Interviews

William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211

Interviewed by David Wallace-Wells

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Vancouver, British Columbia, sits just on the far side of the American border, a green-glass model city set in the dish of the North Shore Mountains, which enclose the city and support, most days, a thick canopy of fog. There are periods in the year when it’ll rain for forty days, William Gibson tells me one mucky day there this winter, and when visibility drops so low you can’t see what’s coming at you from the nearest street corner. But large parts of Vancouver are traversed by trolley cars, and on clear nights you can gaze up at the wide expanse of Pacific sky through the haphazard grid of their electric wires.

Gibson came to Vancouver in 1972, a twenty-four-year-old orphan who’d spent the past half-­decade trawling the counterculture in Toronto on his wandering way from small-town southern Virginia. He had never been to the Far East, which would yield so much of the junk-heap casino texture of his early fiction. He hadn’t been to college and didn’t yet intend to go. He hadn’t yet heard of the Internet, or even its predecessors arpanet and Telenet. He thought he might become a film-cell animator. He hadn’t yet written any science fiction—he hadn’t read any science fiction since adolescence, having discarded the stuff more or less completely at fourteen, just, he says, as its publishers intended.

Today, Gibson is lanky and somewhat shy, avuncular and slow to speak—more what you would expect from the lapsed science-fiction enthusiast he was in 1972 than the genre-vanquishing hero he has become since the publication of his first novel, the hallucinatory hacker thriller Neuromancer, in 1984. Gibson resists being called a visionary, yet his nine novels constitute as subtle and clarifying a meditation on the transformation of culture by technology as has been written since the beginning of what we now know to call the information age. Neuromancer, famously, gave us the term ­cyberspace and the vision of the Internet as a lawless, spellbinding realm. And, with its two sequels, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), it helped establish the cultural figure of the computer hacker as cowboy hero. In his Bridge series—Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), each of which unfolds in a Bay Bridge shantytown improvised ­after a devastating Pacific earthquake transforms much of San Francisco—he planted potted futures of celebrity journalism, reality television, and nanotechnology, each prescient and persuasive and altogether weird.

Neuromancer and its two sequels were set in distant decades and contrived to dazzle the reader with strangeness, but the Bridge novels are set in the near future—so near they read like alternate history, Gibson says, with evident pride. With his next books, he began to write about the present-day, or more precisely, the recent past: each of the three novels in the series is set in the year before it was written. He started with September 11, 2001.

Pattern Recognition was the first of that series. It has been called “an eerie vision of our time” by The New Yorker, “one of the first authentic and vital novels of the twenty-first century,” by The Washington Post Book World, and, by The Economist, “probably the best exploration yet of the function and power of product branding and advertising in the age of globalization.” The Pattern Recognition books are also the first since Mona Lisa Overdrive in which Gibson’s characters speak of cyberspace, and they speak of it elegiacally. “I saw it go from the yellow legal pad to the Oxford English Dictionary,” he tells me. “But cyberspace is everywhere now, having everted and colonized the world. It starts to sound kind of ridiculous to speak of cyberspace as being somewhere else.”

You can tell the term still holds some magic for him, perhaps even more so now that it is passing into obsolescence. The opposite is true for ­cyberpunk, a neologism that haunts him to this day. On a short walk to lunch one afternoon, from the two-story mock-Tudor house where he lives with his wife, Deborah, he complained about a recent visit from a British journalist, who came to Vancouver searching for “Mr. Cyberpunk” and was disappointed to find him ensconced in a pleasantly quiet suburban patch of central Vancouver. Mr. Cyberpunk seemed wounded by having his work ­pigeonholed, but equally so by the insult to his home, which is quite ­comfortable, and his neighborhood, which is, too. “We like it quiet,” he explained.

—David Wallace-Wells

 

INTERVIEWER

What’s wrong with cyberpunk?

GIBSON

A snappy label and a manifesto would have been two of the very last things on my own career want list. That label enabled mainstream science fiction to safely assimilate our dissident influence, such as it was. Cyberpunk could then be embraced and given prizes and patted on the head, and genre science fiction could continue unchanged.

INTERVIEWER

What was that dissident influence? What were you trying to do?

GIBSON

I didn’t have a manifesto. I had some discontent. It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes.

I also wanted science fiction to be more naturalistic. There had been a poverty of description in much of it. The technology depicted was so slick and clean that it was practically invisible. What would any given SF favorite look like if we could crank up the resolution? As it was then, much of it was like video games before the invention of fractal dirt. I wanted to see dirt in the corners.

INTERVIEWER

How do you begin a novel?

GIBSON

I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.

INTERVIEWER

You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?

GIBSON

No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.

E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me—that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m in the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream. That gives me my story, but it also leaves me devoid of much theoretical or philosophical rationale for why the story winds up as it does on the page. The sort of narratives I don’t trust, as a reader, smell of homework.

INTERVIEWER

Do you take notes?

GIBSON

I take the position that if I can forget it, it couldn’t have been very good.

But in the course of a given book, I sometimes get to a point where the ­narrative flow overwhelms the speed at which I can compose. So I’ll sometimes stop and make cryptic notes that are useless by the time I get back to them. Underlined three times, with no context—“Have they been too big a deal?”

INTERVIEWER

What is your writing schedule like?

GIBSON

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

INTERVIEWER

And your schedule is steady the whole way through?

GIBSON

As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise?

GIBSON

Every day, when I sit down with the manuscript, I start at page one and go through the whole thing, revising freely.

INTERVIEWER

You revise the whole manuscript every day?

GIBSON

I do, though that might consist of only a few small changes. I’ve done that since my earliest attempts at short stories. It would be really frustrating for me not to be able to do that. I would feel as though I were flying blind.

The beginnings of my books are rewritten many times. The endings are only a draft or three, and then they’re done. But I can scan the manuscript very quickly, much more quickly than I could ever read anyone else’s prose.

INTERVIEWER

Does your assessment of the work change, day by day?

GIBSON

If it were absolutely steady I don’t think it could be really good judgment. I think revision is hugely underrated. It is very seldom recognized as a place where the higher creativity can live, or where it can manifest. I think it was Yeats who said that literary revision was the only place in life where a man could truly improve himself.

INTERVIEWER

How much do you write in a typical day?

GIBSON

I don’t know. I used to make printouts at every stage, just to be comforted by the physical fact of the pile of manuscript. It was seldom more than five manuscript pages. I was still doing that with Pattern Recognition, out of nervousness that all the computers would die and take my book with them. I was printing it out and sending it to first readers by fax, usually beginning with the first page. I’m still sending my output to readers every day. But I’ve learned to just let it live in the hard drive, and once I’d quit printing out the daily output, I lost track.

INTERVIEWER

For a while it was often reported, erroneously, that you typed all your books on a typewriter.

