Peripheral-Vision Man: William Gibson

October 06th, 2014 | Category: Reviews

William Gibson’s first and most celebrated novel was published 30 years ago. I first read Neuromancer (Ace, 1984) in the fall of 1999, halfway between here and there. I had just dropped out of graduate studies at the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence program and was trying to figure out what to do next. In the meantime, I was running the interview website that would eventually become my first book. Since those inauspicious beginnings, William Gibson has always been at or near the top of my most-wanted interviews.

William Gibson

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. — William Gibson

Conversations with William GibsonIn lieu of a face-to-face sit-down with The Man, Patrick A. Smith has compiled interviews with Gibson from most of his career. Thanks to interviewers asking many of the same questions over the years, these Conversations with William Gibson (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) run over and over the same ground, and many are interesting in spite of—and some because of—that. Twenty-three interviews being conducted by different people intermittently over about as many years often gives what would be the same question a new answer. Moreover, there are a few absolutely essential reads included: Andy Diggle and Iain Ball’s previously unpublished talk with Gibson from 1993, Edo van Belkom’s obscure 1997 interview, and Alex Dueboen’s interrogation of Gibson’s writing process from 2007. Also, the 30-page David Wallace-Wells interview originally published in The Paris Review #197 in 2011 is probably the best interview with Gibson anywhere—Kodwo Eshun’s unpublished 1996 interview notwithstanding.

Regardless, Gibson’s insights abound. Like his last book, Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012), this one collects its pieces from across the web and print publications: websites, magazines, and zines, some out of print and a few never printed before. Both books are huge steps in revealing the many deep and relevant thoughts of a man mainly known for only a few big ones. Here are several from these conversations:

  • 1997: “To me, ambivalence seems the only sane response [to technology]. Technophobia doesn’t work, and neither does technophilia. So you don’t want to be a nerd, and you don’t want to be a Luddite, you have to try to straddle the fence and just make constant decisions” (p. 133).
  • 1999: “I think Brian Eno‘s right in defining culture as everything we do that we don’t absolutely need to do… I look at what people are doing—particularly if they’re doing it passionately—that they don’t need to do” (p. 149).
  • 1999: “To the extent that I can still believe in Bohemia, which I think is important to me in some way that I don’t yet really understand, to the extent that I still believe in that, I have to believe that there are viable degrees of freedom inherent if not realized in interstitial areas” (p. 154).
  • 1999: “Where is our new stuff going to come from? What we’re doing pop culturally is like burning the rain forest. The biodiversity of pop culture is really, really in danger. I didn’t see it coming until a few years ago, but looking back it’s very apparent” (p. 158).
  • 2007: “In those early days of broadcast television, you were a little kid walking around and holding these two realities at the same time in your head” (p. 185).
  • 2011: “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” (p. 222).

My to-read stack also grew a book or several after reading these interviews. Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (FSG, 1981) and Manny Farber’s Negative Space (Studio Vista, 1971) are mentioned several times, along with Thomas Pynchon, Dashiell Hammett, Bruce Sterling, and J. G. Ballard.

William Gibson: The PeripheralSpeaking of Pynchon, Gibson has always cited him as an influence, rebutting claims of his following Philip K. Dick. Given Gibson’s recent flirtation with the recent past, Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), reads more like it was influenced by Gibson’s last trilogy than the other way around. I loved the way Gibson was able to describe our present like it was/is science fictional (proving the point that he, Frederick Jameson, and others have made about “futuristic” science fiction actually being about the moment in which it was written), but it’s good to see him projecting again. I’ve read all of his books since taking the plunge 15 years ago, and I recently reread that first one. I am back in graduate school and glad to be able to read another.

The Peripheral (Putnam Adult, 2014) leaps ahead again, the 22nd century making up at least one of the worlds in its pages. So far it feels more light than dark, but that may just be his lulling me into it with his trademark descriptions with sparse details, gaping breadth with needle-focused minutiae. Without giving too much away, I will say that it reads more like Neuromancer than it does Spook Country (my favorite of all of his novels). It has the giddy unease of the former tempered by the veteran hand of the latter. It’s both energy and nuance. Parsing Gibson’s paragraphs is a challenge again—and that much more fun for it.

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William Gibson white-out portrait by Roy Christopher. [01072014]

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