The brilliant science-fiction novelist who imagined the Web tells Salon how writers missed social media’s rise
Even if you’ve never heard of William Gibson, you’re probably familiar with his work. Arguably the most important sci-fi writer of his generation, Gibson’s cyber-noir imagination has shaped everything from the Matrix aesthetic to geek culture to the way we conceptualize virtual reality. In a 1982 short story, Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” Two years later, his first and most famous novel, “Neuromancer,” helped launch the cyberpunk genre. By the 1990s, Gibson was writing about big data, imagining Silk Road-esque Internet enclaves, and putting his characters on reality TV shows — a full four years before the first episode of “Big Brother.”
Prescience is flashy, but Gibson is less an oracle than a kind of speculative sociologist. A very contemporary flavor of dislocation seems to be his specialty. Gibson’s heroes shuttle between wildly discordant worlds: virtual paradises and physical squalor; digital landscapes and crumbling cities; extravagant wealth and poverty.
In his latest novel, “The Peripheral,” which came out on Tuesday, Gibson takes this dislocation to new extremes. Set in mid-21st century Appalachia and far-in-the-future London, “The Peripheral” is partly a murder mystery, and partly a time-travel mind-bender. Gibson’s characters aren’t just dislocated in space, now. They’ve become unhinged from history.
Born in South Carolina, Gibson has lived in Vancouver since the 1960s. Over the phone, we spoke about surveillance, celebrity and the concept of the eternal now.
You’re famous for writing about hackers, outlaws and marginal communities. But one of the heroes of “The Peripheral” is a near-omniscient intelligence agent. She has surveillance powers that the NSA could only dream of. Should I be surprised to see you portray that kind of character so positively?
Well, I don’t know. She’s complicated, because she is this kind of terrifying secret police person in the service of a ruthless global kleptocracy. At the same time, she seems to be slightly insane and rather nice. It’s not that I don’t have my serious purposes with her, but at the same time she’s something of a comic turn.
Her official role is supposed to be completely terrifying, but at the same time her role is not a surprise. It’s not like, “Wow, I never even knew that that existed.”
Most of the characters in “The Peripheral” assume that they’re being monitored at all times. That assumption is usually correct. As a reader, I was disconcerted by how natural this state of constant surveillance felt to me.
I don’t know if it would have been possible 30 years ago to convey that sense to the reader effectively, without the reader already having some sort of cultural module in place that can respond to that. If we had somehow been able to read this text 30 years ago, I don’t know how we would even register that. It would be a big thing for a reader to get their head around without a lot of explaining. It’s a scary thing, the extent to which I don’t have to explain why [the characters] take that surveillance for granted. Everybody just gets it.
You’re considered a founder of the cyberpunk genre, which tends to feature digital cowboys — independent operators working on the frontiers of technology. Is the counterculture ethos of cyberpunk still relevant in an era when the best hackers seem to be working for the Chinese and U.S. governments, and our most famous digital outlaw, Edward Snowden, is under the protection of Vladimir Putin?
It’s seemed to me for quite a while now that the most viable use for the term “cyberpunk” is in describing artifacts of popular culture. You can say, “Did you see this movie? No? Well, it’s really cyberpunk.” Or, “Did you see the cyberpunk pants she was wearing last night?”
People know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t work so well describing human roles in the world today. We’re more complicated. I think one of the things I did in my early fiction, more or less for effect, was to depict worlds where there didn’t really seem to be much government. In “Neuromancer,” for example, there’s no government really on the case of these rogue AI experiments that are being done by billionaires in orbit. If I had been depicting a world in which there were governments and law enforcement, I would have depicted hackers on both sides of the fence.
In “Neuromancer,” I don’t think there’s any evidence of anybody who has any parents. It’s kind of a very adolescent book that way.
In “The Peripheral,” governments are involved on both sides of the book’s central conflict. Is that a sign that you’ve matured as a writer? Or are you reflecting changes in how governments operate?
I hope it’s both. This book probably has, for whatever reason, more of my own, I guess I could now call it adult, understanding of how things work. Which, I suspect, is as it should be. People in this book live under governments, for better or worse, and have parents, for better or worse.
In 1993, you wrote an influential article about Singapore for Wired magazine, in which you wondered whether the arrival of new information technology would make the country more free, or whether Singapore would prove that “it is possible to flourish through the active repression of free expression.” With two decades of perspective, do you feel like this question has been answered?
Well, I don’t know, actually. The question was, when I asked it, naive. I may have posed innocently a false dichotomy, because some days when you’re looking out at the Internet both things are possible simultaneously, in the same place.
So what do you think is a better way to phrase that question today? Or what would have been a better way to phrase it in 1993?
I think you would end with something like “or is this just the new normal?”
Is there anything about “the new normal” in particular that surprises you? What about the Internet today would you have been least likely to foresee?
It’s incredible, the ubiquity. I definitely didn’t foresee the extent to which we would all be connected almost all of the time without needing to be plugged in.
