind of media platform other than the Internet I think will continue, but it will probably just blur into the rest of media. Like, there'll be a first Internet star who gets a talk show or has a hit feature film, and then the distinction will be increasingly lost. I think the distinction is increasingly lost between just being alive and being on the Internet.
Okay, you have to explain a little more of that.
Well, when I was writing Neuromancer, there wasn't quite really that much of an Internet. There wasn't a World Wide Web. And I was trying to imagine what something like that might be like. But I can only imagine it as another place. A different realm that we access through this computer that's non-physical, but it's real. Stuff happens.
And I was like, okay, we'll call it cyberspace. So I started working with that. And it wasn't just my assumption after a while. Everybody started talking about cyberspace. We assumed that it was this other place. That it was its own realm. You had to go through some sort of black hole of the computer in order to get to this distinct other place. And we depicted it in movies and artwork and fiction. But what actually happened was that it turned itself inside out. And sort of, we became -- everything else became -- a sort of suburb of it.
Cyberspace is such a heritage term now. Or I think it should be. Because it can't mean what it originally meant.
No, no. I think that's great. At one point it had boundaries and now it doesn't really have boundaries.
It's like you, in your art, where are you operating? In the real world or in cyberspace? And like, the distinction, applied to the work you do, doesn't really make any sense anymore. It's a very old-fashioned distinction. And it dates from a kind of pre-YouTube -- well, literally from a pre-YouTube universe. And it's from a pre-web universe. I mean, people can get drunk, say something on Twitter, get on a plane, get off the plane, and then find that their career has been destroyed. It didn't just happen in cyberspace.
Do you see a similar thing happening with stuff like VR headsets or Google Glass or any of that?
Well, that stuff is very strange for me. Because when VR was in its sort of weird, abortive, first generation back in the late '80s and early '90s, I wound up being invited to most of those conferences for a lot of that. The people who were doing that, all of them secretly -- more or less secretly -- hoped that they would turn out to be the person who had just invented television. A lot of them really did. Then the whole thing just didn't happen. And I'm still not sure if they've done it.
Right. I think everyone's a little bit on the fence. Like, they saw it fail once and they're kind of like, "Well, we'll see..."
Well, that comes back to one of my oldest chestnuts about the street finding its own uses for things.
Yeah, the technology is usually not being advanced on the street. It's in the halls of Silicon Valley, which is kind of obliterating the street in many ways.
We don't really know what it will do. The people who ran the factory for payphones, they probably didn't look at a pager as something that could put them out of business. But because pagers changed the geography of a drug dealing so completely, cellphone companies started removing payphones. And nobody predicted that. It makes total sense after the fact. And a lot of technology-driven social change works at that level.
One of the things that has really struck me, especially now that this has been on people's minds, is that in your books income inequality is such a huge theme. You're either in the super rich world or you're in, like, this totally poor world with no middle class. Is that something you really think is a future concern?
I had a list of things when I started writing science fiction that it bugged me that science fiction didn't do. And one of them was that it tended not to depict income inequality. It tended to pretend that capitalism didn't exist. Like in Star Trek, where if you try to figure out what's going on back on unfederated Earth, or wherever it is that the guys are from, it seems like it's a perfectly evolved Marxist society.
They don't seem to have salaries or anything. There doesn't seem to be any money. There don't seem to be any products. Everything is just provided by the state. It's a very funny thing when you look at it that way. Like someone said, the trouble with modern fantasy novels is that the people never have to pay for their beer.
And in science fiction, particularly in American science fiction, it's just this kind of white, middle-class world. And that was all there was. If there was anything else, it was scary. And it was never from the point of view of the scary "other" people, who might be poor or not white or something. I've always consciously tried to depict a range.
In your latest book, The Peripheral, a character from the future describes how the world ends, which is kind of a combination of things. It's a passage I find really, really beautiful -- is that how you think we're going to go out?
Culturally, all of our imagined apocalypses have had a single cause. It's nuclear war or it's a plague. I thought that it was incredibly interesting. Because it isn't how very much of the universe ever works. And the way we've always framed it is that it happens really quickly.
But if it happens really, really slowly, and it's multi-causal, we might already be in it. A lot of that is about changing where the window is when you look at the idea of apocalypse. And if you dial it way back, so we get the largest possible perspective, you can't even see the apocalypse.