was feted by the Guardian in 1999 as ‘probably the most important novelist of the past two decades’, Steve Turner dropped in on his hotel in Covent Garden on 4 October 2010, a month after the publication of his latest best-seller, Zero History.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What is it that you think you do especially well?
Observe other people doing things. Mostly with things; not necessarily so well with other people, though I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve got better at that.
Why has that been a particular fascination?
I don’t know. It just seems to be the way I’m made.
When I was a child, I moved very abruptly at the age of eight to my mother’s home town in the very ungenteel south-west of Virginia, where her family had been forever. The culture I moved into was dense and peculiar – it was like moving into a Welsh village if you aren’t Welsh. I was foreign to it and didn’t understand it.
I think at that point I began consciously to decipher the various codes that were going on in society around me. I think that was a formative experience. Most children learn the codes naturally and take them for granted, but I had an experience of dislocation in a culture that was inherently xenophobic. Well, ‘xenophobic’ is not quite the word, because they were never confronted with actual foreigners – the next county would do, or some particular branch of your family would become ‘the other’ – and ‘the other’ more or less equalled ‘the enemy’, or potential enemy. It was not a very friendly culture.
Were you attempting to find your place in that world?
I was probably trying to find my way around the bits that might be dangerous. I don’t ever remember wanting to be a part of that world in particular. I knew I had come from somewhere else, although I was so young that I didn’t really have any idea where from.
Actually, where I had come from was the 1950s and the place I arrived at was really somewhere in the Thirties. But they had 1950s television and that was already starting to create a sort of cognitive dissonance in their culture – which they may have somewhat taken out on me, because I was the little boy who always said, ‘But I saw on television that Martin Luther King is a nice guy.’
So, you were like a visitor from the future?
Yeah, I’m sure I thought of myself in that way.
And you knew where that culture was going to end up.
No, I had no idea. When I left that town, when I was about 15, I imagined that it would always be the same – that would be its curse – but between one thing and another the world that I grew up in has completely gone.
The biographies of most 20th-century American science-fiction writers are of isolated, outsider kids who spent all their time up in the bedroom reading. That was me
Isn’t that an unlikely background for someone who has specialised in speculating about the future?
Well, maybe not. The biographies of most 20th-century American science-fiction writers are biographies of isolated, outsider kids who couldn’t play baseball and spent all their time up in the bedroom reading. That was me – although I spent part of the time watching television.
In that case, maybe it was the perfect background.
I think that I had an experience that was quite difficult to have, in North America at least: I could be physically standing somewhere and look in one direction and see the 1960s and I could turn around and see a scene that would’ve been exactly the same in the 1920s. You could see an airliner and turn around and see a man ploughing a field with a mule. I think it gave me a sense that everyone lives in someone else’s future and, simultaneously, in someone else’s past; and that historical time is not necessarily distributed evenly – there are places in the world that are genuinely not backward but just before.
Your father died when you were six years old. What had his occupation been?
I’m not actually sure what his function was. He was an executive for a very large construction company that built federal infrastructure in the South, much of it military and quite a lot of it to do with the development of the atomic bomb. After the war, they started building the scratch-built suburbs that became much of what the world thought of as the United States in the Sixties.
I went from living on an extraordinarily primitive and isolated rented farm in Tennessee to what had been the show home for a brand-new development in North Carolina. I remember that there was no grass initially, because the soil was this red-ochre clay and nothing at all would grow in it. It felt like living on Mars.
Were you exposed to the religion of the South?
Yes, I was. I was indeed. I grew up not far from Lynchburg, which was at the epicentre of the fundamentalist impulse. I have a very early memory of these terrible voices on the local radio station. I’d be playing or riding my bicycle and I’d hear a man speaking in the most accusatory tones. Initially, I had no concept of the content or the meaning – it was simply the tone of evangelical damnation. If you listened long enough, it went from accusatory to a sort of heightened hectoring into a brief message of potential forgiveness and then a request for funds. As I got older, I began to realise how shabby the bit at the end was. It was transparently a con job. It wasn’t designed to extract money from anyone who was remotely intelligent – that registered early on.
I wasn’t exposed to [this kind of religion] directly because class was so powerful then in the South and my parents were by the local standards middle-class and so they were Episcopalians. You couldn’t really be in their class and not be Episcopalian. And that kept the evangelical stuff at a distance.
