Yesterday I sat down with William Gibson to talk about his new novel, Zero History. We talked about his fascination with fashion, the military, and stories about the present. He also revealed a secret about his Bridge Trilogy.
In the video above, you can see Gibson talking about writing novels set in the present day. He moves from discussing the Bigend trilogy, to talking about his previous Bridge trilogy, which he laughingly admits was supposed to be set in the future, but was in fact basically about the 1990s. He says that was sort of the "secret" of the series, which nobody seemed to get - that it was basically about 1990s people, "running around in a Max Headroom universe." Off camera, he expanded a bit on what he meant about being in the tradition of literary naturalism, which was a movement at the turn of the twentieth century among writers who wanted to depict the present day as realistically as possible - including its seamy side, full of violence and sex.
As ever, Gibson won't talk about what's next for him. So we might get more naturalism, or he might go back to the future. You'll just have to wait and see!
Since Zero History is about the military-fashion complex, I asked Gibson what he sees as being the most salient connection between those two seemingly-disconnected industries.
The US military produced the core codes for 20th century streetwear as we've known it. Now they find themselves in the position of being unable to do that and so they need to bring in outside talent. That's what's happening in the book. I wouldn't say the military consciously wants to come up with cool combat gear so kids will be more likely to enlist, but the dynamic is there and what I'm describing [in Zero History] is what's happening to a certain extent. There's a big overlap between military design and skateboard wear. And there's a symmetry between designers wanting hot young skaters wearing their equipment and people aspiring to military contracts wanting elite young warriors to wear their equipment. It's the same mindset really. That's historically new. We didn't have that before - it's a late twentieth century shift.
What about Gibson's fetish for the Japanese brand, Buzz Rickson, which perfectly reproduces military gear from the mid-twentieth century? He said:
Buzz Rickson was founded to reproduce US military wear for the Japanese market of a quality far higher than the originals ever possessed. As a brand, it's very localized, designed for otaku – it's not in the mall. They're the most specialized retailers on the planet. It's close to being a secret brand.
Secret brands are a big theme in Zero History, as is the idea of artists selling out - whether by making their secret brands public, or by choosing to work with corporations. His character Hollis, a former indie rock star, struggles with this quintessentially 90s indie rock question a lot in the book. I asked Gibson about whether he thinks it's possible for creative people to avoid selling out.
I think selling out is what a lot of people are shooting for career-wise. "Can I sell out now please?" "Are the multinationals in the hall waiting to buy my skateboard line please?"
I think it's a matter of degree. A lot of what makes the debate seem dated – the 1990s one – is that it was cast in terms of the absolute – one either did or didn't sell out. From what I've seen of the lives of very creative people, the ones who seem to wind up happiest are the ones who managed to sell out well and selectively. People who call the shots on their own commodification. When you think of the opposite, there's so many disasters – all over the internet. People who thought they could sell out and they wound up imploding into celebrity space.
I said it sounded like he was talking about controlling the means of marketing. "I like that phrase," he replied, adding:
Here's an example of what I think I actually do versus what people think I do. The more mainstream culture journalists ask me, "What idea did you have that led you to write this?" And I can't answer. It works the other way around. The book works to induce you to think of the question I should have asked in the first place. It works like a crowdsourcing operation, like the hive mind of a coral reef – my readers tell me what it's about. The units in the coral reef will tell me what the book means and I can incorporate that into the next book.
I wanted to follow up with Gibson on an interesting op-ed he published last week in the New York Times, about the idea of Google as what we've gotten instead of artificial intelligence. Does Gibson really see Google becoming AI? He said:
I don't think it's going to become an AI in the sense that we've imagined AI. But I'm not convinced that anything ever will. It may not even be necessary – I remember a time when people believed that virtual reality would require goggles and gloves and special rooms and padded bubbles. That seems to not be the way it goes. What if AI isn't about [2001's computer] HAL but is about something made up in large part of other human beings? Something that never sleeps and is incredibly smart and never forgets anything? That would be a big strange something. That might be stranger than having a really smart computer that could argue with you that it was sentient. I find the idea of super Google to be sexier than the idea of AI.
I think that we're culturally constrained by what we can imagine and what our expectations are and that applies to our technology. Our concept of AI is myth in some ways. I'm sure that some people who gave birth to the myth were scientists who thought about it systematically, but on the street it's a myth. It's that street level myth that I'm convinced we're responding to when we think about it. Somebody looking back from 30 years in future might see that clearly. Perhaps [in 30 years] what we'll have is X - a thing that some love and some think is fucking us up – and they'll laugh at the idea that people used to believe there would be intelligent computers. "Little did they know of X," they'll say. One of the lessons of twentieth century history is that we have no idea where any of this stuff is going. We're not proceeding according to plan.
I pointed out that in many ways, our ideas and myths about AI come from the 1950s, when the idea was invented. Which explains, in some ways, why we still think of AIs as being brains in boxes that look just like 1950s mainframes. Gibson responded:
We in the culture of science fiction tend to get more excited about AI than the street does. But the street does care about Google, because it tells you where to eat dinner, and about whether guy you're dating is a douchebag. [He points at my laptop.] You've got a brain in a box right there. But that's not what's intelligent - it's what the box is connected to. And the thing that your brain in a box is connected to – you wouldn't be able to explain that to people in the 1950s. They wouldn't get it.
We talked a little bit more about literary naturalism, and Gibson wondered why D.H. Lawrence - a contemporary of the naturalists - has gone out of style. He speculated that perhaps young hipsters in Brooklyn who dress in early-twentieth century Edwardian or steampunk fashions might eventually bring Lawrence back into vogue. He marveled at how this neo-Edwardian fashion is "everywhere," remarking, "It's global - people get it through the web."
Finally, Gibson dropped some hints about a little stealth tie-in to Zero History that's going to happen on Twitter soon. Let's just say that you should keep an eye on the Twitter accounts @gaydolphin1 and @gaydolphin2 - those of you who've read the novel know what those accounts are related to. At some point soon, you'll be able to get some extra information not included in the novel if you follow the exchanges between the two accounts. It's the perfect semi-stealth promotional campaign for a novel that's all about stealth marketing.
Need more Gibson? Read our review of Zero History.