In 1984, William Gibson's first novel Neuromancer was published, and science fiction experienced a shock of seismic proportions. Called the first "cyperpunk" novel (from the man who famously coined the word "cyberspace" in 1982), Neuromancer won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards, and introduced millions of readers to a gritty, realistic view of America's future.
These days, Gibson is focusing closer to home. Both Pattern Recognition, which the Washington Post Book World called "one of the first authentic and vital novels of the 21st century," and Spook Country, his most recent book, are set in the recent, chaotic, post-9/11 world.
Spook Country describes the converging paths of three characters: Hollis, a former musician in the cult favorite band Curfew, who is struggling to begin a career in journalism; Milgrim, an addict whose ability to decode Volapuk, a version of Russian used on Roman keyboards, has made him valuable enough to be kidnapped; and Tito, a member of a very unusual crime family from Soviet Havana. For different reasons, all three are searching for the same thing: a mysterious shipping container that some very powerful people want to get their hands on.
It sounds complicated, and it is, but the intricacy of the story, the depth and detail of the characters, and the gorgeous prose make Spook Country a book to savor. Gibson's vision of our world may be grim, but it's honest, and includes touching, funny moments, as well. The overall effect is powerfully intelligent and resonant. Bill Sheehan, writing in the Washington Post Book World, says, "Gibson takes another large step forward and reaffirms his position as one of the most astute and entertaining commentators on our astonishing, chaotic present." Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, raves that it's "one of Gibson's best." If you haven't read Gibson before, this is a perfect place to start.
Jill Owens:Though Spook Country is set in the present, like Pattern Recognition, it's concerned with a secret world that most people don't see, which can feel almost as foreign-yet-familiar as your earlier work. Is the strangeness of our present one of the reasons you started writing about it?
William Gibson: Spook Country is the second speculative novel of the recent past that I've written. I wrote three novels very much in the traditional pretty-far-future of genre science fiction, and then I wrote three that in some ways played with that conceit of being in the future; I think I was getting closer to this through that second sequence of books.
I haven't gone back and looked, but I think that Virtual Light is set about now. I wrote that when 2007 seemed impossibly far away. But I knew that I was in some ways changing it way too much and in other ways not at all. To someone reading those books today, I imagine it would feel like an alter-history, a sort of alternate version of the nineties, rather than now.
It seemed that I kept cranking this imaginary future thing in closer to the windshield, playing with it. I wasn't doing it very consciously, but I had some awareness of that happening in the course of writing those books. With Pattern Recognition, I think I finally accepted that the world we're living in is more baffling and amazing than anything that I or anyone else could ever make up.
There was some point at which I realized that if I'd gone to a publisher in the early eighties and said, "Look, I've got this great idea for a science fiction novel. It's set in a world in which there's a global epidemic of a sexually contagious virus that, if it ran unchecked, would obliterate the species. Simultaneously, internal combustion engines and combustion generally have completely whacked the climate of the planet, perhaps irrevocably. Simultaneously, terrorists have attacked New York with commercial aircrafts and the United States has responded by invading the wrong country. The list just goes on!" And then I'd say, "But, you know, people are having lovely times in virtual realities on something called the Internet — which I'll also tell you about." [Laughs] Not only would they not have given me a contract, they would have called security.
The only work of science fiction that I know of that even comes close to predicting where we're living is John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, and I actually kind of hate to say that for what it says about the world we're living in. He basically did what I just described, and some people did think he was mad. But he wasn't; he was just realistic.
Jill: The America that you describe in Pattern Recognition and in Spook Country is a radically different place from what we used to be, as a country. Do you think people are aware of that difference in their daily lives?
Gibson: I have no idea, really. I just don't know. I have a pretty good idea that some people don't, and I worry for them.
Jill: The New Yorker review says that the only thing not verifiably real in Spook Country is the CIA recruitment of sea pirates, though I have to admit it seems really plausible, once you put it into that context.
Gibson: It was a rumor; I've no idea whether it's true or not — I saw it alleged to be the truth somewhere on the Internet under rather shifty circumstances. I think what caused me to collect it for my pile of stuff to use for the book was that it sounded like a really smart thing to do. [Laughs] It sounds like what the old man would have wanted them to be doing. It's how the grown-ups used to spend money to gather intelligence.