GIBSON

I wrote Neuromancer on a manual portable typewriter and about half of Count Zero on the same machine. Then it broke, in a way that was more or less irreparable. Bruce Sterling called me shortly thereafter and said, “This changes everything!” I said, “What?” He said, “My Dad gave me his Apple II. You have to get one of these things!” I said, “Why?” He said, “Automation—it automates the process of writing!” I’ve never gone back.

But I had only been using a typewriter because I’d gotten one for free and I was poor. In 1981, most people were still writing on typewriters. There were five large businesses in Vancouver that did nothing but repair and sell typewriters. Soon there were computers, too, and it was a case of the past and the future mutually coexisting. And then the past just goes away.

INTERVIEWER

For someone who so often writes about the future of technology, you seem to have a real romance for artifacts of earlier eras.

GIBSON

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.

My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.

INTERVIEWER

Was television a big deal in your childhood?

GIBSON

I can remember my father bringing home our first set—this ornate wooden cabinet that was the size of a small refrigerator, with a round cathode-ray picture tube and wooden speaker grilles over elaborate fabric. Like a piece of archaic furniture, even then. Everybody would gather around at a particular time for a broadcast—a baseball game or a variety show or something. And then it would go back to a mandala that was called a test pattern, or nothing—static.

We know that something happened then. We know that broadcast television did something—did everything—to us, and that now we aren’t the same, though broadcast television, in that sense, is already almost over. I can remember seeing the emergence of broadcast television, but I can’t tell what it did to us because I became that which watched broadcast television.

The strongest impacts of an emergent technology are always unanticipated. You can’t know what people are going to do until they get their hands on it and start using it on a daily basis, using it to make a buck and u­sing it for criminal purposes and all the different things that people do. The people who invented pagers, for instance, never imagined that they would change the shape of urban drug dealing all over the world. But pagers so completely changed drug dealing that they ultimately resulted in pay phones being removed from cities as part of a strategy to prevent them from becoming illicit drug markets. We’re increasingly aware that our society is driven by these unpredictable uses we find for the products of our imagination.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like growing up in Wytheville, Virginia?

GIBSON

Wytheville was a small town. I wasn’t a very happy kid, but there were ­aspects of the town that delighted me. It was rather short on books, though. There was a rotating wire rack of paperbacks at the Greyhound station on Main Street, another one at a soda fountain, and another one at a drugstore. That was all the book retail anywhere in my hometown.

My parents were both from Wytheville. They eventually got together, though rather late for each of them. My father had been married previously, and my mother was probably regarded as a spinster. My mother’s family had been in Wytheville forever and was quite well-off and established, in a very small-town sort of way. My father’s father had moved down from Pennsylvania to start a lumber company. Once the railroads had gotten far enough back into the mountains, after the Civil War, there were a lot of fortunes being made extracting resources.

My mother had had some college, which was unusual for a young woman in that part of the world, but she hadn’t married, which was basically all a woman of her class was supposed to do. When she did eventually marry my father, he was the breadwinner. He had had some college, too, had studied engineering, which enabled him to wind up working postwar for a big construction company. My earliest memories are of moving from project to project, every year or so, as this company built Levittown-like suburbs in Tennessee and North Carolina.

INTERVIEWER

And as these projects were being built you would live in one of the houses?

GIBSON

We did, in these rather sadly aspirational ranch-style houses within brand-new, often unoccupied suburbs. It was right at the beginning of broadcast television, and the world on television was very much the world of that sort of house, and of the suburb. It was a vision of modernity, and I felt part of that.

But my father was often away—he traveled constantly on business trips. When I was about six, he left on one business trip and died. Within a week, my mother and I were back in Wytheville.

INTERVIEWER

How did he die?

GIBSON

It’s odd the way families try to help people grieve—it doesn’t always work out. I was told at the time that he had died of a heart attack. Then later, I began to think, You know, he was young—that’s pretty scary! Twenty years later somebody said to me, Actually, he choked on something in a restaurant. It was a Heimlich maneuver death prior to the Heimlich maneuver.

It was a hugely traumatic loss, and not just because I’d lost my father. In Wytheville, I felt I wasn’t in that modern world anymore. I had been living in a vision of the future, and then suddenly I was living in a vision of the past. There was television, but the world outside the window could have been the 1940s or the 1930s or even the 1900s, depending on which direction you looked. It was a very old-fashioned place.

Towns like that in the South were virtually tribal in those days. Everything was about who your kin were. I was this weird alienated little critter who wasn’t even that into his own kin. I was shy and withdrawn. I just wanted to stay in my room and read books and watch television, or go to the movies.

INTERVIEWER

What drew you to that stuff?

GIBSON

It was a window into strangeness. Any kind of foreign material got my interest, anything that wasn’t from the United States I would walk around the block to see. Most of what you could see on television or at the movies was very controlled, but sometimes you could just turn on your television and see some fabulous random thing, because the local channels had space they couldn’t afford to fill with network material. They might show old films more or less at random, and they wouldn’t necessarily have been screened for content. So there were occasionally coincidences of this kind of odd, other universe—some dark, British crime film from the 1940s, say.

My mother got me an omnibus Sherlock Holmes for a tenth-birthday present and I loved it. I remember casting one particular brick building that I walked by every day as a building in Sherlock Holmes’s London. That could be in London, that building, I thought. I developed this special relationship with the facade of this building, and when I was in front of it I could imagine that there was an infinite number of similar buildings in every direction and I was in Sherlock Holmes’s London.

Part of my method for writing fiction grew out of that fundamental small-town lack of novelty. It caused me to develop an inference mechanism for imagining distant places. I would see, perhaps, a picture of a Sunbeam Alpine sports car and infer a life in England. I always held on to that, and

it migrated into my early fiction, particularly where I would create an ­imaginary artifact in the course of writing and infer the culture that had produced it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think fiction should be predictive?

GIBSON

No, I don’t. Or not particularly. The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby, it seems to me. Used bookstores are full of visionary texts we’ve never heard of, usually for perfectly good reasons.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that science fiction is never about the future, that it is always instead a treatment of the present.

GIBSON

There are dedicated futurists who feel very seriously that they are extrapolating a future history. My position is that you can’t do that without having the present to stand on. Nobody can know the real future. And novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism. I know that from the moment I add the final period, the text is moving steadily forward into the real future.

There was an effort in the seventies to lose the usage science fiction and champion speculative fiction. Of course, all fiction is speculative, and all history, too—endlessly subject to revision. Particularly given all of the emerging technology today, in a hundred years the long span of human history will look fabulously different from the version we have now. If things go on the way they’re going, and technology keeps emerging, we’ll eventually have a near-total sorting of humanity’s attic.

In my lifetime I’ve been able to watch completely different narratives of history emerge. The history now of what World War II was about and how it actually took place is radically different from the history I was taught in elementary school. If you read the Victorians writing about themselves, they’re describing something that never existed. The Victorians didn’t think of themselves as sexually repressed, and they didn’t think of themselves as racist. They didn’t think of themselves as colonialists. They thought of themselves as the crown of creation.

