Issue 197, Summer 2011
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.
What’s wrong with cyberpunk?
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.
What was that dissident influence? What were you trying to do?
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.
How do you begin a novel?
I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.
You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?
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.
Do you take notes?
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?”
What is your writing schedule like?
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.
And your schedule is steady the whole way through?
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.