Great science fiction writers don’t just imagine the future, they shape it.
The idea that omnipresent social data networks would one day seem as normal as toothbrushes was a borderline-preposterous theory back in the early 1980s. Then a rookie science-fiction writer named William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in a short story, sparking the cyberpunk genre and inspiring countless minds in technology, entertainment and design. Exactly how influential has Gibson’s writing been, you ask? Well, even if you’ve never read his work or heard his quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed,” you’re probably using a device invented by someone who has.
Thirty years after the release of Gibson’s first book, Neuromancer, his latest book, The Peripheral, takes a similarly poker-faced view of our future lives. From labgrown Chinese “pork nubbins” to 3-D printed everything, The Peripheral plants today’s prototype squarely in tomorrow’s mundane while slowly unwinding two plots.
We called Gibson at home in Vancouver to chat about the looming apocalypse, what he was like as a student, and what advice he would give a young science-fiction writer today.
You invented the term “cyberspace” back when Ronald Reagan was president — before Neuromancer came out in 1984, even before Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac. Yet you typically spend a lot of time in interviews discounting your own predictive capacity. Why?
Well for me, all of this is a way to get a handle on the present, the present having become extremely fantastic. And from the point of view of someone back when I wrote Neuromancer, the most fantastic thing about the present time is that we’re actually still here. In the early ’80s, people who knew what their situation was with the Cold War and nuclear armament didn’t necessarily expect that we’d make it this far. We’ve kind of lost that knowledge. Once the threat was gone, it was like we disremembered it as a species. It seldom comes up anymore, which is really odd.
When I wrote Neuromancer, any scenario that wasn’t nuclear Armageddon was inherently optimistic. It was an act of optimism in the early 80s to set us up in a future science fiction story in a world in which there hadn’t been nuclear war.
It’s one of the things that genuinely surprises me about the 21st century, that we don’t worry about that now — not in the same all-consuming, ubiquitous way that we worried about it then. But now, from 2014, it looks like a relatively easy thing to fix. It was an apocalypse, but it was an apocalypse with a single cause — and once that was addressed, the very memory of it, at least the emotional memory of it, went away. The looming apocalypse today is multi-causal. It’s extremely complex and systemic and possibly quite slow. It causes a fundamentally different kind of anxiety.
Do you feel that anxiety too?
Well, I don’t think the situation looks very good. [laughs] As the nonexistent and wholly mythical Chinese curse has it, we live in interesting times.
So if today’s looming apocalypse is multi-causal, how do we fix it?
I don’t know. It’s hugely systemic, and it’s systemic in any number of ways. If it has no single cause, what do we do? I don’t write fiction from a body of theory about the world and how the world should work, but rather from my necessarily limited observation of how I think the world does work and may be working now. It’s a danger for science fiction writers, historically, that we tend to become the sort of figure H.G. Wells became toward the end of his life. He seemed to spend most of his time telling everyone they were doomed unless they did what he recommended. What he recommended was letting the technocrats take over. We sort of got Wells’ solution. Now the technocrats have taken over but it’s not going very well.
But the technocrats mean well, don’t they? And they love you, of course. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat through Powerpoint presentations in Silicon Valley that quoted some version of your statement that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Do you find it disconcerting that so many tech people see you as a guru, of sorts?
[laughs] Well, when you ask a guru how to fix global warming and he says he doesn’t know, I don’t know how much of a guru you’ve got.
One of the only things I might be good at that way is suggesting, not new ways to look at the future but the history of our relationship to the past, because to the extent that we’re able to navigate into the future at all, we have to have an understanding of the past. Which is interesting, because our understanding of the past is constantly changing. I mean it’s not a consistent thing. If you could show a Victorian what we think, historically, of the Victorians, the Victorian would be appalled. And she wouldn’t recognize the world, because our opinion of her world is so radically different from what she thought about it. I suspect that we’ll be in for that treatment ourselves, if there are still people around looking back at the habits of the first couple of decades of the 21st century. I doubt their opinion of us will be what ours is.