Of course, we might be Victorians, too.

INTERVIEWER

The Victorians invented science fiction.

GIBSON

I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing t­echnoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.

But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”

Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steam­punk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.

INTERVIEWER

Were you hunting around for books as a kid?

GIBSON

I knew what day of the month the truck would come and put new books on those wire racks around town, but sometimes I would just go anyway, on the off chance that I had missed something during the last visit. In those days you could have bought all of the paperback science fiction that was being published in the United States, monthly, and it probably wouldn’t have cost you five dollars. There was just very little stuff coming out, and it was never enough for me.

A couple of times I found big moldering piles of old science fiction in junk shops and bought it all for a dollar and carted it home. These magazines were probably eight or ten years old, but to me they were ancient—it felt like they were from the nineteenth century. That there could be something in one of these magazines that was completely mind blowing was an amazing thing.

INTERVIEWER

What was so affecting about it?

GIBSON

It gave me an uncensored window into very foreign modes of thought. There was a lot of inherent cultural relativism in the science fiction I discovered then. It gave me the idea that you could question anything, that it was possible to question anything at all. You could question religion, you could question your own culture’s most basic assumptions. That was just unheard of—where else could I have gotten it? You know, to be thirteen years old and get your brain plugged directly into Philip K. Dick’s brain!

That wasn’t the way science fiction advertised itself, of course. The self-advertisement was: Technology! The world of the future! Educational! Learn about science! It didn’t tell you that it would jack your kid into this weird malcontent urban literary universe and serve as the gateway drug to J. G. Ballard.

And nobody knew. The people at the high school didn’t know, your parents didn’t know. Nobody knew that I had discovered this window into all kinds of alien ways of thinking that wouldn’t have been at all acceptable to the people who ran that little world I lived in.

INTERVIEWER

Who were the writers that were most important to you?

GIBSON

Alfred Bester was among the first dozen science-fiction writers I read when I was twelve years old, and I remember being amazed, doing my own science-fiction-writer reconnaissance work a decade or two later, that someone I had discovered that young still seemed to me to be so amazing.

Bester had been doing it in the fifties—a Madison Avenue hepcat who had come into science fiction with a bunch of Joyce under his belt. He built his space-opera future out of what it felt like to be young and happening in New York, in the creative end of the business world in 1955. The plotlines were pulp and gothic and baroque, but what I loved most was the way it seemed to be built out of something real and complex and sophisticated. I hadn’t found that in a lot of other science fiction.

INTERVIEWER

What other writing interested you then?

GIBSON

Fritz Leiber was another culturally sophisticated American science-fiction writer—unusually sophisticated. Samuel Delany, too. I was a teenager, just thirteen or fourteen, reading novels Delany had written as a teenager—that was incredible to me.

I started reading so-called adult science fiction when I was eleven or twelve, and by the time I was fourteen or fifteen I had already moved on, into other kinds of fiction, but somewhere in that very short period I discovered British science fiction and what was at that time called British New Wave science fiction, led, it seemed to me, by J. G. Ballard.

There was a kind of literary war underway between the British New Wave people and the very conservative American science-fiction writers—who probably wouldn’t even have thought of themselves as very conservative—saying, That’s no good, you can’t do that, you don’t know how to tell a story, and besides you’re a communist. I remember being frightened by that rhetoric. It was the first time I ever saw an art movement, I suppose.

When I decided to try to write myself, in my late twenties, I went out and bought a bunch of newer science fiction—I hadn’t been reading the stuff for a long while. It was incredibly disappointing. That window to strangeness just didn’t seem to be there anymore. It was like, when I was twelve there was country blues, and when I’m twenty-six there’s plastic Nashville country—it was that kind of change. My intent, when I began to write, was to be a one-man science-fiction roots movement. I remember ­being horrified that critics who were taken quite seriously, at least within the genre, habitually referred to the category of all writing that was not science fiction or fantasy as “the mundane.” It didn’t make any sense to me. If there was mundane literature, then certainly a lot of it was science fiction. You know, if James Joyce is mundane but Edgar Rice Burroughs isn’t—I’m out of here.

INTERVIEWER

When did you encounter the Beats?

GIBSON

More or less the same time I found science fiction, because I found the Beats when the idea of them had been made sufficiently mainstream that there were paperback anthologies on the same wire rack at the bus station. I remember being totally baffled by one Beat paperback, an anthology of short bits and excerpts from novels. I sort of understood what little bits of Kerouac were in this thing—I could read him—but then there was William S. Burroughs and excerpts from Naked Lunch I thought, What the heck is that? I could tell that there was science fiction, somehow, in Naked Lunch. Burroughs had cut up a lot of pulp-noir detective fiction, and he got part of his tonality from science fiction of the forties and the fifties. I could tell it was kind of like science fiction, but that I didn’t understand it.

INTERVIEWER

Was Dick important to you?

GIBSON

I was never much of a Dick fan. He wrote an awful lot of novels, and I don’t think his output was very even. I loved The Man in the High Castle, which was the first really beautifully realized alternate history I read, but by the time I was thinking about writing myself, he’d started publishing novels that were ostensibly autobiographical, and which, it seems to me, he probably didn’t think were fiction.

Pynchon worked much better for me than Dick for epic paranoia, and  he hasn’t yet written a book in which he represents himself as being in direct contact with God. I was never much of a Raymond Chandler fan, either.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

GIBSON

When science fiction finally got literary naturalism, it got it via the noir detective novel, which is an often decadent offspring of nineteenth-century naturalism. Noir is one of the places that the investigative, analytic, literary impulse went in America. The Goncourt brothers set out to investigate sex and money and power, and many years later, in America, you wind up with Chandler doing something very similar, though highly stylized and with a very different agenda. I always had a feeling that Chandler’s puritanism got in the way, and I was never quite as taken with the language as true Chandler fans seem to be. I distrusted Marlow as a narrator. He wasn’t someone I wanted to meet, and I didn’t find him sympathetic—in large part because Chandler, whom I didn’t trust either, evidently did find him sympathetic.

But I trusted Dashiell Hammett. It felt to me that Hammett was Chandler’s ancestor, even though they were really contemporaries. Chandler civilized it, but Hammett invented it. With Hammett I felt that the author was open to the world in a way Chandler never seems to me to be.

But I don’t think that writers are very reliable witnesses when it comes to influences, because if one of your sources seems woefully unhip you are not going to cite it. When I was just starting out people would say, Well, who are your influences? And I would say, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon. Those are true, to some extent, but I would never have said Len Deighton, and I suspect I actually learned more for my basic craft reading Deighton’s early spy novels than I did from Burroughs or Ballard or Pynchon.

