Sewage systems, Cities, and the Cultivation of Cereals: William Gibson in Conversation with Jonathan ZIttrain

Today at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, William Gibson gave a reading, in conversation with Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (where I am a fellow). The event was hosted and organized by Porter Square Books.

“I treat cyberlaw, and my field can be credited to the work of William Gibson” says Jonathan Zittrain. When he read Neuromancer, “it changed me,” says Zittrain. He tells us about Theodor Erismann’s project to give his students a pair of glasses that inverted their view of the world (inversion goggles). Soon Erismann’s student was turning his teacup upside down to catch water that appeared to be falling upward, making it difficult to move around. 10 days into the experiment, something odd happened. The student’s brain adjusted, and everything looked right side up, and he could even ride a bicycle. The student had “passed through the portal onto the other side.” Zittrain was reminded of that experiment when he read Gibson’s latest work, Peripheral, and how the book demands of us that we see an upside-down world without knowing which side is which. When we finish the book, the world around us seems through the looking glass.

At this point, William Gibson comes onstage. “What should we know that we don’t know already?” asks JZ. “Nothing that you wouldn’t be able to glean from other stories,” says Gibson. “This is my chosen medium of existence.”

“To what extent do you feel like the place and time you were born in has to do with what we find in your books?” Zittrain asks.

Gibson: it has everything to do with what you find, but I imagine that would be the case with any author. Authors create imagined futures out of the past, and whatever present moment one is composing one’s imaginary future in. Somewhere, down in the deep fractal level of this book, there must be a fairly good helping of the early American atomic age, the beginning of television, rocket tailfins. I can tell that it’s there — I don’t know how significant that genuinely is.

JZ: “Across more than one book, characters off-screen are shaped by experiences with or on the other end of a military — soldiers and the imperatives of technology in war are on the margins and center of your work. I know that during Vietnam, you headed to Canada. Is there a connection?”

Gibson: “What you have described as the conditions within my novels could stand as a description of the conditions of the world at large during my lifetime. I’ve scarcely — no one in this room has known an era of peace. When was the United States not actively engaged in combat with someone? My fallback defense is that I’m a naturalist; these books are a kind of naturalism committed in an environment that requires the toolkit of speculative fiction to practice naturalism. What would a naturalistic novel written today be like if it didn’t take eBay into consideration? Unless you set it in some extraordinary backwater purity, it would fail as a naturalist work.”

JZ: “Given that the size of the palette of which you can choose: past, present, future, one universe, parallel universe, can you explain how you shake out, like a prospector shaking for nuggets, what to put aside and what not?”

Gibson: “When I’m not actually writing, I nonetheless automatically seize on bits of technology novelty that come my way, give them the most cursory examination, and toss them into a hopper that follows me around wherever I go. The hopper gets full within a year or so of not writing a book, and when it’s time to write a book, I reach blindly back into the hopper and pull things out. Some of the good ones have combined with things that were tossed into the hopper earlier, and have produced novel configurations. Whether they’re in the same shape they’re in when I tossed them in, I examine them for the potential to have legs in the future — what would this gadget look like in 20 years if it was ubiquitous and highly evolved? I’ve been doing that for so long now that it’s quite effortless. It isn’t even, for me, terribly exciting. The thing I find exciting is that when I give it to characters in a book, I start to see how they would use it, and who they would become by virtue of having this particular piece of technology. I do tend to think that we are not that which we were prior to television, the automobile, whatever– back to sewage systems, cities, and the cultivation of cereals — we are not what we were before any of those things.”

JZ: Are we as “pre-next-phase” now as we are “post-cereal?”

Gibson: I definitely see us as pre-next-phase. Without realizing it myself as “the digital” began to emerge into the world somewhat simultaneous to when I wrote fiction, I acquired the habit of lagging slightly back. I’m always a year or two behind whatever the latest consumer widget is. It gives me a wonderful advantage — I did not become that which uses it, until I have the opportunity to be that which doesn’t use it and observe other people using it. That’s how I find the yard-stick, the band-width in the given day which I need to have in order to induce cognitive dissonance.”

