An Interview with William Gibson
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Kelsey (had) a certain ability to wait that Chia found irritating, particularly as manifested by a saucer-eyed nymph-figure out of some old anime. Which Chia was sure Kelsey would not look like real-time, were they ever to meet...
"Really?" Kelsey drew her nymph-self up with elvin dignity, batting manga-doe lashes in disbelief. "In that case, why don't you go to Tokyo and find out what's really going on? I mean, did Rez say that he was going to marry her, or what? And while you're at it, find out whether she exists or not, OK?"
The way William Gibson tells it, journalists' original expectation when he turned up for an interview was that he'd be this mohawked, leather-clad guy with pins through his cheeks. You know, the kind of punk hacker... "Who used some sort of computer that looked like a stealth bomber with the serial numbers filed off."
But it's not like that, and it never was. What you got then, as now, was a very tall (6' 4"), very thin, very unassuming man who just happens to write the best science fiction novels in the world, bar none. He's not, never has been, a cyberpunk. Hell, he didn't even own a computer until he'd finished his second novel, Count Zero. The man who wrote Neuromancer, his brilliant 1984 debut novel that made cyberpunk famous overnight, wrote it on a manual typewriter - not even on an electric.
Think about it; the man who created cyberspace pulled all that stuff about hacking and virtual reality out of his head. There was no unifying theory, still less an intricate knowledge of computers and writing code. It was sheer imagination. Just as it was imagination that made Gibson write parts of Virtual Light from the perspective of a puzzled, polite Japanese student. Not that William Gibson is a stranger to the Japanese.
He lives in Vancouver, a Pacific rim city with a strong Asian population. "I've always had a sense when I meet them that they're from the future." The only problem is his Japanese friends regard Gibson's home city in the way Gibson might regard a Mexican resort town - too slow, too sleepy. A great place to visit, to chill out, but not a good place to stay. So eventually they scuttle off back to Japan, worried about losing their edge.
Losing your edge is dangerous. Not just in the real world of Japanese big business, but in the dark, seamy, info-saturated world of Gibson's novels... Losing your edge gets you killed: or so that nagging internal loop of paranoia tells you. It's no surprise that Gibson fans read manga, and the other way round (obviously), because that nervy, amphetamine-driven paranoia is a staple of hard-edged anime. Think Akira, Appleseed or Ghost In the Shell, among dozens of other examples.
And yet the man who gave the world the term cyberpunk (and later regretted bitterly it) didn't really mean to get so high-tech. "Originally I didn't have the skill to make the characters convincing," admits Gibson when asked why Neuromancer's impact relied so heavily on a vivid yet disorientating sense of place and stunning, cutting-edge technology. The self-perceived deficiencies in characterisation meant he had to rely on hardware to give the book its gritty, down and dirty feel
The same goes, apparently, for Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive - novels which cry out for the manga/anime treatment. After these efforts consolidated his place at the front line of a 'new wave' of SF scribes, Gibson hitched up with Bruce Sterling to write the steampunk classic, The Difference Engine. And then...
Well, then something changed. Virtual Light was slower, it had fleshed out characters with jobs and lives (even if their jobs and their lives were constantly under threat). Which brings us to his new novel Idoru, which Gibson describes as a "kind of sequel" to Virtual Light. "I don't write the future," he insists. "The world of Virtual Light and Idoru is not imaginary, not really the future. It is the present with all of the knobs turned up to the highest setting, with everything stoked." When pushed on this point. Gibson has a clear view of the subject:
"Science fiction isn't about the future, it's about the present... But there's a side to science fiction which is like history inverted, the historical impulse turned inside out and run backwards into the future. The more logical science fiction futures are future histories."
So what are we to make of ldoru? Imagine a half Irish/half Chinese rock star by the name of Lo-Rez, who is so rich even his petty cash account is larger than the turnover of most multinationals. Then imagine he's fallen in love with an idol-singer sprite like Virtual Fighters' Pai or Grace from Fighting Vipers or even closer to home, Sharon Apple from Macross Plus. However, Lo-Rez's virtual object of desire is a fully functioning, 3D entity called Rei Toei, and the rock-star zillionaire has announced that he's going to marry her..
Now imagine a teenage American hacker, a couple of trailer-park trash smugglers, an Australian bodyguard whose party trick is nailing people's hands to tables and a Japanese scientist who reckons the sprite can be computer-generated in real time, in real life...
Can't imagine it? Then read the book! There's an argument raging on the Net in alt.cyberpunk as to whether William Gibson has lost his edge. Well, having talked to him, I know he hasn't. Idoru isn't Neuromancer, but then Neuromancer was a very early '80s novel and, hey, we're at the end of the '90s. Things change, William Gibson among them. He's not losing his edge, he's just developing his style (he's pushing 50!)...
As he himself says, "I was a child of the '50s, so it wasn't as though I noticed science fiction as part of the culture, it was the culture... The post-war era was when the future was clearest and most real, flying cars and atomic refrigerators... The future we live in today is something not only the '50s could never have dreamed of, but I think would have regarded with deep and genuine horror. As far as the '50s is concerned, we're living Blade Runner and Neuromancer right now."
Of course the early books were brilliant. Of course they made cyberpunk possible but they were taken at face value, when actually what Gibson was writing was dark comedy, kind of a grown-up Project Ako meets Ghost in the Shell. This was something that Brit fans understood but others missed. "The very suggestion that there's anything funny in Neuromoncer would raise eyebrows in the States," admits Gibson.
Idoru and Virtual Light just let that ironic edge out of the closet a bit.
Gibson hasn't got soft, he's simply "trying to write something that shows how all the coming technology impacts on peoples lives. Initially I didn't know how to do that. To tell you the truth, I think I'm still trying to learn..."
There are two ways you can go when you become a world-class writer. When everything you write becomes significant whether you like it or not. Raging egotism or staggering modesty. No prizes for guessing which route William Gibson's gone down.
This interview first appeared in Manga Mania.
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© Jon Courtenay Grimwood 17 January 1998