I don’t know if it was Deighton or John le Carré who, when someone asked them about Ian Fleming, said, I love him, I have been living on his reverse market for years. I was really interested in that idea. Here’s Fleming, with this classist, late–British Empire pulp fantasy about a guy who wears fancy clothes and beats the shit out of bad guys who generally aren’t white, while driving expensive, fast cars, and he’s a spy, supposedly, and this is selling like hotcakes. Deighton and Le Carré come along and completely reverse it, in their different ways, and get a really powerful charge out of not offering James Bond. You’ve got Harry Palmer and George Smiley, neither of whom are James Bond, and people are willing to pay good money for them not to be James Bond.

INTERVIEWER

Were you happy in Wytheville?

GIBSON

I was miserable, but I probably would have been anywhere. I spent a year or two being increasingly weird and depressed. I was just starting to get counter­cultural signals. It’s almost comical, in retrospect—1966 in this small Southern town, and I’m like a Smiths fan or something, this mopey guy who likes to look at fashion magazines but isn’t gay. I was completely out of place, out of time. None of it was particularly dramatic, but I’m sure it was driving my mother crazy. Pretty soon I had become so difficult and hard to get out of bed that I let myself be packed off to a boys’ boarding school in Tucson.

INTERVIEWER

Were you close with your mother?

GIBSON

She was difficult. She was literate—she was actually a compulsive reader, and really respected the idea of writing—and she was very encouraging of any artistic impulses I might have had. Writers were her heroes, and that made her kind of a closeted freak in that town. She was one of maybe ten people who had a subscription to the Sunday New York Times.

But she was also an incredibly anxious, fearful, neurotic person, and I would imagine she was pretty much constantly depressed, except that depression didn’t exist in those days, people were just “down” or “difficult.” But she was a chronically depressed, anxiety-ridden single parent who wanted nothing more than to read novels, chain-smoke Camels, and drink bad coffee all day long. There are worse things a parent can do, but it was still hard.

INTERVIEWER

Were you in Arizona when she died?

GIBSON

I was still in school, but not for much longer. I was sufficiently upset, after she died, that they wound up sending me home after a couple of months. But I didn’t get along with my relatives, so my mother’s best friend and her husband finally took me in. This was a woman who’d been my mother’s literary buddy all her life. She was the only other person in town who cared about modern literature, as far as I knew. It was lifesaving for me, because it gave me somewhere I could be where the people I was with weren’t trying to figure out how to get me into the army.

INTERVIEWER

Had you already decided to avoid the draft?

GIBSON

I’m not sure what would have happened if I had been drafted. I was not the most tightly wrapped package at that time, and I think it would have depended on the day I got the draft notice. I suspect I would have been equally capable of saying, Fuck it, I’m going to Vietnam.

I never did get drafted, but I went off to Canada on a kind of exploratory journey to figure out what I might do if I ever was drafted. I got to Toronto early in 1967 and it was the first time I had been in a big city that was pedestrian friendly, not to mention foreign, so I just stayed there. I figured if they drafted me I was already there. But I found that I couldn’t hang out with the guys who’d been drafted.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

GIBSON

I didn’t belong. I hadn’t made their decision. And I found them too sad, too angry. Some of their families had disowned them. They could feel, I guessed, that they’d brought dishonor on their families by resisting the draft. Some of these were people who had no intention of ever leaving the United States. There were suicides, there was a lot of drug abuse. Nobody knew that a few years down the road it would all be over and that all would be forgiven. And that wasn’t my situation. I was there because I liked it there.

It was 1967, and the world was in the middle of some sort of secular millenarian convulsion. Young people thought everything would change in some Rapture-like way. Nobody knew what it was going to be like, but ­everybody knew that pretty soon everything would be different.

INTERVIEWER

Did you?

GIBSON

I do remember thinking that the world I was seeing around me probably was going to be very different in relatively short order. But I didn’t assume that it would necessarily be better.

I had become interested at some point, before I got to Toronto, in popular delusions and the madness of crowds. Science-fiction writers had long accessed popular delusions as a source of material—intentional communities where people all believe something nobody else in the world believes, groups of people under some sort of great emotional stress who decide that something is about to happen, people who commit suicide en masse, people who invest in Ponzi schemes. When the sixties cranked up, I felt already familiar with what was happening. Moving to the woods always creeped me out so I just stayed in cities and watched the whole thing congeal.

INTERVIEWER

Congeal?

GIBSON

Like bacon fat in the bottom of the pan. It was ghastly—the nuked psychic ruins of 1967.

INTERVIEWER

And how were you passing the time?

GIBSON

I was one of those annoying people who know they are going to do something in the arts, but never do anything about it. But then, in 1967 and 1968, if you were a part of the secular millenarian movement, even on the fringes, you basically didn’t do anything, you just got up in the morning and walked around, and figured out what you had to do to make that happen again the next day—where you were going to sleep and what could be done to pay the rent. Soon, the hippie rapture would happen and it would all be okay. In the meantime you just hung out. While I suspected that wasn’t really sustainable, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

I had been hugely fond of Toronto as I first found it in 1967, but by 1972 I had lost that fondness. Montreal had always been the business capital of Canada, and when the Quebecois separatist movement got problematic enough for the country to be placed under martial law, all of the big companies fled to Toronto—the stock market even moved there—and the mood of the place changed very quickly.

INTERVIEWER

You met your wife in Toronto, didn’t you?

GIBSON

I took her coffee one morning. I was staying at my friend’s place, and he had spent the night with some woman and didn’t want to get out of bed, so he called to me and asked me to make them some coffee. I said sure, I made them some coffee, brought it up on a tray, and there was my wife.

After we had been together for a while, I began complaining about the weather in Toronto. I told her, I can’t do this winter, I forgot how bad this is. She said, I know an easier way—come with me to Vancouver. We’ve been here ever since.

INTERVIEWER

That’s when you went back to school.

GIBSON

Those days it was fantastically easy to get a degree at UBC. I discovered very quickly that they were in effect paying me for studying things I was already interested in. I could cool it for four years, and I wouldn’t have to worry about what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

But my wife started to talk about having a child. She already had a job, a real job at the university. Everyone I had known during that four-year period was also trying to get a job. It startled me. They hadn’t really been talking about getting jobs before. But some part of me I had never heard from before sat me down and said, You’ve been bullshitting about this art thing since you were fifteen years old, you’ve never done anything about any of it, you’re about to be shoved into the adult world, so if you’re going to do anything about the art thing, you’ve got to do it right now, or shut up and get a job.

That was really the beginning of my career. My wife continued to have a job after she had the baby, so I became the caregiver guy, the house husband guy, and simultaneously I found that it actually provided ample time to write. When he was asleep, I could write, I knew that was the only time I would have to write. Most of the short fiction I wrote at the beginning was written when our son was asleep.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote your first story for a class, didn’t you?

