William Gibson is one of our finest science fiction authors, because he knows that people are the strangest products science has ever produced. And his new essay collection, Distrust That Particular Flavor, gives us insight into how he came to understand that so well, when many other SF authors struggle to see it.
Distrust does not disappoint: Gibson completists will definitely need the book, but I also recommend it for Gibson newbies who want to get a grip on where he's coming from.
Top image: Hiro Sheridan.
Fans of Gibson's voice will recognize in his non-fiction the luminous, open-ended sound of his novels. Part of that sound comes from the nature of his ideas; the rest, from his skill in bringing the dream-state of our culture to us in lucid yet elusive prose. Consider atemporality, a central theme in his novels. Atemporality has always been the condition of human culture but has, paradoxically, only recently become immediately accessible to everyone, as he notes in "Dead Man Sings", one of the richest articles in Distrust:
Time moves in one direction, memory in another.
We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.
[...] We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child, the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no Rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run. [...]
And as this capacity for recall (and recommodification) grows more universal, history itself is seen to be even more obviously a construct, subject to revision.
Gibson's non-fiction is not more clearly true than his fiction, but then his fiction has almost always been simple current events reporting. Never mind that it comes to us through a veil of sleep - that's just how Wintermute interfaces with our minds.
Unavoidably, and perhaps for all science fiction, there has always been a political component to Gibson's work — not just the excellent Spook Country — but it is always included with the simple confidence of someone simply reporting what they've seen. As he writes in Distrust:
I hear that things have changed for the better in Singapore, in the years since my visit, and I am glad. But the Singaporean government responded to this piece ["Disneyland With the Death Penalty", for the September 1993 issue of Wired], at the time, by banning the import of Wired magazine. So I would suppose that this could be said to have been the most controversial of the pieces collected here.
I was subsequently accused, though not by the Singaporean government, of a sort of perverse neocolonial Ludditism, but my complaint was never that Singapore was too cutting-edge contemporary, but that it was simply totalitarian. Though at least it was upfront about it, I would add today, from the perspective of a harsher era.
But Gibson has never succumbed to despair or defeatism. Indeed, Neuromancer is in many ways the happy tale of how World War III did not, as he says in "Dead Man Sings", replace our TVs with cave paintings. On H. G. Wells' techno-cynicism, Gibson says:
I suspect that I began to distrust that particular flavor of italics [in Wells' strident denunciation of Edwardian technocrats] when the world didn't end in October of 1962. I can't recall the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis at all. My anxiety, and the world's, reached some absolute peak. And then declined, history moving on, so much of it, and sometimes today the world of my own childhood strikes me as scarcely less remote than the world of Wells' childhood, so much has changed in the meantime.
Perhaps that's not quite optimistic. But Gibson is aware of the changeability of things, and comfortable with that awareness. Gibson's fiction is in some ways deeply autobiographical: after reading this collection of lovely essays, it's clear where his characters get their joy for art, music, The Footage, and blue jeans of inscrutable provenance.