The future is unknowable, so you can’t know exactly what they’ll think of us, but just as our view of the past changes, the future will have different and more evolved information tools through which to look at what it knows about us. The future will probably know more about what we’re actually doing than we do. Because if it stays history long enough, it doesn’t have to be secret anymore. Our world and its various machinations will be more transparent to future historians than they are to anyone today. Just as our sense of what the Victorians were up to isn’t what the Victorians thought they were up to. They had a crowd of creative and passionate views about themselves that we don’t share. It’s human nature. One of the things I was working with a lot in The Peripheral was the way in which we view people in the past, almost unconsciously, as naive yokels in a sense. What could they know and how dangerous could they be and if we met them we could probably outsmart them. But more intelligent forms of historical fiction tell us otherwise. One of the reasons why I enjoyed Deadwood so much was that it showed us this sort of reality.
And then there are our ideas about the future! We tend to think that people in the future aren’t as strong as we are, that they’re kind of decadently weak and we could probably take them out. In The Peripheral, I’ve sort of got that working both ways, where a nearer future to us is regarded by a farther future as just being full of hicks and yokels, but they turn out to be extremely formidable once they have a toe in the door. At the same time, the decadent inhabitants of some further future are formidable in their own way.
Who inspired you as a child? Did you have a role model, was there a particular moment when you knew that science fiction writing was what you wanted to do?
Individuals, not so much. I admired scientists when I was a kid. And explorers. I grew up on National Geographic, and I remember the International Geophysical Year, which was a cool thing. I would pay attention to scientists in the news and somewhere along the line that started to shift a bit. I liked the whole idea of science and at the same time I probably had quite a naive sense of scientists. That if they were scientists they must be good, which is what the mad scientist figure plays against. I’m sure I daydreamed at some stage of being a scientist because I admired them, but I seemed to have low math skills and lacked the focus that it would have taken to actually be a scientist.
You’re saying you were not a straight-A student?
Right. I think if I were 12 years old today they’d test me and go ‘you’re gifted!’ But gifted is not always the best thing, right? I had kind of weirdly disjointed skills. The verbal was very high and the math was very low and otherwise I was all over the place and not inclined to study. It can work out okay.
It can work out okay. You and Steve Jobs, you did all right.
[laughs] Well, I was getting on when I started to write. I was in my 20s, and until then I’d have vaguely said that I was supposed to be doing something in the visual arts, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was and I managed never to do anything academic in that direction. Then I went back as an adult student to get a bachelor’s degree, and I got it in English, and the reason I did that wasn’t because of the English teacher, but because it was easiest. I did it out of laziness. And in four years of doing that, I discovered that it seemed to be easier for me to write than it was for a lot of people, and that was how I wound up finally trying to write fiction. When I was 23 or 24.
What advice would you give a 23-year-old, 24-year-old writer now?
Well, in science fiction I think the classic advice from Robert Heinlein was, in order to be a writer you had to finish what you wrote, submit what you’d written for publication, and without waiting to see whether it was rejected or accepted, start writing something else, which you’d then finish. And when the first piece was rejected, you’d immediately submit it somewhere else. Heinlein said that if you simply kept doing that, you’d become by default a writer, and eventually a published one. I think that my version, my advice would be even simpler than that — although that’s really good advice, because if you skip any of Heinlein’s steps you’re not likely to become a published writer — but I think that good fiction is written by people who’ve read a lot of fiction. That seems to be the common denominator. If you think you want to be a writer but you don’t like reading, you should look at that, because there might be something going on. So I would recommend that people read a lot, and as broadly as possible, and then I would suggest that people write a lot. You have to have written a very good deal in order to become really good at it. And if you do it often enough and pay sufficient attention, you’re much more likely to get somewhere than if you don’t.
Photo of William Gibson by Gilly Youner/Flickr.