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William Gibson discusses memory, Twitter, his latest novel and more

Our full interview with William Gibson 

William Gibson, the author whose early works—especially his 1984 debut, Neuromancer—epitomized cyberpunk literature, is a writer who has seen his visions become unremarkable reality. He's just published his 10th novel, Zero History, which also completes his third trilogy, known as the "Blue Ant" series. (Read our review.) He'll be appearing at Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University's West Campus on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. (RSVP to Facebook event.) We recently reached him by telephone.

Independent: You recently got a lot of attention online for your New York Times op-ed imagining Google as a kind of artificially intelligent super-organism that watches us with our own eyes. Where did that idea come from?

William Gibson: I'm sure in one place or another I've said exactly those things, dozens of times before. This was just an opportunity to string them all together. It surprised me that I already had the material–usually when I'm assigned an essay topic I don't know what I think about it and I have to do considerably more writing to find my position. If indeed that piece has a position at all—the thing I actually like about it is that if you look beyond the little mini-essay structure, I think I'm actually just saying: "This is what I think Google is, and I don't think I know what we're going to be doing about it."

You've become a very prolific user of Twitter with your account @greatdismal and the site even makes an appearance as a plot element in Zero History. What is it about Twitter that appeals to you?

Nothing prior to Twitter in the way of social media had attracted me. I've had a lot of fun over the past decade quite anonymously on various listservs and Internet fora, sometimes for years on end: just being Bill, just being some random guy who has an opinion about something or some knowledge to offer on some witheringly esoteric subject. So I knew the pleasure of that. But MySpace and Facebook just looked overstructured and Disneylanded—much too much of a prepackaged experience.

When a friend of mine joined Twitter, I thought, "Oh, this sounds dreadful," and I thought I'd join it for a laugh, so I could make fun of it later. To my great surprise, I found it nicely understructured. And very fast—and a year later, there I am.

I also find it effortless—that may be because the way I use it is largely content-free, but it's actually been a very nice experience. I would miss it if it disappeared; I would miss the company of people I've gotten used to having around in a virtual way.

What I'd miss most about Twitter is its astonishing power as an aggregator of novelty. It does in a few hours what one hundred professionally produced magazines could scarcely do in a month, skimming the world's weirdest, most wonderful things and depositing it on your desktop to be snacked on.

Having boasted for years at watching less television than any North American male my age, I may unfortunately have found my television.

How did Twitter wind up in the new novel?

The conceit is that each novel is set in the year in which most of it was written, and I got Milgrim on Twitter a few weeks after getting on Twitter myself.

In that case, what can we expect in your next novel? What are you obsessed with now?

That's the mysterious way of these things. I have sometimes gotten the impetus for the next book while on tour for the last book, but I don't know why that is. It may have something to do with my tendency to start novels in hotel rooms, with characters waking up there—the impetus for my novels tends to arrive in hotel rooms.

Zero History, with 2003's Pattern Recognition and 2007's Spook Country, form a "Bigend" or "Blue Ant" trilogy, after a character and his advertising company that recurs in each. When you started Pattern Recognition, did you know it would be a trilogy? Did you have Zero History in mind as an endpoint when you started?

As grotesque and unbelievable as I know it sounds, every time I finish one of these three-book sets—and I now appear to have finished my third—I mention that the next novel will be an absolutely standalone entity. And in fact they each could be.

I'm nervous around the term "trilogy," because it's been much abused in the genre in which I'm from. But I don't plan them that way. Even when I completed Spook Country I thought, "Maybe this will break the mold, and the next will be set, as we say in science fiction, 'in another universe.'" Whenever I'm trying to come back into novel-production mode there's a long and uncomfortable period in which I open a "casting call" for where things might go. It's always an especially uncomfortable moment when the previous book arrives, and says "Remember us?" "I've already told your story." "Well, things have changed..."

I think of the way a street magician can fan a deck of cards and force one on you, without you being aware of it. My material is something like that—it forces itself on me without my being aware of it. Still, when sequels happen, I think: "Oh, this is embarrassing. What are people going to think?"

The "Blue Ant" trilogy has been heavily focused on the advertising trade, from the "cool-hunters" of Pattern Recognition to the "secret brands" in Zero History. Why have you become so interested in advertising in this moment?

It's a literalization of the way that we've become an apparently postindustrial civilization. If we've become a postindustrial civilization, what then is it that we actually do? We do branding and marketing, that's what we do.

I hope there's more to it than that, but just entertaining the possibility that that's all we do is a very interesting proposition from which to begin a novel.

What I find interesting about these novels is that you don't take the usual opinion that advertising is one-sidedly oppressive and terrible. In your books there really is something cool about cool-hunting; it's not just fluff.

I try for an anthropological approach: I go into the territory I'm looking at it and try to see what it is. I try not to go in with too many preconceptions. Of course it's impossible in the end not to have preconceptions—on the first day of Anthro 101 they tell you that you're never going to actually understand your own culture—and so my attempts at objectivity vis-à-vis my own culture are sort of ridiculous. But I still try for it.