GIBSON

A woman named Susan Wood had come to UBC as an assistant professor. We were the same age, and I met her while reconnoitering the local science-fiction culture. In my final year she was teaching a science-fiction course. I had become really lazy and thought, I won’t have to read anything if I take her course. No matter what she assigns, I’ve read all the stuff. I’ll just turn up and bullshit brilliantly, and she’ll give me a mark just for doing that. But when I said, “Well, you know, we know one another. Do I really have to write you a paper for this class?” She said, “No, but I think you should write a short story and give me that instead.” I think she probably saw through whatever cover I had erected over my secret plan to become a science-fiction writer.

I went ahead and did it, but it was incredibly painful. It was the hardest thing I did in my senior year, writing this little short story. She said, “That’s good. You should sell it now.” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Yeah, you should sell it.” I went and found the most obscure magazine that paid the least amount of money. It was called Unearth. I submitted it to them, and they bought it and gave me twenty-seven dollars. I felt an enormous sense of relief. At least nobody will ever see it, I thought. That was “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.”

INTERVIEWER

How did you meet John Shirley?

GIBSON

Shirley was the only one of us who was seriously punk. I’d gone to a science-fiction convention in Vancouver, and there I encountered this eccentrically dressed young man my age who seemed to be wearing prison pajamas. He was an extremely outgoing person, and he introduced himself to me: “I’m a singer in a punk band, but my day job is writing science fiction.” I said, “You know, I write a little science fiction myself.” And he said, “Published anything?” And I said, “Oh, not really. This one story in this utterly obscure magazine.” He said, “Well, send me some of your stuff, I’ll give you a critique.”

As soon as he got home he sent me a draft of a short story he had written perhaps an hour beforehand: “This is my new genius short story.” I read it—it was about someone who discovers there are things that live in bars, things that look like drunks and prostitutes but are actually something else—and I saw, as I thought at the time, its flaws. I sat down to write him a critique, but it would have been so much work to critique it that instead I took his story and rewrote it. It was really quick and painless. I sent it back to him, saying, “I hope this won’t piss you off, but it was actually much easier for me to rewrite this than to do a critique.” The next thing I get back is a note—“I sold it!” He had sold it to this hardcover horror anthology. I was like, Oh, shit. Now my name is on this weird story.

People kept doing that to me, and it’s really good that they did. I’d give various friends stuff to read, and they’d say, “What are you going to do with this?” And I’d say, “Nothing, it’s not nearly there yet.” Then they’d Xerox it and submit it on my behalf, to places I would have been terrified to submit to. It seemed unseemly to me to force this unfinished stuff on the world at large.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still consider that work unfinished?

GIBSON

I had a very limited tool kit when I began writing. I didn’t know how to ­handle transitions, so I used abrupt breaks, the literary equivalent of jump cuts. I didn’t have any sense of how to pace anything. But I had read and admired Ballard and Burroughs, and I thought of them as very powerful effect pedals. You get to a certain place in the story and you just step on the Ballard.

INTERVIEWER

What was the effect?

GIBSON

A more genuine kind of future shock. I wanted the reader to feel con­stantly somewhat disoriented and in a foreign place, because I assumed that to be the highest pleasure in reading stories set in imaginary futures. But I’d also read novels where the future-weirdness quotient overwhelmed me and ­simply became boring, so I tried to make sure my early fiction worked as relatively solid genre pieces. Which I still believe is harder to do. When I started Neuromancer, for instance, I wanted to have an absolutely familiar, utterly well-worn armature of pulp plot running throughout the whole thing. It’s the caper plot that carries the reader through.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of Neuromancer today?

GIBSON

When I look at Neuromancer I see a Soap Box Derby car. I felt, writing it, like I had two-by-fours and an old bicycle wheel and I’m supposed to build something that will catch a Ferrari. This is not going to fly, I thought. But I tried to do it anyway, and I produced this garage artifact, which, amazingly, is still running to this day.

Even so, I got to the end of it, and I didn’t care what it meant, I didn’t even know if it made any sense as a narrative. I didn’t have this huge feeling of, Wow, I just wrote a novel! I didn’t think it might win an award. I just thought, Phew! Now I can figure out how to write an actual novel.

INTERVIEWER

How did you come up with the title?

GIBSON

Coming up with a word like neuromancer is something that would earn you a really fine vacation if you worked in an ad agency. It was a kind of booby-trapped portmanteau that contained considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, that pleasurable buzz of feeling slightly unsettled.

I believed that this could be induced at a number of levels in a text—at the microlevel with neologisms and portmanteaus, or using a familiar word in completely unfamiliar ways. There are a number of well-known techniques for doing this—all of the classic surrealist techniques, for instance, especially the game called exquisite corpse, where you pass a folded piece of paper around the room and write a line of poetry or a single word and fold it again and then the next person blindly adds to it. Sometimes it produces total gibberish, but it can be spookily apt. A lot of what I had to learn to do was play a game of exquisite-corpse solitaire.

INTERVIEWER

Where did cyberspace come from?

GIBSON

I was painfully aware that I lacked an arena for my science fiction. The spaceship had been where science fiction had happened for a very long time, even in the writing of much hipper practitioners like Samuel Delany. The spaceship didn’t work for me, viscerally. I know from some interviews of Ballard’s that it didn’t work for him either. His solution was to treat Earth as the alien planet and perhaps to treat one’s fellow humans as though they were aliens. But that didn’t work for me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to function in a purely Ballardian universe. So I needed something to replace outer space and the spaceship.

I was walking around Vancouver, aware of that need, and I remember walking past a video arcade, which was a new sort of business at that time, and seeing kids playing those old-fashioned console-style plywood video games. The games had a very primitive graphic representation of space and perspective. Some of them didn’t even have perspective but were yearning toward perspective and dimensionality. Even in this very primitive form, the kids who were playing them were so physically involved, it seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.

The only computers I’d ever seen in those days were things the size of the side of a barn. And then one day, I walked by a bus stop and there was an Apple poster. The poster was a photograph of a businessman’s jacketed, neatly cuffed arm holding a life-size representation of a real-life computer that was not much bigger than a laptop is today. Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe.

INTERVIEWER

And you knew at that point you had your arena?

GIBSON

I sensed that it would more than meet my requirements, and I knew that there were all sorts of things I could do there that I hadn’t even been able to imagine yet. But what was more important at that point, in terms of my practical needs, was to name it something cool, because it was never going to work unless it had a really good name. So the first thing I did was sit down with a yellow pad and a Sharpie and start scribbling—infospace, dataspace. I think I got cyberspace on the third try, and I thought, Oh, that’s a really weird word. I liked the way it felt in the mouth—I thought it sounded like it meant something while still being essentially hollow.

What I had was a sticky neologism and a very vague chain of associations between the bus-stop Apple IIc advertisement, the posture of the kids playing arcade games, and something I’d heard about from these hobbyist characters from Seattle called the Internet. It was more tedious and more technical than anything I’d ever heard anybody talk about. It made ham ­radio sound really exciting. But I understood that, sometimes, you could send messages through it, like a telegraph. I also knew that it had begun as a project to explore how we might communicate during a really shit-hot nuclear war.