Did you attend an Episcopalian church?
Briefly, yeah, as a child. It was incredibly tasteful. It was the most tasteful cultural artefact in the entire town.
So, you wouldn’t relate to the ‘Christ-haunted South’ that Flannery O’Connor wrote about?
Oh, I knew it was there. That line in Wise Blood, ‘He had Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger’ – I knew what that meant. I totally know those people – in the town, they were all around me every day.
When I was in my early teens, the Civil Rights movement was happening in the South. It was really, really extreme – people were being killed and it was really shaking that society
I wouldn’t want to suggest that that was the dominant culture of that town – I’m really describing it from the point of view of a frightened and alienated little boy. There was a lot of kindness there as well, and some very good people. And the complex thing about it is that some of the very good people, if not exactly the same people that O’Connor was writing about, were of that tendency and understood the world in those terms.
Did you ever go near any of the black churches?
I don’t think I ever set foot in a non-white church. Actually, I left that town just before desegregation and it was a complete apartheid society.
When I was in my early teens, the Civil Rights movement was happening in the South. It was really, really extreme – people were being killed and it was really shaking that society.
Where were you during what you call your ’hippy’ period?
Mainly in Toronto. That was when I was finally able to find actual hippies being hippies. I got there in the early spring of 1967, not to avoid the draft but to see if it was a good place to be in the event of being drafted. I stayed there on and off for a number of years, but one of the things I sort of regret in my life is that, for reasons unknown, they never drafted me and so I never actually had to make the moral choice.
Actually, resisting the draft was a tough thing to do and in fact I learnt to avoid the draft resisters in Toronto because they were all terribly unhappy – there was an enormous amount of (I’m sure) clinical depression and a lot of suicide. But I stayed there because it was the first big 19th-century city I had seen that had this really vibrant youth culture. There were people there from all over the world, just because it was an interesting place to be in 1967, and there was also a huge variety of immigrant cultures. It was like having Europe on a plate.
Did the hippy thing change you?
I don’t know. I mean, I’m sure it did but I don’t see how I would know how.
Did you take acid, for example?
Yeah, but not as constantly or as enthusiastically as I would have pretended to.
Did that change your vision?
If you’d asked me at 30, I would have said: ‘Oh yeah, totally!’ At 62, I’m not sure.
Would you have written Neuromancer  without having taken acid?
I might not have been able to do the special effects quite as handily, but, you know, it’s difficult to know. I mean, it’s like hypothesising about another person.
The conclusion that I came to much later, long after I took anything psychedelic, was that what it had really amounted to was tweaking the input of the world. Just a very minor adjustment can make everything look marvellously different, but, looking back, it seems very self-involved and solipsistic.
You were never a disciple of Timothy Leary?
I went to see Blade Runner when I was a few chapters into Neuromancer and I ran out, virtually in tears because it looked so much like the inside of my head
No. I was a bit dubious about the millenarian aspect of the whole thing. It was millenarian, although in a secular way (but with lashings of religiosity, rather than any recognisable religion). I don’t think I was ever very convinced by the texts, such as they were; and I might already have picked up enough history to know that millenniums tend not to arrive and that people do very strange and often regrettable things [in anticipation]. I think there was a sort of liminal moment, at least at the beginning, that was quite extraordinary; but even in 1967 I remember thinking about the Crusades and Fascism and other big street-level movements of that sort and wondering about what was going on around me.
Your books are frequently described as ‘dystopian’. Is that how you would see them?
No. Dystopia is as much an absolute as Utopia – neither can exist. The Sprawl was a vision of a big, bad metropolis, but when I wrote Neuromancer in the early Eighties I took it for granted that there were people all over the world who would have migrated to it at a moment’s notice and would have been much better off for it. Even today, there are people all over Africa who would be doing much better in that world.
It’s a long way from the hippy dream of 1967, of planting flowers in Times Square.
You know, this was near enough 25 years later. I moved to Vancouver in 1971, and the whole hippy world just
hung on there because it was a bit of a backwater, but it didn’t mean anything to me – it was just a source of nostalgia. I don’t think it was influencing me very much then.
It must give you some satisfaction to have coined the word ‘cyberspace’, in your 1982 story ‘Burning Chrome’.
