This is a transcript of a short interview with William Gibson that
appeared in the April-May issue of Creem magazine.
Transcribed by Neoplasm on 3/22/91
Some people retreat to the past in order to escape present-day
anxieties, but William Gibson's motives are less therapeutic. Having pushed science fiction into the postmodern void with Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, Canada's premier cyberpunk is now making the 19th century into a brave new world.
In The Difference Engine, he and co-author Bruce Sterling have their
way with history, turning Victorian England into a technocratic society where steam-driven computers monitor a future-shocked populace. Though set in the past, the novel is, like all of Gibson's work, very much a product of our time. Intrigued by technology's effects on modern music, he and Sterling have even laced their epic adventure with the literary equivalent of digital sampling.
"It's like William Burroughs' prophecy come true: everything is being
hacked up and recycled and having the serial numbers filed off," says Gibson. "There's a great deal of really rude literary sampling in The Difference Engine. When you go into a room, usually it's not a room that we invented-it's a room that we've sampled out of some obscure text. It's really a very baroque book on that level, and some enterprising young person will get a masters thesis out of that one day, I'm sure."
The duo's "alternate world" novel evolved from a mutual interest in
Charles Babbage, the Victorian inventor whose mechanical computing engine never got off the ground. Gibson and Sterling (an Austin-based author and editor of Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology) conducted their long-distance collaboration via Federal Express and phone calls. "Initially, we tried to do it with modems, connecting our pathetic little Apple computers via the public telephone lines," admits Gibson. "but that proved to be beyond our technical capacities."
Gibson claims to have been even less technically inclined when his 1984
novel Neuromancer first tapped into the Information Age's collective unconscious. "I didn't know very much about computers, and still don't really," he says. "What interests me is the sort of visceral relationship that some people seem to have with that kind of technology."
With its multi-cultural mix of streetwise anti-heroes jacking in and
out of the computer matrix, Neuromancer defined the aesthetic that came to be known as cyberpunk. But while Gibson's cyberspace became science fiction's newest final frontier, the author himself remains somewhat ambivalent about both technology and his chosen genre. "Even as a teenager reading science fiction, I think I was distinctly distrustful of that techno-euphoric mythology of the engineerin a lot of mainstream American science fiction," he says. "I can remember having these inchoate, almost political doubts about Robert Heinlein when I was maybe 15 or 16 years old."
Gibson was also skeptical about the insular world view of much science
fiction. "I didn't like the idea that America was the future. I didn't like the idea that America was middle-class white people. And so, with a kind of adolescent sullenness-even though I was in my 30s when I started doing this-I just put in all this shit that I thought would reall piss them off."
No such luck. Neuromancer became the first novel to take SF's triple
crown (the Hugo, Nebula and Phillip K. Dick Awards), and subsequent novels have only broadened his fame.
In retrospect, Gibson seemed predestined to his calling. The child of a
contractor whose construction projects included the toilets for the Oak Ridge atomic site, he began traveling through time and space at an early age. His family moved constantly-from rural Tennesee to suburban North Carolina ("which was like moving to Jetsonville") to the small Virginia town where his parents grew up ("kind of a Bradburian, or possibly more Faulknerian, time track"). The cumulative effect, he says, was like "being shuttled around through these different levels of time-you know, the future is never very evenly distributed."
Gibson relocated to Vancouver in 1972 and eventually began writing with
relatively minimal expectations. "If I had any idea of how my career was gonna go, I thought I would be this poor guy working in a bookstore somewhere who had once published a book that some people in England or France had thought was sort of cool. I really thought that was the best I could hope for."
Now Gibson's works have been translated into everything from graphic
novels to computer games, with various film adaptations in the offing. "Recommodification isn't really painful; at least, I don't find it painful," he says. "I don't really feel much stake in trying to control the outcome. I'm kind of curious to see what they'll do with it."
And having himself been influenced by early Lou Reed and David Bowie,
Gibson is equally amused when his concepts are expropriated by pop bands. "Well, there's at least two Mona Lisa Overdrives, one of them being some kind of jazz fusion group in Manhattan," he reports. "And someone sent me a double CD set last year from a Tokyo hip-hop band called Major Force that had heavy Gibson sampling in the English translation of their lyrics." Other Gibson-inspired bands include Voivod, Panther Moderns and -legend has it- Sonic Youth. "Well, this is sort of apocryphal," laughs Gibson, "but somebody said that Sonic Youth said,'Oh, we liked those books at first. But then we found out how old he was.'"
Does Gibson, now 42, ever regret not getting an early start? "No,
actually I'm really glad I didn't," says the author, who will go back to the near future in his next novel, Virtual Light. "When I met Burroughs, that was something that we talked about, because he didn't really start writing until his 30s either. And he said something to the effect that it makes a lot of difference when you have something to actually write about."