Yesterday William Gibson rolled into San Francisco to do a book signing for the paperback release of Spook Country, his recent novel about surveillance, augmented reality, dream politics, and advertising. The novel is also, incidentally, a fairly overt critique of the idea of "cyberspace," a term Gibson invented early in his career, and which several characters in Spook Country describe as something that has been surpassed by newer ideas. I caught up with Gibson at a coffee shop downtown, and we chatted about everything from Godzilla movies and draft-dodging, to the novel he's always dreamed of writing.
Gibson refers to Godzilla a lot in his work, sometimes casually (a sound in Spook Country is "like Godzilla's footsteps") and sometimes wryly (an earthquake that levels Japan is called Godzilla in his Bridge novels). So I had to know what he really thinks about Godzilla movies.
I watched them growing up, and saw the original Godzilla movie. I think of Godzilla as that original character. Even though I saw the [Americanized Raymond Burr version], I thought I picked up on the dark meaning of the original. I thought I knew what they were trying to say with that movie. But I saw all those old monster movies. I was really disturbed by Mothra. Something about the tiny little twins who sang woefully.
Though he grew up mostly in rural southwest Virginia, Gibson has spent his entire adult life living in Vancouver, Canada. And yet in his world-spanning novels, Canada rarely makes an appearance. Until the ending of Spook Country, which takes place in Vancouver. I was curious about where Gibson sees Canada fitting into his geopolitical dreamscape, and where he sees Canada heading in the future.
Douglas Coupland's descriptions of Vancouver circa City of Glass are closest to my sense of the place. It's hemmed in and separated from the rest of the world by an ocean, a border, mountains. And then there's the unknown and incomprehensible north. Vancouver sits there, insulated to some extent, but picking up influences from across the ocean and across the border. The signals seem to be amplified by those symbolic barriers. Psychogeographically, I identify with greater Vancouver more than I do with the rest of Canada, which I have a fondness for and good feelings for. Vancouver's peculiar culture feels like home.
I like it because I grew up in a really extreme monoculture in southwestern Virgina. I was surrounded by Southern white folks – this was in badass Appalachia, up in the hollers where my mother's family had been forever. Having that experience in a small town made me happiest in big cities. Especially in radically multicultural big cities – as far as you can get from monoculture. I'm happiest where people are generally not even of recognizable ethic derivations. I'm into hybrid vigor.
Canada is set up to run on steady immigration. It feels like a twenty first century country to me because it's not interested in power. It negotiates and does business. It gets along with other countries. The power part is very nineteenth century. 99 percent of ideology we have today is very nineteenth century. The twentieth century was about technology, and the nineteenth was ideology.
I asked him about Spook Country, an explicitly political novel where it seems like ideologies are shaping the way people use technology. For example, the characters repurpose technologies like iPods for the purposes of espionage.
In Spook Country, old ideologies hang around and shape the initial phases of a longterm change that it will never be able to keep up with. The digital realm is inherently porous. These days we're all coming to the attention of the authorities as a matter of course. But the really new thing is that the authorities are coming to our attention. It's more difficult for authorities to keep their secrets. it's working both ways. We live in the era of the leak, the document that doesn't get wiped off the hard drive. That drive you thought was wiped shows up in a pawn shop in Vegas. It's equally porous in both directions. But individuals have a better chance of applying transparency to their lives and transactions on the internet than states and corporations do. If we continue in this direction, I believe people in the future will wield unimaginable tools of forensic transparency — and they'll aim them back at history. They'll find out about what every major player did all the way back with tools we can't imagine today. There will be no more lost cities.
Since we were talking politics, I asked Gibson about whether he sees his work as political. After all, he has said that he fled to Canada to dodge the draft. And I wonder if those politics have seeped into his work. He laughed when I brought up the draft-dodging.
Well, [that was] political and it's also true that I wanted to get laid [with hippie chicks]. I've had to engage in this kind of grudging self-examination because of my ever-changing Wikipedia entry [which mentions early interviews where he talked about being a draft dodger]. When I started out as a writer I took credit for draft evasion where I shouldn't have. I washed up in Canada with some vague idea of evading the draft but then I was never drafted so I never had to make the call. I don't know what I would have done if I'd really been drafted. I wasn't a tightly wrapped package at that time. if somebody had drafted me I might have wept and gone. I wouldn't have liked it of course.
In my novels, I've done my best to avoid political didacticism. Consciously I never work from any sort of expressed political philosophy. To the extent that I have one it strives to be open — open to change. I try very hard to attain what E.M. Forster described: "Let the characters get completely out of my control." Some of the characters are completely out of my control and get frankly political. Often when they'd just been awakened from a nap, like when Milgram is awakened from a nap [in Spook Country] and finds himself telling Brown that Brown and his ilk are bringing down the country. That was the Rize talking. Milgram would have a lot more going on consciously if he weren't cramming all that benzodiazanine.
I asked Gibson why he thinks so many people characterize his work as dystopian, especially since he tends to favor happy endings.
None of us ever live in dystopia. That's an imaginary extreme. They just live in shitty cultures. And these societies [in my books] seem dystopian to middle class white people in North America. They don't seem dystopian if you live in Rio or anywhere in Africa. Most people in Africa would happily immigrate to the Sprawl.
I don't think a writer can hit the dystopic key without being misanthropic. I'm actually not misanthropic. I think people are capable of wonderful things. I'm quite fond of them and enjoy their company. I can't do Jonathan Swift. I don't have it in me to do that. I also don't have it in me to say to reader, "This is all real." I'm enough of a postmodernist that I go in and out of believing in my own narrative. The happy endings, such as they, are are actually a function of that. They're the "that's all folks" at the end, waving the big three-fingered glove. I want to remind people that they're reading a novel about an imaginary future. If I had my way, I'd even be reminding people about the whole culture of reminding people.
I asked him please not to get meta like that, since it would take him into Thomas "Gravity's Rainbow" Pyncheon territory.
In Pyncheon you're never allowed to believe in the characters. He's making moves all the way through to remind you that these are cartoons. I have a little bit of that. I don't want people to be completely sucked into the mechanism. They should remember that they're riding on a rollercoaster. But I roll with the human characters.
So what's next for Gibson? What's he working on now? He was a little mysterious but did say:
I have a historic tendency to write three book sets, but I'm unlikely to do it next time out. I always start from nothing – no idea. I daydream about writing a Civil War novel. I happen to know a fair bit about the Civil War. But I don't get to make those choices – the saving grace of my method is that they're made for me. And I can't say anything about it beforehand, or I feel locked in.
Here's hoping for a near-future Gibson novel where new forensic technologies allow people to reconstruct the Civil War in perfect detail. Of course just by writing that, I have guaranteed that it won't happen. Sorry, Civil War buffs!
You can get Spook Country in paperpack! [via Amazon]