Jill: Is there anyone practicing the kind of locative art you describe in the book?
Gibson: I made that particular kind of locative art up, but in making it up, I think it can be done. Something that I had to change at the very last minute, before the actual book was going to press... Someone read the bound galleys and said, "This locative art is very cool, but you know, you wouldn't be able to do it indoors. There's no GPS indoors; it can't go through walls." I said, "Uh-oh."
Happily, my informant explained that if you wanted to do it inside, you would have to triangulate on the three nearest cell phone towers. It would be possible to build a program that would do this; you'd actually be able to bring your locative art into the gallery. In the final version of the text, that actually helps considerably to explain why all those artists are so dependent on Bobby Chombo for something that they really should be able to do themselves — he can get your art into the gallery. Otherwise, you'd have to have it in the flowerbed outside the Marmont.
But other than that, I think that what I described is kind of doable. You could buy all the parts on eBay and put it together. But I've never seen anything like that described in real life. If you google "locative art," you get a gazillion hits, and a lot of it is very, very conceptual. It's sort of postmodern mapping. I have to say, it's kind of over my head, most of the locative art stuff. I just didn't get it. [Laughs] My idea of locative art would be the locative art that people in Juxtapoz magazine would do. It would be lowbrow: deliberately, self-consciously lowbrow with a capital L.
Jill: I did love the squid.
Gibson: Yes, the squid. I almost felt like it was out of my old work. I thought, This isn't quite right. Like I'd imported it from Virtual Light. But I liked it. It looked cool, so I went with it.
Jill: How did you decide to write this book from multiple perspectives, like some of your earlier work, versus a single narrator, like Pattern Recognition?
Gibson: I couldn't establish the necessary trust for myself in any of the narrators. I just wasn't sure that any of them would carry the whole book. It was a big leap of faith for me to write Pattern Recognition as a one-viewpoint book. It was something I sort of bet myself I could do, and I had to go through with it. I was very pleased with the result, but it was a scary thing for me.
With this one, I didn't quite trust that any of the three characters could carry it. I didn't think I could do any entire book's worth of Tito and have Tito be as... faith-based, is one way to put it. And with Milgrim, I didn't know if I could have somebody who was that stoned all the time for a full book. Hollis was, in a way, level-headed enough to pull it off, but I thought that people would say, "Wait a minute! He's doing it again. He's got this female viewpoint from a character whose life is kind of out there, and who is working for Bigend." It just seemed too familiar, so I went back to my old ways and mixed it up.
Jill: Your chapters in this book are quite short, like vignettes, though you fit a remarkable amount of information into them without making the prose seem dense, somehow. How do you think about pacing?
Gibson: Chapters have become the narrative unit for me. Somehow I know when one is over. I've often worried that they've gotten finished too quickly. They're finished, but they're awfully short. But I have to trust in that sense of closure, and it's sometimes necessary, as in this book, to have chapters that may be shorter than lots of people's chapters. I think it's much more important to know when the beat comes, then go to the next thing. I know it is for me. The experience of reading a book and knowing that the author's missing the beat on chapter closure is a problem for me as a reader.
Jill: How do you think about the prose itself, on the sentence or the paragraph level?
Gibson: I don't really think about the prose while I'm busy doing it. I do a fair amount of revision as I go along. As I go along, I'm really revising the whole text, and the first third of the book gets more of that than the rest because I give myself more chances to go over it. But it's improvisational, really. It's not as though I sit back and think about what the sentence structure should be like. I just sort of go in and do it, and then occasionally throw things out that are too difficult to read. If I've written something that I'm not sure I understand myself, I've learned to let it go, but I still think I stretch it sometimes. I probably produce little knots of prose that some people just say, What?, and skip over them.
Jill: I've read somewhere that you didn't know what was in the container at the beginning of the book, which surprised me.
Gibson: Yes, I didn't know until I was entirely too close to the final third. I had a variety of ideas, none of which seemed an adequate payoff to me. When it finally dawned on me what it actually was, a lot of the backstory made a different kind of sense, and of course I could go back at that stage and tweak the previous part of the narrative. That's a good place to be in writing a novel, when you're doing that, because you wouldn't be doing that if you didn't have some fairly secure sense of direction.