Well, I’m very glad I did; but people assume when they hear that I coined the word that I both envisioned and named what we have come to think of as cyberspace. In fact, I had this almost perfectly empty neologism which I then spent three or four short stories and three novels filling with my own imaginary meaning.
I remember coining it. I wrote it in red marker pen on a yellow legal pad and that was (as far as I know) the first time the word had ever appeared in the universe. But it was written beneath ‘infospace’ and ‘dataspace’, and I let it stand because it simply sounded cool.
I wanted a term to represent an arena (if you will) in which science-fiction stories could take place, which I wanted to replace [outer] space. I couldn’t connect emotionally with stories about spacemen in the early 1980s and I had this incredibly vague idea of some sort of notional space that was in some sense ‘within’ computers; and I couldn’t do any writing until I had a word for it.
I didn’t use the word again after my third novel, after it was picked up in the world at large.
How did you feel about films such as Blade Runner , The Matrix  and Minority Report ? They all did much better than the films made of your short stories, Johnny Mnemonic  and New Rose Hotel .
I went to see Blade Runner when I was a few chapters into Neuromancer and I actually fled the theatre virtually in tears because it looked so much like the inside of my head. I was convinced that it was going to be a huge hit and that everyone would think that my first novel was a hommage. I finished the book anyway and Blade Runner turned out to be a complete flop in its first release; but after I’d published Neuromancer, Blade Runner went on to become in some very strange ways one of the most influential Hollywood films ever made. It changed what architects did, it changed what clothing designers did, it changed the way nightclubs looked – and it introduced Americans to the idea that the future (in the capital-F sense) is invariably built in the ruins of the past.
I think that was the most important thing it did. The American vision of the future had been of a place over the hill where everything was new. That comes from the western expansion and the idea that if you get fed up with life in Chicago you just go west and make your own future. That wasn’t the historical truth, but it was the cultural truth. It needed a European to show people a very convincing future Los Angeles that rose out of its own ruins and couldn’t escape the tangles of its own past. It was a European vision of America.
There is a lot of surface in your books, it seems to me, and not a lot of soul. Your characters are defined by the clothes they wear, the gadgets they use…
No, I don’t know… They think they are but I don’t think they are – and to the extent that they are heroic, they transcend it.
What does that mean?
Well, the moment in Neuromancer when Case, the singularly shallow and unappealing protagonist, achieves transcendence is when he breaks through the final firewall around the artificial intelligence (which he needs to penetrate to save his friends) via the strength of his own self-loathing. So, it’s in a moment of intense and agonising self-awareness that he achieves selflessness – and he also causes the entirety of cyberspace to become sentient.
Is there anything you might see as spirituality in these people, or do they have fewer dimensions than that?
I would think that Milgrim in Zero History is virtually Lazarus-like compared with what he was in [the previous novel,] Spook Country! It’s like he’s born again – or like in part he’s born for the first time. The bandwidth of his humanity increases visibly, for me almost from chapter to chapter. In terms of how I see the real world, I think it borders on the miraculous, though I believe it sometimes happens.
But he seems like a fundamentally decent person, and I suppose that’s pretty much my whole idea of spirituality. If anyone tells me they are spiritual, I tend to look at how they’re treating other people.
How do you determine what is decent or not decent?
If someone is consistently thoughtful with other people, that generally impresses me as – I feel funny calling it ‘spiritual’ because I don’t think it necessarily grows out of any given practice or belief system. I suppose it’s an absence of ego that I think of as being ‘spiritual’. Someone who scrupulously treats others well but has a high self-regard I’d give zero points to.
Religion is not a shaping force in your novels, is it, but branding certainly is.
I don’t know. I think that my method when I write is such that, I suppose, it’s possible to mistake what I think of as naturalistic depiction of the world for approval. You know, it’s not that the world outside is nothing but brands, but there certainly are a lot of them out there and it’s quite difficult to keep them out of one’s field of vision. If I were depicting an imaginary future without brands, I think I’d have to come up with some fairly convincing reason for why things had changed – and I couldn’t. But that isn’t the part of my imaginary world that I’m closest to, and it’s never foregrounded in a sort of big, heroic way, because it just wouldn’t work for me.