That makes me think of “Neuromancer,” in which the characters are always having to track down a physical jack, which they then use to plug themselves into this hyper-futuristic Internet.
Yes. It’s funny, when the book was first published, when it was just out — and it was not a big deal the first little while it was out, it was just another paperback original — I went to a science fiction convention. There were guys there who were, by the standards of 1984, far more computer-literate than I was. And they very cheerfully told me that I got it completely wrong, and I knew nothing. They kept saying over and over, “There’s never going to be enough bandwidth, you don’t understand. This could never happen.”
So, you know, here I am, this many years later with this little tiny flat thing in my hand that’s got more bandwidth than those guys thought was possible for a personal device to ever have, and the book is still resonant for at least some new readers, even though it’s increasingly hung with the inevitable obsolescence of having been first published in 1984. Now it’s not really in the pale, but in the broader outline.
You wrote “Neuromancer” on a 1927 Hermes typewriter. In an essay of yours from the mid-1990s, you specifically mention choosing not to use email. Does being a bit removed from digital culture help you critique it better? Or do you feel that you’re immersed in that culture, now?
I no longer have the luxury of being as removed from it as I was then. I was waiting for it to come to me. When I wrote [about staying off email], there was a learning curve involved in using email, a few years prior to the Web.
As soon as the Web arrived, I was there, because there was no learning curve. The interface had been civilized, and I’ve basically been there ever since. But I think I actually have a funny kind of advantage, in that I’m not generationally of [the Web]. Just being able to remember the world before it, some of the perspectives are quite interesting.
Drones and 3-D printing play major roles in “The Peripheral,” but social networks, for the most part, are obsolete in the book’s fictional future. How do you choose which technological trends to amplify in your writing, and which to ignore?
It’s mostly a matter of which ones I find most interesting at the time of writing. And the absence of social media in both those futures probably has more to do with my own lack of interest in that. It would mean a relatively enormous amount of work to incorporate social media into both those worlds, because it would all have to be invented and extrapolated.
Your three most recent novels, before “The Peripheral,” take place in some version of the present. You’re now returning to the future, which is where you started out as a writer in the 1980s. Futuristic sci-fi often feels more like cultural criticism of the present than an exercise in prediction. What is it about the future that helps us reflect on the contemporary world?
When I began to write science fiction, I already assumed that science fiction about the future is only ostensibly written about the future, that it’s really made of the present. Science fiction has wound up with a really good cultural toolkit — an unexpectedly good cultural toolkit — for taking apart the present and theorizing on how it works, in the guise of presenting an imagined future.
The three previous books were basically written to find out whether or not I could use the toolkit that I’d acquired writing fictions about imaginary futures on the present, but use it for more overtly naturalistic purposes. I have no idea at this point whether my next book will be set in an imaginary future or the contemporary present or the past.
Do you feel as if sci-fi has actually helped dictate the future? I was speaking with a friend earlier about this, and he phrased the question well: Did a book like “Neuromancer” predict the future, or did it establish a dress code for it? In other words, did it describe a future that people then tried to live out?
I think that the two halves of that are in some kind of symbiotic relationship with one another. Science fiction ostensibly tries to predict the future. And the people who wind up making the future sometimes did what they did because they read a piece of science fiction. “Dress code” is an interesting way to put it. It’s more like … it’s more like attitude, really. What will our attitude be toward the future when the future is the present? And that’s actually much more difficult to correctly predict than what sort of personal devices people will be carrying.
How do you think that attitude has changed since you started writing? Could you describe the attitude of our current moment?
The day the Apple Watch was launched, late in the day someone on Twitter announced that it was already over. They cited some subject, they linked to something, indicating that our moment of giddy future shock was now over. There’s just some sort of endless now, now.
Could you go into that a little bit more, what you mean by an “endless now”?
Fifty years ago, I think now was longer. I think that the cultural and individual concept of the present moment was a year, or two, or six months. It wasn’t measured in clicks. Concepts of the world and of the self couldn’t change as instantly or in some cases as constantly. And I think that has resulted in there being a now that’s so short that in a sense it’s as though it’s eternal. We’re just always in the moment.
And it takes something really horrible, like some terrible, gripping disaster, to lift us out of that, or some kind of extra-strong sense of outrage, which we know that we share with millions of other people. Unfortunately, those are the things that really perk us up. This is where we get perked up, perked up for longer than for over a new iPhone, say.
The worlds that you imagine are enchanting, but they also tend to be pretty grim. Is it possible to write good sci-fi that doesn’t have some sort of dystopian edge?
I don’t know. It wouldn’t occur to me to try. The world today, considered in its totality, has a considerable dystopian edge. Perhaps that’s always been true.
I often work in a form of literature that is inherently fantastic. But at the same time that I’m doing that, I’ve always shared concerns with more naturalistic forms of writing. I generally try to make my characters emotionally realistic. I do now, at least; I can’t say I always have done that. And I want the imaginary world they live in and the imaginary problems that they have to reflect the real world, and to some extent real problems that real people are having.