JZ: Of course, if Kirkus reviews, with only a tweet’s worth of space is going to say something about one of your books, typically the word is something like “dystopian” or “really dystopian” or “pessimistic” — I wonder if the stylized debate between Orwell and Huxley, which could be put as “what’s going to get us is what we fear” (Orwell) versus “what’s going to get us is what we love” (Huxley) — do you see your work as a vote on one side?”

ProjectOrionConfiguration” by Uploaded by Georgewilliamherbert 10:59, 10 January 2007 (UTC) – Nuclear Pulse Space Vehicle Study Vol III – Conceptual Vehicle Designs and Operational Systems, Fig 2.1, pp 4.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gibson: I see both as deceptively sectarian, while I’m striving to be agnostic about emergent technologies. I entertain the idea that emergent technologies are morally neutral until human beings use them for something — even emergent technologies that we might regard as repugnant may have beneficent uses that we simply didn’t stumble upon. Someone’s nerve agent may be a discarcinogen, but we won’t realize it for 200 years (JZ: that’s the most optimistic thing I’ve heard). Freeman Dyson had the idea of using all the nuclear warheads to fly a starship — it was a funnel, and you just kept exploding the warheads until you reached Alpha Centauri. JZ: and we can use the nerve agent to brake.

Gibson next reads a chapter,” set no more than 15 years from now, in an unnamed town in what is apparently the Southeastern United States. A young woman named Flynne Fisher has gone to a roadhouse to find a man named Macon, who fabbed her pirated smartphone. Flynn’s brother runs homeland security, and she’s worried that they might be monitoring her smartphone. This is what happens (Chapter 17)


JZ: Luke 4:5 makes a brief appearance — is that a reference to Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church? Gibson: it may be a schismatic reference, but the DNA is there.

JZ: Given that your work focuses on technological advances, your work grapples with modernity– characters may reject it, be wounded by it, or be confused by it. Many of the people who populate the world end up cogs in a larger world they don’t understand, even if information is just one Wikipedia click away.

Gibson: I don’t think of myself as specializing exclusively in what technology does to us. The people who built this church represented a relatively high level of technology compared to where we come from as a species. If you think of technology as a pyramid with, for convenience sake, cultivating cereal at the broadest point, cities above that, and sewage systems above that — without which cities above a certain size would die, somewhere at the top is the latest iphone. The people who built this church were right up there, by virtue of quite advanced technology. Technology isn’t just some new shit that just happened to us. It’s been with us as long as we’ve had written records — we just happen to view it more complexly and constantly.

JZ: Your books are textured and pack in so much. Are there easter eggs? Gibson: During the composition, I have to make choices between doing things that I assume will lose a certain number of readers, and the tradeoff is that in doing so, a certain number of other readers will experience increased readerly gratification. I make that call on the basis of what I myself would enjoy. As a reader, I liked having to work out how the ground lies in a given universe. The author, if she is rigorous, works out for the reader.


Q: Your characters sometimes surprise you when you’re writing. Does that include the language, vernacular, and slang?

Gibson: if they’re really working that day, they do surprise me sometimes. They come out with expressions I don’t really understand, but sometimes I put words in their mouths.

Q: How exactly would you take something very unusual in modern day life and push it past into the fantastic?

Gibson: When I reached the end of my sixth novel, books I wrote back in the 20th century. Y2K was looming, and when I finished “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and realized that what was outside the window was fully as weird as what I had just written. I thought, “I’m working with an 80s yardstick of weirdness, and it hasn’t increased that much.” The project I came up with to address that was to write the three subsequent books beginning with Pattern Recognition and Zero History. I saw them as speculative novels of the very recent past, each of them set in the year that it was written — the year prior to its actual publication, as contemporary as I could make them. They were constructed entirely using the toolkit and various modules of creativity that I developed to write the previous six novels. When I finished Zero History, I began to work on what became this. The lazy journalist’s lede for The Peripheral is that “he’s going back to the future, back to where he started.” This couldn’t even have been published in 1984, because no one would have had any clue what half of it was about. For me, this is the sequel to the Bigend books: when I put them into the machine of my rusty factor, the stuff that came out was this. I found it alarming.