What I do with what I wouldn’t be unwilling to call the ‘spiritual’ aspects of my work is to reduce them to apparently very, very small points in the narrative, but then the narrative winds up being balanced on one of those points. In Neuromancer, when the sentient totality of cyberspace appears to Case in the guise of a character called the Finn, Case looks at him and says: ‘You God?’ And the Finn just sort of shrugs. To me, that aspect of the whole narrative – what it might mean for all of cyberspace to be sentient – balances on that shrug. If it were anything bigger than that, or more obvious, for me it would reduce the whole thing.
In the subsequent books in the trilogy, the sentience of cyberspace seems to have fragmented and become convinced that it’s the pantheon of Haitian voodoo, and so these fragments are introducing themselves as Legba, god of the crossroads [and so on] and the people in the book just go ‘OK’, because that’s really all they can do, because these things are enormously powerful. I very deliberately left it open as to what is actually going on, because there is a huge community in the book who are religiously involved with these entities in cyberspace and treat them as though they are in fact the [voodoo gods] and don’t seem to make any distinction. And, you know, that works for me. That works for me, too.
[Being] a fundamentally decent person I suppose [is] pretty much my whole idea of spirituality. If anyone tells me they are spiritual, I tend to look at how they’re treating other people
Actually, I’m kind of interested in African religions, both as they may have been and as they became encoded in Christianity, where you have overt Catholicism but living within it, sort of like a hermit crab, there is this other, much older religion that bears no resemblance to it. You call some entity ‘Jesus’ because the master won’t beat you if you’re praying to Jesus, but actually you’re praying to something else entirely. And when you look into [these religions], they’re very beautiful, like lovely universes.
The trilogy you have just completed with Zero History1The first two books being Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007) is set very much in the present day. Why did you decide to put aside speculation about the future?
I felt I’d actually arrived in the 21st century, along with the rest of the world. I’d spent most of my adult life writing about imaginary versions of that century, and the century I found myself in as the 20th century ended seemed to me to be stranger and more complex than almost anything science fiction had offered.
Was the year 2000 a big thing for you?
The run-up to 2000 was taken up with a lot of observation of various millenary phenomena. I was just watching people going crazy – I spent a lot of time trying to assure people that the Y2K bug wouldn’t do any harm. For an observer of that sort of thing, it was a very interesting time.
I don’t think the century really kicked in until 2001. When the future watches its video of the 21st century, it will begin with ‘9/11’.
Your recent books have featured ‘coolhunters’. Are they something that fascinates you?
Well, I’m interested in what it is we do if this is in fact the post-industrial society. How are we earning a living now? We used to invent and make things – that’s what got us here – but now we make less and less. We farm the making out to those societies that aspire to be postindustrial but haven’t yet achieved it.
A lot of what we’re doing now is finding things that we can market to ourselves and to the rest of the world as desirable things. In a world that’s awash with things, most of which are indistinguishable, I think it’s a very interesting function to have a group of people who say, ‘No, wait! These things are really cool. The rest of them are merely serviceable; these are desirable. They may look like the rest…’ That’s a very strange thing to have your society based on.
Have you spent time with actual coolhunters?
After I wrote Pattern Recognition, I had people showing up and saying, ‘Hey! I’m a coolhunter.’ But the people who are really good at it, whatever it is – some of whom I had met over the years – don’t even think of it as a function: it’s just who they are.
Probably the label by now is out of fashion – it’s not cool to be a coolhunter. There is probably a cooler term.
Isn’t it all a bit vacuous, actually, saying this denim is cooler than that denim or whatever?
No, actually I don’t think it is. I’m not describing fashion in the sense that Oscar Wilde meant [when he defined it as ‘a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months’]. I’m talking about people having a hunger for physical objects that are more genuine than most of the objects around them. In a sense, I am describing a 21st-century Arts-and-Crafts mentality – which people like William Morris regarded as being in some sense spiritual. People wanted genuine things: they wanted real cheese and real ale.
Because Neuromancer anticipated things that did come about in the world of new technology, have you ever been approached by people who think you have a gift of seeing into the future and want to consult you?
It’s a terribly awkward moment, when I release a new book, the very first time someone asks me: ‘What are its themes?’ ‘Well,’ you say, ‘I don’t know. What do you think they are?’