When I start writing a novel, I have no sense of direction, no idea, really nothing. With this one, I had the mood that produced the first couple of pages of what is now the second chapter — originally, that was the first chapter, with Tito hanging out along Washington Square in the winter and wondering about the old man. But initially, there wasn't a Tito or an old man, there was just that idea of Washington Square in the winter — more like Washington Square in the winter the way it used to be. I went for that, and I don't know why; it just grabbed me. And I thought, Okay, it starts here.
Then somehow, and I don't really understand how, the characters start to arrive. For a long time I had Tito but I didn't have Hollis. Milgrim was a relatively late arrival. Originally there was a version which just cut from Tito to Hollis, and that wasn't working, but then I introduced Milgrim, who literally came out of thin air with this very peculiar point of view. When I introduced him, the whole thing started running on a different level.
I'm always really, really uncertain of what I'm doing. But I think I need to be. If I knew what I was doing, I literally wouldn't be doing my job. That's what E. M. Forster said. He said if a novelist is in control of his or her characters, they're not even close to doing their job.
Jill: It wouldn't be nearly as much fun to write, either, I'd imagine.
Gibson: No, it wouldn't. It would be like doing a Hollywood contract for screenplays, where you have to go in and pitch the thing and tell them how it ends, and then stick to that, pretty much.
Jill: I found the information about Volapuk fascinating. Do you do much research for your novels, or did you know about Volapuk because of your interest in languages in general?
Gibson: I can't even remember where that came from. I have a lifetime of that stuff in a bin in the back of my head. But now, it's all wonderfully searchable because of Google. And you can google that particular usage of the name Volapuk, which was originally the name of one of those utopian synthetic languages like Esperanto. It was a less successful version of Esperanto. But I can't remember where I ran across it. Then I found out that that was what Russians called how they did Russian on a Roman alphabet keyboard. It's also like some of the typographical peculiarities of graffiti tags, and it's like postmodern typography. It does a lot of the same stuff. It looks similar, or so I imagined.
Jill: How many languages do you speak?
Gibson: One! One, unless you count Southern. [Laughs]
Jill: That almost surprises me, because languages — maybe not as directly as Volapuk does, in this book — but languages in terms of semiotics, in terms of class, fashion, all sorts of cultural signifiers, play such a huge role in your work.
Gibson: I think it's just the way I am, and I don't know why, but it's the way I've always been. I'm delighted by that stuff, observing it and figuring it out. I love slang, and listening to different kinds of language. I think it's all pattern recognition, really.
Jill: The Washington Post review of Spook Country compared you to Don DeLillo, while saying at the same time that you were very different writers. I was thinking of his book The Names, and both of your interest in patterns, languages, and cultural signs. It doesn't seem like that much of a stretch to me.
Gibson: I've read less DeLillo than probably I should have done. I don't know why. I think I found him a bit intimidating [laughs], though he's very good. The last one I remember reading was Libra, his book about the Kennedy assassination, and that one just completely floored me. I think Libra came out at the time that I was getting sufficiently into writing fiction that it was starting to become difficult for me to read it. I was someone who read enormous amounts of fiction up until my mid-twenties, but the point at which I ceased to read enormous amounts of fiction was when I started to write. Some writers need to constantly be reading in order to write, but for me, it's like the reading parts and the writing parts are too much the same parts. I started to read nonfiction more, and gradually I've just become a kind of "stare at the World Wide Web and push buttons" kind of guy, or I'll read magazines. Writing has made me much less of a literary person [Laughs]
Jill: How did you start writing?
Gibson: I started writing short fiction very briefly, as I imagine is the case for some novelists. I'd turned twenty-five, and it seemed to me that I'd accomplished nothing, and that my life was half-over at least. [Laughs] I really did think it was pretty much over, like nothing had happened, and I had nothing going on in the way of a career track, at least not that I was interested in. My wife was teaching English as a second language at the university, and we were having our first child. I remember thinking, Well, if I'm going to become X, whatever X was, the special thing I'd always imagined that I would become, then I'd better actually try doing something. Being a writer of fiction hadn't been what I thought X would be. I had very vague ideas that somehow I would make animated films, or something, or become a graphic designer, none which I had any training for. It was just kind of a vague artboy idea.