Q: Rereading Neuromancer, is 2014 what you would have expected?

Gibson: In 1984, I had no personal idea of what the future would be like. I had an idea of the imaginary future of Neuromancer, which I thought of as around 2035. Nothing dates imaginary futures more than dates. As a civilian human walking the street, I don’t do that; I don’t imagine the future.

Q: I always loved that your novels provide opportunities to imagine what it’s like to use technology, and that hearkens back to the beat writers — how did you overcome the hurdle of imagining the “trips” of the future?

Gibson: in large part, it’s a lot of technique. I’m sure that I acquired some technique from various beat writers, particularly Burroughs. I probably acquired technique from them that they didn’t know they had. Everything Burroughs thought his work was about ran off me like water off a duck’s back. I read Burroughs and it was like hearing the only electric guitar in the world with an effects pedal, and I wanted an effects pedal– he was some kind of crazy native prose genius, and I wanted to know how to stretch those notes. At his best, he was an extraordinary writer, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the dope he took or the recycled surrealist techniques (discovering secret messages from outer space in cut-up literature). He was an excellent prose stylist, and I could cop his style. The beats were remarkable writers in spite of what they said they were doing.

Q: On Twitter, you expressed frustration when London cracked down on Iceberg Mansions?

Gibson: That’s because there’s an iceberg mansion in this book, it was more convenient to keep the character in the sub-basement of an oligarch’s mansion. It was a joke with a long fuse. When I became a science fiction author, I set aside any hope of imagining the future. I knew that when I was writing Neuromancer, I knew that it would experience obsolescence. What I couldn’t anticipate that the problem would be all the payphones. If you can’t live with that, you will live in eternal pain.

Q: In your latest book, there’s no middle class.

Gibson: On evidence of it, there is no middle class in these narrative threads or anything I’ve ever written, except possibly the last few books. The future observant module in me notes that as an increasing modality in our history. My understanding is that the American middle class peaked in 1967 and hasn’t done as well since. In Scandinavian countries, they have this lovely expression: American problems. When they’re talking to you, they will say, “this way doesn’t have American problems.” They explained that their program to have a prosperous middle class and avoid “American problems.” They arrived at this because they were either in a situation where they were going to go full Russian or equally bad news opposite.

Q: In the current book, there are a broader palette of genders. When characters show up with a particular gender, how does that make them comfortable in your story?

Gibson: There’s a stage early in the process where I open the casting window. It opens on darkness and I leave it open. Characters appear. It’s either yea or nea. Sometimes they can be characters from a previous book. If I accept them as themselves, I’m then in the universe of the previous book. Sometimes they’re characters from a previous book, and I recast them. As for gender, I don’t think I’ve ever altered the gender of a character who’s turned up at the window. They turn up gendered. Then I try to treat them equally. That’s been part of my program as a writer since the beginning. I think it’s because when I started trying to find interesting examples of contemporary science fiction, I lived close to Seattle. In Seattle, there was a strong feminist SF presence. I met Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre, Ursula LeGuinn, and got that message. They had something vital going on that I wasn’t getting from the rest of science fiction, drawn to the vitality before I was drawn to the ideology, and I got some of the ideology as well.

Q: Is technology entirely morally neutral?

Gibson: For the purposes of discussing technology’s role in the fiction of imaginary futures, it’s fair to phrase it the way I phrase it. I answer it this way counter to a hokey argument that the science fiction of my childhood was making to me and its own readers, that Technology is all good, and that we’ll be ok, we just need to get some more. The people who invented the telephone pager — whatever they thought about it, they didn’t realize that they would rewrite the map of urban crime. The most powerful negative effects of emergent technologies are usually completely unanticipated by the people who bring about the emergence of that technology — they didn’t dream of it. You go back in time, and there’s this Bavarian dude building the internal combustion engine, and you say, “Fritz, don’t do it,” and he says, “Why?” and you say “it’s complicated.”