I try to rein in the natural human tendency to be didactic in fiction—because as soon as the actions of the characters begin to illustrate my own opinions, I've lost what feels to me to be my highest function as a novelist, which is to get the characters up and running to the point where I can't quite anticipate their actions and the course of the narrative starts to follow the trails of the strangely autonomous constructs who are living in my brain for 14 months while I'm doing this.

I don't write novels to express ideas; I write novels about characters and the ideas come out of them. During the course of doing the book tour, I get interrogated on behalf of the book. I get to read it over and over again for the first time to rooms full of strangers. During that, if I'm lucky, I get to discover for the first time what I will subsequently regard as the ideas expressed in the book. That's where I find them, if I find them.

It's interesting that you say that, because I know you're a fan of John Brunner and he's one of the most didactic science fiction writers I can think of. You said a few years ago that "No one except possibly the late John Brunner, in his brilliant novel The Sheep Look Up, has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it." But that book is totally one-sided: it's apocalyptically pessimistic.

It's been so long, going on 40 years, since I read The Sheep Look Up, and I was going from memory on the way the way I responded to it. The pessimism has fallen out of memory for me, and what I remember is how well he applied the John Dos Passos template to an imaginary future, and how well it seemed to work.

One of the things that has annoyed me most about science fiction as an adult is that tendency to strike that "After us, the deluge" pose: It's all going to hell in a hand-basket. There's something so, I don't know, wincingly dreadful, and there has been for a long time, seeing a science fiction writer reach that point where he starts lamenting the end of civilization. This happens as the point in which the writer becomes fully aware of his own mortality and the indignity of aging, and that's the way it's always looked to me. They just drink the fogey Kool-Aid, and that's all we will subsequently hear from them. I have no interest in going there. People have been drinking the fogey Kool-Aid since Plato's time, at least, and no doubt millennia before—but seeing it in a science fiction writer, in someone who has an interest in seeing the ongoing project of the future going forward, is appalling.

These painfully pessimistic works of imagination always strike me as being not that imaginative.

When I wrote Neuromancer, most intelligent and informed educated people my age had no reason to expect the human species to survive more than about a week, because we were all under an astonishing double nuclear gun. The emotional reality of that is something that as a species is something we've acquired a kind of amnesia about—that from about the time the Berlin Wall went up to about the time it went down, smart people who knew what was going on in the world were scared shitless all the time. It finally became something that wasn't even like fear—it was just like a condition of the weather. When that went away, it was a kind of species-wide forgetting, to forget how scary and strange it had been.

It's very difficult for younger people to get their heads around it.

It annoyed me when Neuromancer was published in 1984, and everyone said "Oh, look, a dystopian nightmare." I was trying to be optimistic! I was trying to write a book about having a tiny nuclear war, surviving it, and deciding never to do that again. In some ways they even improve their world. I really thought it was nakedly optimistic.

Is this where the interest in memory and amnesia in Zero History comes from? The "zero history" in the title refers to a character who has lost nearly all of his memory of most of the last decade, with no financial or credit history for that time either.

Is memory is the absence of amnesia, or vice versa? When personal computer began to emerge in the world, I understood nothing about it technically—but I was immediately interested in the new use of language that was evident in people who were interested in computers. For instance, the way the word memory was used. Memory was quantified in a way—the capacity to retain memory became quantified in a way that I'd never been aware of before. To buy memory meant not to buy memories but to buy the things you could put memory in.

My investigation of that was almost entirely at a poetic level, and it led me to suggest in my earlier books, in a way I think I still believe, is that what we are is memory: we are that thing that memory is stored and preserved in, and which eventually falls apart, but also the memory itself. And if the memory goes away, we're no longer us.

As far as I know we're one of the only animals that we're sure does this. It's one of the things that's made us such bad guests here; it's made us powerful enough to mess the place up. And it's led to the extinction of lots of other species that didn't happen to be as long in memory as we are. And at the top of pyramid of technology on which we sit there are a lot of devices that map to prostethics for human memory and for human cultural memory—we've created systems that allow memory to survive the death of the individual. And in that regard we're absolutely unique, as far as we know. Whales may have very long memories of the things whales do, but they don't have cuneiform tablets or libraries or laptops.

This brings us back in a way to the 1980s nuclear apocalypse we were talking about earlier. Do you think contemporary ecological fears give young people a sense of what it was like to live inside that nuclear shadow?

It's a different thing, It's somewhat in the same ballpark, but it has a different character—in some way, I don't know, it seems wrong somehow to compare them. With Mutually Assured Destruction and that perpetual stalemate between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the horror was: "Just stop doing this shit, put those things down, and forget about it, because this is insane—we're about to destroy the entire planet because you guys have this problem with each other. Just stop it."

With anthropogenic climate change, it's more like: "Shit, we didn't stop it, did we?" And that's kind of all there is. We should be trying to stop this now, but it may have already gone too far. It's different somehow. It's equally large, in its way.

I may actually be too old to fully get it, I sometimes think. I don't have to live much expectation of seeing how far it's going to go.

I'm inclined to think that our great-great-great-grandchildren will regard us with a degree of contempt perhaps unknown towards one's ancestors in human history. And I think it's quite likely that we will deserve it. And that's new.

  • William Gibson discusses memory, Twitter, his latest novel and more

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Hey, thanks for the shout out for Wink of an Eye! The article was pretty cool, too :)

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