It’s difficult for me to imagine a character in a work of contemporary fiction who wouldn’t have any concerns with the more dystopian elements of contemporary reality. I can imagine one, but she’d be a weird … she’d be a strange character. Maybe some kind of monster. Totally narcissistic.
What makes this character monstrous? The narcissism?
Well, yeah, someone sufficiently self-involved. It doesn’t require anything like the more clinical forms of narcissism. But someone who’s sufficiently self-involved as to just not be bothered with the big bad things that are happening in the world, or the bad things — regular-size bad things — that are happening to one’s neighbors. There certainly are people like that out there. The Internet is full of them. I see them every day.
You were raised in the South, and you live in Vancouver, but, like Philip K. Dick, you’ve set some of your most famous work in San Francisco. What is the appeal of the city for technological dreamers? And how does the Silicon Valley of today fit into that Bay Area ethos?
I’m very curious to go back to San Francisco while on tour for this book, because it’s been a few years since I’ve been there, and it was quite a few years before that when I wrote about San Francisco in my second series of books.
I think one of the reasons I chose it was that it was a place that I would get to fairly frequently, so it would stay fresh in memory, but it also seemed kind of out of the loop. It was kind of an easy canvas for me, an easier canvas to set a future in than Los Angeles. It seemed to have fewer moving parts. And that’s obviously no longer the case, but I really know contemporary San Francisco now more by word of mouth than I do from first-person experience. I really think it sounds like a genuinely new iteration of San Francisco.
Do you think that Google and Facebook and this Silicon Valley culture are the heirs to the Internet that you so presciently imagined in the 1980s? Or do they feel like they’ve taken the Web in different directions than what you expected?
Generally it went it directions that didn’t occur to me. It seems to me now that if I had been a very different kind of novelist, I would have been more likely to foresee something like Facebook. But you know, if you try to imagine that somebody in 1982 writes this novel that totally and accurately predicted what it would be like to be on Facebook, and then tried to get it published? I don’t know if you would be able to get it published. Because how exciting is that, or what kind of crime story could you set there?
Without even knowing it, I was limited by the kind of fiction of the imaginary future that I was trying to write. I could use detective gangster stories, and there is a real world of the Internet that’s like that, you know? Very much like that. Although the crimes are so different. The ace Russian hacker mobs are not necessarily crashing into the global corporations. They’re stealing your Home Depot information. If I’d put that as an exploit in “Neuromancer,” nobody would have gotten it. Although it would have made me seem very, very prescient.
You’ve written often and eloquently about cults of celebrity and the surrealness of fame. By this point you’re pretty famous yourself. Has writing about fame changed the way you experience it? Does experiencing fame change the way you write about it?
Writers in our society, even today, have a fairly homeopathic level of celebrity compared to actors and really popular musicians, or Kardashians. I think in [my 1993 novel] “Virtual Light,” I sort of predicted Kardashian. Or there’s an implied celebrity industry in that book that’s very much like that. You become famous just for being famous. And you can keep it rolling.
But writers, not so much. Writers get just a little bit of it on a day-to-day basis. Writers are in an interesting place in our society to observe how that works, because we can be sort of famous, but not really famous. Partly I’d written about fame because I’d seen little bits of it, but the bigger reason is the extent to which it seems that celebrity is the essential postmodern product, and the essential post-industrial product. The so-called developed world pioneered it. So it’s sort of inherently in my ballpark. It would be weird if it wasn’t there.
You have this reputation of being something of a Cassandra. I don’t want to put you on the spot and ask for predictions. But I’m curious: For people who are trying to understand technological trends, and social trends, where do you recommend they look? What should they be observing?
I think the best advice I’ve ever heard on that was from Samuel R. Delany, the great American writer. He said, “If you want to know how something works, look at one that’s broken.” I encountered that remark of his before I began writing, and it’s one of my fridge magnets for writing.
Anything I make, and anything I’m describing in terms of its workings — even if I were a non-literary futuristic writer of some kind — I think that statement would be very resonant for me. Looking at the broken ones will tell you more about what the thing actually does than looking at one that’s perfectly functioning, because then you’re only seeing the surface, and you’re only seeing what its makers want you to see. If you want to understand social media, look at troubled social media. Or maybe failed social media, things like that.
Do you think that’s partly why so much science fiction is crime fiction, too?
Yeah, it might be. Crime fiction gives the author the excuse to have a protagonist who gets her nose into everything and goes where she’s not supposed to go and asks questions that will generate answers that the author wants the reader to see. It’s a handy combination. Detective fiction is in large part related to literary naturalism, and literary naturalism was a quite a radical concept that posed that you could use the novel to explore existing elements of society which had previously been forbidden, like the distribution of capital and class, and what sex really was. Those were all naturalistic concerns. They also yielded to detective fiction. Detective fiction and science fiction are an ideal cocktail, in my opinion.