Ask any aficionado to list the foundational texts of cyberpunk and you will surely hear mention of William Gibson's 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer. Cyberpunk, for those not in the know, is a science-fiction sub-genre of urban-noir in which characters repurpose futuristic technologies to get by on the fringes of dystopian societies. Since those early days, the present has made great strides towards catching up with Gibson's imagined future. His latest cycle of books, which concludes with the just-released Zero History, examine our science-fictional present with the same skill set he once used to depict the 2030s. The Alibi caught up with Gibson through the magic of cellular technology in advance of his upcoming talk at the Albuquerque Public Library. In other words, the future is almost here.
Some have described you as a sort of technological prophet. How do you see your relationship with technology?
My predictive capacity has always been overstated. ... It isn't really what I do. I collect elements of the present that seem to me to have legs. They're going somewhere, and it's probably going to be somewhere interesting. ... I don't really try to predict where they'll go, I just kind of make up narratives about where they might be in the future. And I almost never get it exactly right, but just because people see that, they go, Whoa. He called it!
... One of the things I've noticed in the last decade or so is how the propagation of novelty in the world has increased exponentially, so that it's become markedly more difficult for me to find those bits and pieces that have legs before other people notice them. The lag time is decreasing. The lag time between the locative art in Spook Country [Gibson’s 2007 novel about technology and politics in the aftermath of 9/11] and being able to do augmented reality on your iPhone, which didn't exist in Spook Country, caused me to have to invent this kind of crazy homemade iPhone device—that was like, six months? I was still ahead of the curve, but man, that's a tight curve. So I'm starting to look more for hidden aspects of contemporary reality.
In Zero History , there's this ludicrous but scary interface between snowboarding designers and military contractors. Which is actually real.
... In Zero History, there's this ludicrous but scary interface between snowboarding designers and military contractors. Which is actually real. That goes on. It's a happening interface. But I think a lot of people will read the book and go, Man that guy has got an imagination. What a weird idea. And maybe in like five years they'll read about it in Time and go, Wow. William Gibson predicted that.
You've said you're an unintentional writer, that characters come to you with little warning and then do what they want. What's the interaction between that unintentional process and the research you have to do?
Well, for the most part, the research is just life. Fortunately, I'm attracted to a variety of fairly peculiar things. I guess I'm attracted to novelty. I've gotten into the habit of reflexively pursuing the novel idea, because I've learned that that's how my research happens. Then, if the novel thing I've discovered proves to hold my attention, the research part comes quite naturally. ... It will find its way into a book, and then I have to behave like an actual researcher. Which for me, these days, amounts more than anything else to some form of crowd-sourcing. I'll go to some specialist board somewhere and say, How does this work? What would these guys be using to do this?
The great thing about that is you don't have to identify yourself or say why you're asking, but there'll instantly be 20 people volunteering terrifyingly detailed amounts of information. And then, when the book is finished, I try to find a responsible specialist in every field that I'm touching on, and have them read it. ... Because sometimes people will tell you things on Internet forums, and they're insane. They don't know what they're talking about, but they're really convincing.
How else has advancing technology changed the way you write?
A big factor for me is writing with the knowledge that anyone can Google any term in the text. ... Before Google, there were times I knew that I had, just by life accident, arrived at the page with some piece of information that no one else could ever know, unless they happened to go into a particular library in New York and take a particular dusty book down from the shelf. And that was different. The possession of knowledge used to be different. But now ... everybody can check out anything. So I've thought of these last couple of books as being surrounded by clouds of invisible hyperlinks. Every specific phrase and historical name or reference is clickable.
Something [Argentine writer Jorge Luis] Borges said that long fascinated me was that every novel that is written changes every novel that ever preceded it. ... That seemed very much like a philosophical conceit when I first read it, but I can sort of see the edges of that. Where every text becomes a collection of hyperlinks, and some of those hyperlinks are leading back to other texts. So our texts are growing together as we speak. ... And I have no idea what that means or where it's going, but it is a strange thing to be aware of.