As Twitter followers will know, I spent yesterday evening at an event in Bristol featuring @GreatDismal himself, William Gibson. The iPad definitely came into its own that night. A good free wifi connection in the venue (thank you, Watershed!) enabled me to tweet away, relaying interesting soundbites, and also corresponding with an audience in Sheffield who were receiving the session over a video link. It was all very 21st Century.
Soundbites, of course, do not necessarily convey all of the complexity and subtlety of what is being said, especially when the person saying it is as smart as Gibson. Numerous people have since blogged their reactions to the event, and rather than me trying to link to them I suggest you do a Twitter search on the hashtag #foigibson, which should bring up most of them. Here’s my attempt to elaborate on what was said.
Gibson began with a reading from Zero History — a section in which Milgrim is wandering around parts of London that are very familiar to me. I’m not quite sure why he chose that section to read, but it did include much of theory on which Hubertus Bigend plans to make money out of supplying clothing to the US military. As I noted at the time, Gibson pronounces Bigend as “Big End”, just like a Westerner would, not “Bee-zhond”, as one might expect from a Belgian. As I recall, this is actually mentioned in the book, and Gibson notes that Hubertus finds the whole thing rather amusing.
A lengthy question and answer session followed, and Gibson delivered a number of wonderfully perceptive answers. Here are some highlights.
Much of the questioning concerned Gibson’s writing career and his development as a writer. He talked honestly about how young men tend to write books that feature things like zombie plagues and post-apocalyptic wastelands because they lack the experience of life to write well about people. His later books, which a questioner described as much “warmer”, reflect what he sees as his greater interest in, and understanding of, people. He seemed particularly proud of one character from Zero History, Winnie the federal agent. Certainly you don’t expect such characters in a cyberpunk novel to spend time worrying about what presents they will bring home from London for their kids. Gibson noted that none of the characters in Neuromancer appear to have parents. They don’t have children either.
The attitude of authors towards their earlier works is often fascinating. Despite the runaway success of the book, Gibson clearly has an ambiguous attitude towards Neuromancer. He provided a wonderful analogy of a dragon at a Chinese New Year celebration. To the outside observer the dragon looks wonderfully impressive, but to the men inside it is a mess of old newspapers, struts of balsa wood and glue.
Other questions were focused more on the nature of science fiction and its power to predict the future. Gibson is clearly uncomfortable with his assigned role as a futurologist. He made the wonderful remark that “science fiction is part of the Dreamtime of industrial civilization,” and worried that if SF writers came up with really horrible ideas for technological advances this would only encourage some young scientist to try to make those advances happen.
Like most other SF writers, Gibson is dismissive of the predictive power of the genre. Rather than focus on the few glorious successes such as Clarke and satellites, however, he noted that John Brunner’s dystopian classics, Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, have been the only SF novels that got close to predicting the mess we are currently in.
Postulating as to why modern SF might be less interested in futurology, Gibson suggested that in order to predict the future it is necessary to have a stable present on which to build. The likes of Wells and Heinlein, he said, were sure of the nature of their world, and could thus confidently predict how it might change. The modern day SF writer is faced by a world that changes month-on-month, where technological advances come as a torrent rather than a trickle, and consequently prediction is a much more dodgy process. SF writers, he opined, were much safer dealing with space opera settings such as The Culture which are far enough advanced that there is no need to question how we got from here to there.
Gibson clearly has a great fondness for SF, and is happy to acknowledge his debt to the genre and community, but he appeared depressed by people who ask him to produce more books like Neuromancer. He said that his allegiance was to the narrative strategies of SF rather than to “genre”. Realizing he then needed to define genre, he said that it is what happens when a businessman says to you, “hey, you know that really novel experience you had last week, I can give you more like that”. A novel, Gibson said, ought to be novel.