I took my neologism and that vague chain of associations to a piece of prose fiction just to see what they could do. But I didn’t have a concept of what it was to begin with. I still think the neologism and the vague general idea were the important things. I made up a whole bunch of things that happened in cyberspace, or what you could call cyberspace, and so I filled in my empty neologism. But because the world came along with its real cyberspace, very little of that stuff lasted. What lasted was the neologism.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you get the prefix cyber?

GIBSON

It came from the word cybernetics, which was coined around the year I was born by a scientist named Norbert Wiener. It was the science of feedback and control systems. I was familiar with the word through science fiction more than anything else.

Science fiction had long offered treatments of the notional space inside the computer. Harlan Ellison had written a story called “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” which was set in what we would call a virtual world within a computer. You could even go back to Ray Bradbury’s story “The Veldt,” which was one of his mordantly cautionary fables about broadcast television. So I didn’t think it was terribly original, my concept of cyberspace. My anxiety, rather, was that if I had thought of it, twenty or thirty other science-fiction writers had thought of it at exactly the same time and were probably busy writing stories about it, too.

There’s an idea in the science-fiction community called steam-engine time, which is what people call it when suddenly twenty or thirty different writers produce stories about the same idea. It’s called steam-engine time ­because nobody knows why the steam engine happened when it did. Ptolemy demonstrated the mechanics of the steam engine, and there was nothing technically stopping the Romans from building big steam engines. They had little toy steam engines, and they had enough metalworking skill to build big steam tractors. It just never occurred to them to do it. When I came up with my cyberspace idea, I thought, I bet it’s steam-engine time for this one, because I can’t be the only person noticing these various things. And I wasn’t. I was just the first person who put it together in that particular way, and I had a logo for it, I had my neologism.

INTERVIEWER

Were you hoping to make cyberspace feel unfamiliar when you were first writing about it?

GIBSON

It wasn’t merely unfamiliar. It was something no one had experienced yet. I wanted the reader’s experience to be psychedelic, hyperintense. But I also knew that a more rigorous and colder and truer extrapolation would be to simply present it as something the character scarcely even notices. If I make a phone call to London right now, there’s absolutely no excitement in that—there’s nothing special about it. But in a nineteenth-century science-fiction story, for someone in Vancouver to phone someone in London would have been the biggest thing in the story. People in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire will all phone London one day!

Giving in to this conflict, I inserted an odd little edutainment show running on television in the background at one point in Neuromancer—“Cyberspace, a consensual realm.” Partly it was for the slower reader who hadn’t yet figured it out, but also it was to get me off the hook with my conscience, because I knew I was going to hit the pulp buttons really big-time and do my best to blow people out of the water with this psychedelic cyberspace effect.

Of course, for the characters themselves, cyberspace is nothing special—they use it for everything. But you don’t hear them say, Well, I’ve got to go into cyberspace to speak to my mother, or I’ve got to go to cyberspace to get the blueberry-pie recipe. That’s what it really is today—there are vicious thieves and artificial intelligence sharks and everything else out there, swimming in it, but we’re still talking to our mothers and exchanging blueberry-pie recipes and looking at porn and tweeting all the stuff we’re doing. Today I could write a version of Neuromancer where you’d see the quotidian naturalistic side, but it wouldn’t be science fiction. With the fairly limited tool kit I had in 1981, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and, of course, I didn’t know what it would be like.

INTERVIEWER

What was needed that you were missing?

GIBSON

I didn’t have the emotional range. I could only create characters who have ­really, really super highs and super lows—no middle. It’s taken me eight books to get to a point where the characters can have recognizably complex or ambiguous relationships with other characters. In Neuromancer, the whole range of social possibility when they meet is, Shall we have sex, or shall I kill you? Or you know, Let’s go rob a Chinese corporation—cool!

I knew that cyberspace was exciting, but none of the people I knew who were actually involved in the nascent digital industry were exciting. I wondered what it would be like if they were exciting, stylish, and sexy. I found the answer not so much in punk rock as in Bruce Springsteen, in particular Darkness on the Edge of Town, which was the album Springsteen wrote as a response to punk—a very noir, very American, very literary album. And I thought, What if the protagonist of Darkness on the Edge of Town was a computer hacker? What if he’s still got Springsteen’s character’s emotionality and utterly beat-down hopelessness, this very American hopelessness? And what if the mechanic, who’s out there with him, lost in this empty nightmare of America, is actually, like, a robot or a brain in a bottle that nevertheless has the same manifest emotionality? I had the feeling, then, that I was actually crossing some wires of the main circuit board of popular culture and that nobody had ever crossed them this way before.

INTERVIEWER

How did the Sprawl, a megalopolis stretching from Atlanta to Boston, originate?

GIBSON

I had come to Vancouver in 1972, and I wasn’t really trying to write science fiction until 1982. There was a decade gap where I’d been here and scarcely anywhere else—to Seattle for the odd weekend, and that was it. I was painfully aware of not having enough firsthand experience of the contemporary world to extrapolate from. So the Sprawl is there to free me from the obligation to authentic detail.

It had always felt to me as though Washington, D.C., to Boston was one span of stuff. You never really leave Springsteenland, you’re just in this unbroken highway and strip-mall landscape. I knew that would resonate with some readers, and I just tacked on Atlanta out of sci-fi bravura, to see how far we could push this thing. Sometimes in science fiction you can do that. The reader really likes it if you add Atlanta, because they’re going, Shit, could you do that? Could that be possible? If you’re visiting the future, you really want to have a few of the “shit, could they do that?” moments.

INTERVIEWER

Do readers often ask you to explain things about your books you yourself don’t understand?

GIBSON

The most common complaint I received about Neuromancer, from com­puter people, was that there will never be enough bandwidth for any of this to be possible. I didn’t want to argue with them because I scarcely knew what bandwidth was, but I assumed it was just a measure of something, and so I thought, How can they know? It’s like saying there’ll never be enough engines, there’ll never be enough hours for this to happen. And they were wrong.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you set the novel in the aftermath of a war?

GIBSON

In 1981, it was pretty much every intelligent person’s assumption that on any given day the world could end horribly and pretty well permanently. There was this vast, all-consuming, taken-for-granted, even boring end-of-the-world anxiety that had been around since I was a little kid. So one of the things I wanted to do with Neuromancer was to write a novel in which the world didn’t end in a nuclear war. In Neuromancer, the war starts, they lose a few cities, then it stops when multinational corporations essentially take the United States apart so that can never happen again. There’s deliberately no textual evidence that the United States exists as a political entity in Neuromancer. On the evidence of the text America seems to be a sort of federation of city-states connected to a military-industrial complex that may not have any government controlling it. That was my wanting to get away from the future-is-America thing. The irony, of course, is how the world a­ctually went. If somebody had been able to sit me down in 1981 and say, You know how you wrote that the United States is gone and the Soviet Union is looming in the background like a huge piece of immobile slag? Well, you got it kind of backward.