When I started to put myself on the line and actually do something, I guess I was drawn back to the things I'd been really intensely interested in during my adolescence, when I'd acquired some knowledge of how the world worked. Science fiction, genre science fiction, was one of those things, and I discovered that genre science fiction still existed, though I hadn't paid it much attention since I was sixteen or so. Then I started looking at what was going on in genre science fiction, and it was like... how country music had become Nashville. [Laughs] And I thought, Oh, this is dire.
So I thought this is really interesting, because there's room to be Willie Nelson. There's room for outlaw country; there's room for a kind of roots thing. I consciously thought of it that way. I thought, "Okay, they're all doing disco. It's all bad disco, and I'm going to come on and I'm going to do Carl Perkins, and they'll hate it, and I'll be thrown off the stage. But I'll have had my moment." That was actually as far as I had planned out.
But the thing was I wasn't thrown off the stage. I misjudged their elastic capacity to welcome the newcomer.
Jill: There were obviously a lot of people who were sick of bad disco.
Gibson: Yes, but subsequently, it's occurred to me that what gave them that capacity to welcome everybody in was that they knew damn well it was never going to change — genre science fiction's gotten worse! It's gotten even cheesier.
Jill: I think Hollis is the first character of yours who is a writer.
Gibson: Well, she wants to be, is beginning to be, a writer. I really didn't think of that. Yes, she might be. That never occurred to me at all.
Jill: You've had lots of musicians and artists, but I couldn't think of another character who was a writer. Did you see yourself in Hollis at all? It sounds as though your writing experiences were quite different.
Gibson: She's doing journalism for magazines. And one of the experiences I've had that's a parallel, adjacent to the experience of being a novelist, is that even though I'm not a journalist, I've been asked occasionally to function as a journalist. And it usually takes a really expensive plane ticket and a cushy expense account to get me to go somewhere and basically not do my job. [Laughs] When I come back I write some flaky little piece and they have to pry it out of me. Getting me to actually do the job is like pulling teeth.
I was channeling those experiences, to some extent, to find Hollis's character. Somewhere in the course of doing that, I came to believe that she actually was a writer. She really did want to do the job.
I like the idea of people who've had some success in one form secretly wanting to be something else; I have some of that myself. I look for it in other people who've established themselves in some particular art form, and then you find out that they really would like to design running shoes, or edit literary magazines, or something. Somehow that always charms me; it's very human.
Jill: So what is the thing that you'd secretly like to be doing?
Gibson: I would like to design what people generally call streetwear. I'd like to dress skateboarders, or whatever the older equivalent of skateboarders are. I pay more attention to that stuff than anyone would ever imagine because I'm watching what the designers do. When I meet people who actually design clothing, I give them a great deal of attention. They're never the people whose names are actually on the clothes. But the people who Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfigger pay to design the clothing, those people are really interesting. It interests me, anyway, the way they look at things. Or, if anyone out there wants to hook me up with one of those Japanese companies that make those incredibly expensive little vinyl figurines, probably like in giant robot shops, I would absolutely jump on the opportunity to do that.
Jill: Your descriptions in Spook Country of Tito's systema are a little like skateboarding, but they're also almost supernatural, because of the way you've combined it with the orisha.
Gibson: Well, that's not really what systema is. Systema is a Russian martial art that actually, as far as I understand it, evolved from Cossack dancing. So I've borrowed the word, and taken it out of its original social context and floated it into Soviet Havana, where Tito and his family have appropriated it again and floated it into their world of Santeria, or whatever that Voodoo-like, quasi-Catholic faith they practice is. So I'm basically making it up. It's based on parkeur. It's parkeur-like, and it's also like skateboarding, in a way.
I've put a whole bunch of things in there. My version just runs on heightened language. When the language starts heightening, they're doing systema, and people can float up walls, and do other things where they're just pulling out the stops and watching what happens.