Yes. Countless, countless people. It would often be people who thought they had invented the new television, or some idea that they were convinced would be the next big thing. None of it ever appealed to me much, though I was fascinated by the culture of these people and intrigued by what their calling might have been. A big part of it was that they all assumed that they were going to be, like, wildly wealthy.
There was quite a long period during the Eighties and Nineties, so I was subsequently told by people who actually did wind up doing rather well in digitally-related businesses (which none of the people who sought me out ever did), when they would go to older businesspeople with their idea and get absolutely no response, and then they’d reach into their briefcase and pull out a copy of Neuromancer and say, ‘Read this! This may give you some idea of what I’m talking about’ – and often it worked: the guy would call back and say, ‘That’s fascinating! You could build cyberspace!’ As far as I know, that was my real function in that world.
My other function was for a couple of years being flown around to every lavish virtual-reality conference that any government ever threw. Timothy Leary was on that circuit, too. I would just sort of lurk in the background. Most of the other guests were so anxious to take centre stage that it was very easy to just sit back and eat the canapés. I have met some very interesting people in the course of doing that, but it didn’t generally leave me with a very good feeling about myself.
Do people still ask you at parties: What will the world be like in 10 years’ time?
Yeah, they do – and my answer depends on, I suppose, my spiritual condition. If it’s good, I’ll say, ‘You know, I actually have no more idea than you do.’ If it’s not so good, I might say something to impress them, and then regret it later.
[Predicting the future] is not what I do. I’m not sure exactly what it is that I do, but I don’t want it to be that. If it were possible to have somehow metered all of the talk about myself I’ve been forced to engage in since 1981, I think there would be a very high percentage of time devoted to denying my predictive capacity.
And it isn’t what science fiction is about. Historically, it has always been about the moment in which it was written.
Ideally, what effect would you like your novels to have on your readers?
I would like the reader to have ideas that [they] hadn’t had prior to reading the book. I’m not in the least concerned what they might be – I have as little didactic function as I can manage to have. The idea of me having an idea and writing a book to illustrate it in the hope that other people will then have my idea is fairly repugnant to me. I see it as totally the opposite of what I would like my function to be.
It’s a terribly awkward moment, when I release a new book, the very first time someone asks me: ‘What is it about? What are your themes?’ ‘Well,’ you say, ‘I don’t know. What do you think they are?’
This edit was originally published in the December 2010 issue of Third Way.
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|1.||⇑||The first two books being Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007)|
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William Gibson was born in 1948 and spent most of his childhood in Wytheville, in the Appalachians. He was educated at George Wythe High School and then Southern Arizona School for Boys in Tucson.
After his mother died suddenly when he was 18, he moved to Canada and then travelled in Europe. He eventually studied English at the University of British Columbia, graduating in 1977. He scraped a living for a while scouring thrift stores for underpriced things he could sell on, and for three years was a teaching assistant on a film-history course at UBC.
He wrote the first of his short stories, ‘Fragments of a Hologram Rose’, in 1977. (His first collection, Burning Chrome, which included collaborations with three other sci-fi authors, appeared in 1986.)
His first novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984. It won three major prizes for science fiction, the ‘triple crown’ of the Nebula, Hugo and Philip K Dick Awards, and went on to sell more than 6.5 million copies worldwide. It was followed by two more ‘Sprawl’ novels, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988); the ‘Bridge’ trilogy, Virtual Light (1993) – which, like Mona Lisa Overdrive, won the Aurora Award – Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999); and a third trilogy, Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010).
In 1990, having established the sub-genre of ‘cyberpunk’, he co-wrote with Bruce Sterling the ‘steampunk’ novel The Difference Engine.
He has collaborated widely with artists in different media, including the sculptor Robert Longo, the theatre group La Fura dels Baus, the painter Dennis Ashbaugh, for whose 1992 project Agrippa (A book of the dead) he wrote a 300-line semi-autobiographical poem, and the dance company Holy Body Tattoo. Two of his short stories have been made into films, for which he wrote the screenplays: Johnny Mnemonic (1995), starring Keanu Reeves and Dolph Lundgren, and New Rose Hotel (1998), starring Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe.
His journalism has appeared in Wired (notably, his notorious assessment of Singapore as ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’), the New York Times, the Observer and Rolling Stone among others.
He married in 1972 and has two children.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2010