That war was really a conscious act of imaginative optimism. I didn’t quite believe we could be so lucky. But I didn’t want to write one of those science-fiction novels where the United States and the Soviet Union nuke themselves to death. I wanted to write a novel where multinational capital took over, straightened that shit out, but the world was still problematic.

INTERVIEWER

The world of the Sprawl is often called dystopian.

GIBSON

Well, maybe if you’re some middle-class person from the Midwest. But if you’re living in most places in Africa, you’d jump on a plane to the Sprawl in two seconds. Many people in Rio have worse lives than the inhabitants of the Sprawl.

I’ve always been taken aback by the assumption that my vision is fundamentally dystopian. I suspect that the people who say I’m dystopian must be living completely sheltered and fortunate lives. The world is filled with much nastier places than my inventions, places that the denizens of the Sprawl would find it punishment to be relocated to, and a lot of those places seem to be steadily getting worse.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a famous story about your being unable to sit through Blade Runner while writing Neuromancer.

GIBSON

I was afraid to watch Blade Runner in the theater because I was afraid the movie would be better than what I myself had been able to imagine. In a way, I was right to be afraid, because even the first few minutes were better. Later, I noticed that it was a total box-office flop, in first theatrical release. That worried me, too. I thought, Uh-oh. He got it right and ­nobody cares! Over a few years, though, I started to see that in some weird way it was the most influential film of my lifetime, up to that point. It affected the way people dressed, it affected the way people decorated nightclubs. Architects started building office buildings that you could tell they had seen in Blade Runner. It had had an astonishingly broad aesthetic impact on the world.

I met Ridley Scott years later, maybe a decade or more after Blade Runner was released. I told him what Neuromancer was made of, and he had basically the same list of ingredients for Blade Runner. One of the most powerful ingredients was French adult comic books and their particular brand of Orientalia—the sort of thing that Heavy Metal magazine began translating in the United States.

But the simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like compost heaps—just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, that’s just life—it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new, every square inch of it.

INTERVIEWER

Cities seem very important to you.

GIBSON

Cities look to me to be our most characteristic technology. We didn’t really get interesting as a species until we became able to do cities—that’s when it all got really diverse, because you can’t do cities without a substrate of other technologies. There’s a mathematics to it—a city can’t get over a certain size unless you can grow, gather, and store a certain amount of food in the vicinity. Then you can’t get any bigger unless you understand how to do sewage. If you don’t have efficient sewage technology the city gets to a certain size and everybody gets cholera.

INTERVIEWER

It seems like most if not all of your protagonists are loners, orphans, and nomads, detached from families and social networks.

GIBSON

We write what we know, and we write what we think we can write. I think so many of my characters have been as you just described because it would be too much of a stretch for me to model characters who have more rounded emotional lives.

Before we moved to Vancouver, my wife and I went to Europe. And I ­realized that I didn’t travel very well. I was too tense for it. I was delighted that I was there, and I had a sense of storing up the sort of experiences I imagined artists had to store up in order to be artists. But it was all a bit ­extreme for me—Franco’s Spain is still the only place I’ve ever had a gun pointed at my head. I always felt that everybody else had parents somewhere who would come and get their ass out of trouble. But nobody was going to come get me out of trouble. Nobody was going to take care of me. The ­hedonic risk taking that so many of my peers were into just made me anxious. A lot of people got into serious trouble taking those risks. I never wanted to get into serious trouble.

INTERVIEWER

The protagonist of Count Zero, Bobby Newmark, has a comparatively mundane life—he lives with his mother.

GIBSON

One of the very first so-called adult science-fiction novels I ever read was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. I’d gone away on a trip with my ­mother and I had nothing to read, and the only thing for sale was this rather adult-looking paperback. I was barely up to the reading skill required for Starship Troopers, but I can remember figuring out the first couple of pages, and it blew the top off my head. Later, when I managed to read it all the way through, I got the feeling that I was more like the juvenile delinquents who got beat up by the Starship Troopers than I was like the Starship Troopers themselves. And I remember wondering, Where did the juvenile delinquents go after they got beaten up by the Starship Troopers? What happened to them? Where did they live? Bobby is sort of the answer. They lived with their mothers and they were computer hackers!

INTERVIEWER

In Mona Lisa Overdrive, your third novel, Bobby ends up in a peculiar contraption called the “Aleph.”

GIBSON

I think I was starting to realize that the only image I had for total artificial intelligence or total artificial reality was Borges’s Aleph, a point in space that contains all other points. In his story “The Aleph,” which may be his greatest, Borges managed to envision this Aleph without computers or anything like them. He skips the issue of what it is and how it works. It just sits there under the stairs in the basement of some old house in Buenos Aires, and nobody says why, but you have to go down the stairs, lie on your back, look at this thing, and if you get your head at the right angle, then you can see everything there is, or ever was, anywhere, at any time.

I think I was probably twelve years old when I read that, and I never got over the wonder of that story, and how Borges in this very limited number of words could make you feel that he’s seen every last thing in the universe, just by sonorously listing a number of very peculiar and mismatched items and events. If Bobby was going to go somewhere, that was probably going to be it.

INTERVIEWER

What interested you about Joseph Cornell?

GIBSON

Beginning with Count Zero I had the impulse to use the text to honor works of art that I particularly loved or admired. With Mona Lisa Overdrive, it’s heavily Joseph Cornell, especially his extraordinary talent to turn literal garbage into these achingly superb, over-the-top, poetic, cryptic statements.

Gradually, Cornell became a model of creativity for me. I’ve always had a degree of impostor syndrome about being or calling myself an artist, but I’m pretty sure that there’s some way in which I’m an outsider, and what I’m doing has to be outsider art. I felt that I’ve worked with found objects at times in a similar way because I valued bits of the real world differently than I valued the bits I created myself.

When I was going to start writing All Tomorrow’s Parties, John Clute suggested to me that all of my books had become Cornell boxes. The Bridge in Virtual Light, he said, was my biggest Cornell box. It really spooked me. I think that’s why I wound up burning the Bridge.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about the Bridge.

GIBSON

The Bridge is a fable about counterculture, the kind of counterculture that may no longer be possible. There are no backwaters where things can breed—our connectivity is so high and so global that there are no more Seattles and no more Haight-Ashburys. We’ve arrived at a level of commodification that may have negated the concept of counterculture. I wanted to create a s­cenario in which I could depict something like that happening in the recognizably near future.

I woke up one morning in San Francisco and looked out the window and had this great archetypal San Francisco experience—there was nothing but fog. Nothing but fog except this perfectly clear diorama window up in the air, brilliantly lit by the sun, containing the very top of the nearest ­support tower of the Bay Bridge. I couldn’t see anything else in the city, just this little glowing world. I thought, Wow, if you had a bunch of plywood, two-by-fours, you could build yourself a little house on top of that thing and live there.