Jill: It's beautiful to visualize. The orisha share a lot of characteristics with the loa in Mona Lisa Overdrive and that trilogy. The loa seemed to me much more aggressive, and much more separate personalities, I suppose. Tito and his family do seem to feel that the orisha are separate beings that inhabit them at times, but they could also be seen as heightened parts of his own intuition.
Gibson: They are. And that was my intent. My intention was for that to be ambivalent, as ambiguous as possible. Sometimes it seems evident that it's just in his head, and other times it seems like it's there physically in the world. I was very careful with that, because it's more fun if it's on the fence.
Jill: I was curious what piqued your interest in Santeria and Voodoo.
Gibson: I found them when I was very young, oddly enough. I found what we would call a trade paperback called Voodoo in New Orleans. I used to know the author's name. I was about thirteen years old.
I was building electronic kits at the time, where you'd order one and get a bunch of parts and solder them together. I remember sitting and reading about the loa and looking at the symbols for each one, and looking over and seeing the Heathkit assembly sheet with all the circuit diagrams and wondering what circuit would be produced if you used the Voodoo book instead. Some of that stayed with me, and when I wrote Count Zero, I just used it all. I did it from memory, though. And the memory was way back, and so it was all kind of distorted in an interesting way, and it gave me my own cyberspace version of that. But I never bothered to do any research.
With Spook Country, I had read a little bit more, and I had found a more feminine description of it, somehow, which became the orisha. It was almost more Catholic in some way than whatever I was drawing on to do the loa in Count Zero. Those seemed very masculine, relatively.
Jill: You always pay a lot of attention to place. In this book, I very much liked Milgrim's description of a city's fucked-up-ness index on the faces of people commuting to work in the morning. Have you traveled a great deal or lived in many of the cities your books take place?
Gibson: I haven't lived in a great many of them, but I suppose I've traveled more than some people have. Well, actually, I know I've traveled quite a bit less than a lot of other people. [Laughs] One of the good things about having the kind of career I've had is that it's presented me with opportunities to travel probably more than I would have been tempted to. I scarcely ever in my life have gone anywhere just to have a vacation. I'd rather do nothing at home than go most places. So it's good; it's given me a reason to go places.
When I was a kid, we had this huge eight-foot-tall homemade bookcase in the hallway upstairs that had decades and decades and decades of National Geographic, back to the old ones that didn't even have yellow spines. They came with the house; it had been my grandmother's house. And every night I would take a five-inch stack of those to bed, and go through them. I did that from ages six to sixteen. I think that probably had some profound, unimaginable effect on me because I had this sense of all these different places, and it was almost entirely visual. I doubt that I ever read much more than the captions on the photographs.
Jill: So you were born in Conway, South Carolina?
Gibson: Only accidentally. My parents had something like a vacation cottage at Myrtle Beach, so they happened to be there when I was born, but originally they were both from a small town in southwestern Virginia. I don't remember any of Conway except the beach; I remember walking on the beach with my mother, and it's like remembering something from the Caribbean in the 1920s, or something. There was nothing there. Nobody had come and built the kind of stuff they build at every beach now. There was just emptiness, and old black guys with unpainted sailboats and nets, dragging fish out of the water.
I think when I was born my parents were living in Tennessee near the Oak Ridge Atomic Facility, which my father had something to do with, though not in any scientific way. I think that the construction company that he worked for had put in a lot of the plumbing for the housing. But we had this sort of Oak Ridge family mythology of a kind of extreme paranoia. Everyone who worked there functioned under secrecy and weirdness and couldn't tell anybody what was going on, or you wouldn't have a job.
Jill: What are you reading these days, if you're reading books?
Gibson: Earlier today, I was reading a 1920s book called Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart. He was a journalist from Chicago who moved down to Appalachia around 1911 and lived way back in the mountains. It's not really good history or really good anthropology, but it's fascinating stuff. It's pretty good journalism about the people who lived back in those mountains then. It kind of helps me make sense of my childhood. I wasn't living like that, but there were surprising echoes of that, around. Jill: That sounds fascinating, actually. I'll look it up and see if we have a used copy around somewhere.
Gibson: Oh, I'm sure you do. It's the kind of book that Powell's is perfect for.
I spoke to William Gibson by phone on July 26, 2007.
Books mentioned in this post