The Bridge novels were set just a few years into the future, which is now a few years in the past, and so they read almost like alternate-history ­novels—the present in flamboyant cyberpunk drag. And the Bridge itself, a shantytown culture improvised in the wake of a devastating Bay Area earthquake, is a piece of emergent technology.

INTERVIEWER

Many readers have argued that the Bridge books offer a theory of technology.

GIBSON

More like a rubbing—like rubbing brass in a cathedral or a tombstone in a graveyard. I’m not a didactic storyteller. I don’t formulate theories about how the world works and then create stories to illustrate my theories. What I have in the end is an artifact and not a theory.

But I take it for granted that social change is driven primarily by emergent technologies, and probably always has been. No one legislates techno­logies into emergence—it actually seems to be quite a random thing. That’s a vision of technology that’s diametrically opposed to the one I received from science fiction and the popular culture of science when I was twelve years old.

In the postwar era, aside from anxiety over nuclear war, we assumed that we were steering technology. Today, we’re more likely to feel that technology is driving us, driving change, and that it’s out of control. Technology was previously seen as linear and progressive—evolutionary in that way our culture has always preferred to misunderstand Darwin.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t see technology evolving that way?

GIBSON

What I mainly see is the distribution of it. The poorer you are, the poorer your culture is, the less cutting-edge technology you’re liable to encounter, aside from the Internet, the stuff you can access on your cell phone.

In that way, I think we’re past the computer age. You can be living in a third-world village with no sewage, but if you’ve got the right apps then you can actually have some kind of participation in a world that otherwise looks like a distant Star Trek future where people have plenty of everything. And from the point of view of the guy in the village, information is getting beamed in from a world where people don’t have to earn a living. They certainly don’t have to do the stuff he has to do everyday to make sure he’s got enough food to be alive in three days.

On that side of things, Americans might be forgiven for thinking the pace of change has slowed, in part because the United States government hasn’t been able to do heroic nonmilitary infrastructure for quite a while. Before and after World War II there was a huge amount of infrastructure building in the United States that gave us the spiritual shape of the American century. Rural electrification, the highway system, the freeways of Los Angeles—those were some of the biggest things anybody had ever built in the world at the time, but the United States really has fallen far behind with that.

INTERVIEWER

Is computer technology not heroic?

GIBSON

I do think it’s a really big deal, although the infrastructure is not physical. There’s hardware supporting the stuff, but the digital infrastructure is a bunch of zeros and ones—something that amounts to a kind of language.

It looks to me as though that prosthetic-memory project is going to be what we are about, as a species, because our prosthetic memory now actually stands a pretty good chance of surviving humanity. We could conceivably go extinct and our creations would live on. One day, in the sort of science-fiction novel I’m unlikely ever to write, intelligent aliens might encounter something descended from our creations. That something would introduce itself by saying, Hey, we wish our human ancestors could have been around to meet you guys because they were totally fascinated by this moment, but at least we’ve got this PowerPoint we’d like to show you about them. They don’t look anything like us, but that is where we came from, and they were actually made out of meat, as weird as that seems.

INTERVIEWER

When did you decide to write about the contemporary world?

GIBSON

For years, I’d found myself telling interviewers and readers that I believed it was possible to write a novel set in the present that would have an effect very similar to the effect of novels I had set in imaginary futures. I think I said it so many times, and probably with such a pissy tone of exasperation, that I finally decided I had to call myself on it.

A friend knew a woman who was having old-fashioned electroshock therapy for depression. He’d pick her up at the clinic after the session and drive her not home but to a fish market. He’d lead her to the ice tables where the day’s catch was spread out, and he’d just stand there with her, and she’d look at the ice tables for a really long time with a blank, searching expression. Finally, she’d turn to him and say, “Wow, they’re fish, aren’t they!” After electro­shock, she had this experience of unutterable, indescribable wonderment at seeing these things completely removed from all context of memory, and gradually her brain would come back together and say, Damn, they’re fish. That’s kind of what I do.

INTERVIEWER

What is “pattern recognition”?

GIBSON

It is the thing we do that other species on the planet are largely incapable of doing. It’s how we infer everything. If you’re in the woods and a rock comes flying from somewhere in your direction, you assume that someone has thrown a rock at you. Other animals don’t seem capable of that. The fear leverage in the game of terrorism depends on faulty pattern recognition. After all, terrorist acts are rare and tend to kill fewer people than, say, automobile accidents or drugs and alcohol.

INTERVIEWER

Had you already begun to write Pattern Recognition before 9/11?

GIBSON

I had but as soon as that happened just about everything else in the manuscript dried up and blew away.

INTERVIEWER

Why did the September 11 attacks have such an effect on you?

GIBSON

Because I had had this career as a novelist, Manhattan was the place in the United States that I visited most regularly. I wound up having more friends in New York than I have anywhere else in the United States. It has that quality of being huge and small at the same time—and noble. So without even realizing it, I had come to know it, I had come to know lower Manhattan better than any place other than Vancouver. When 9/11 happened it affected me with a directness I would never have imagined possible.

In a strange sort of way that particular relationship with New York ­ended with 9/11 because the post–9/11 New York doesn’t feel to me to be the same place.

INTERVIEWER

Are you glad you wrote a book that had so much 9/11 in it?

GIBSON

I’m really glad. I felt this immense gratitude when I finished, and I was sitting there looking at the last page, thinking, I’m glad I got a shot at this thing now, because for sure there are dozens of writers all around the world right this minute, thinking, I have to write about 9/11. And I thought, I’m already done, I won’t have to revisit this material, and it’s largely out of my system.

INTERVIEWER

Alongside that public narrative runs a very private one, with Cayce chasing through the maze of the Internet after the source of some mesmerizing film material she calls “the footage.”

GIBSON

Having assumed that there were no longer physical backwaters in which new bohemias could spawn and be nurtured, I was intrigued by the idea and the very evident possibility that in the post-geographic Internet simply having a topic of sufficient obscurity and sufficient obsessive interest to a number of geographically diverse people could replicate the birth of a bohemia.

When I started writing about the footage, I don’t think I had ever seen a novel in which anybody had had a real emotional life unfolding on a l­istserv, but I knew that millions of people around the world were living parts of their emotional lives in those places—and moreover that the Internet was basically built by those people! They were meeting one another and having affairs and getting married and doing everything in odd special-interest communities on the Internet. Part of my interest in the footage was simply trying to rise to the challenge of naturalism.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve called science fiction your native literary culture. Do you still feel that way, having written three books that are set in the present?

GIBSON

Yes, but native in the sense of place of birth. Science fiction was the first literary culture I acquired, but since then I’ve acquired a number of other literary cultures, and the bunch of them have long since supplanted science fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?

GIBSON

No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it’s barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are those major plot drivers?

GIBSON

Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

INTERVIEWER

And you haven’t even gotten to the technology.

GIBSON

You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.