What is the novel for? How do we deal with living in such a futuristic time, without getting future shock? Do novelists have a duty to provide optimism about science and the future? We sat down with William Gibson, for a half-hour discussion about writing and the role of science fiction in society. And here's what he told us.
We posted the full-length video of our William Gibson interview a while back — and it's also embedded below — but now here's the complete transcript. (Want more? Subscribe to the io9 show on Youtube!)
Top image: Penguin Books cover of Idoru.
Your last trilogy is set in the present - but what is it that you can say about the present by writing about the future that you can't say about the present by writing about the present?
That's a... That's one of those questions that in order to answer at all, I have to rephrase it so violently, so...
No, do a violent rephrasing.
Well, there's a function, there's a theoretical function of fiction associated with the birth of the novel and say, the Goncourt brothers and their idea of literary naturalism, and that is something that I've always found very interesting, that the reportorial possibilities of long-form fiction, and when people do that with, in my experience, when people do that with contemporary reality, in my lifetime, it bores me to death, you know? You get Tom Wolfe's later work, and somehow that's not where it's at. Someone like Don DeLillo is, he's checking it out and reporting back, but he's not coming back to a literal, some sort of literal representation of the place he started from, he's coming back changed by the experience of going out and looking at our unthinkably weird present.
So, my theory, such as it is, is that almost all science fiction, to some extent, does that, perhaps unintentionally, often unintentionally, but when we read it historically, you know where it's 50 years old or older, and we read it we go, "oh yeah, I get it, she was Victorian" or, "I get it, he was Edwardian" and it tells us things, it has the potential to tell us things about the day in which it was written that the author never intended. And, having had that idea in place before I ever began to write fiction or science fiction, I've always sort of had that as a kind of side light of everything I'm doing, like, "What am I doing unconsciously that reflects the day in which I've written it?" which is a good question to ask yourself throughout the creation of a long-form detailed fantasy of any imaginary future, because when you find those things, you can go "Oh, I'll crank that up" and that, you know, I'm taking something for granted there, but in using it that way, it also came to me that that was probably, in the long run, the thing that I was doing that would be most of value to posterity.
To record the present?
To record the present, not in a literal way, but this is, this is what this feels like.
Do you think it's easier to write about the present when you've set yourself somewhat into the future or somewhat into the past? Because you've just had this experience of doing three books that are pretty emphatically set right in the now.
Well actually, those three books are very deliberately set in the year prior to their actual publication. They're speculative novels of the very recent past, or they were on the day.
So alternate history that's five minutes into the past.
Yeah, very short-term alternate history. But the reason I began to do that, just in terms of the shape of my career, I now think, looking back on it, is that by the time I got to the end of All Tomorrow's Parties, which ends with a kind of quasi-parodic take on the singularity, by the time I was writing that I had become painfully, painfully self-conscious, through this feeling that my yardstick for the weirdness of the moment was an 80s yardstick, it was too old, my idea of extreme weirdness wasn't enough. And I didn't have any sense of where, you know, where the weirdness of that "now" was, and that really worried me, and I thought, "Well, you know, maybe I can't do this sort of thing at all," but what I found in the course of writing the three most recent books is that it's given me my yardstick, like, I know how weird it is, it's, okay, it's as weird as those three books, that's the "now", and in order to do the future thing, I've got the yardstick, so I just say, okay, this is now, and the future's like this.
So you've recalibrated.
Yeah, I've recalibrated. In fact I'm writing a book that's set in at least two futures simultaneously right now, one of which is quite recognizable and the other I hope will be almost incomprehensible.
So, what can you tell us about the futures that you're portraying in this new novel? Are they two alternate futures, are they one after the other, what can you tell us?
Well, I can't, it would just be the most huge and annoying spoiler to try to explain the relationship. I mean, the discovery of the relationship, if it works, is going to be just really a cool moment, so I can't reveal its ravishing coolness, particularly prior to having written it.
Yeah, no don't commit to any kinds of coolness now, because you never know what coolness you're gonna produce later. But we do know that it's in the future, which, since we were just talking about how, basically, science fiction is about the present, I wonder if you feel like the present is becoming more futuristic again?
I don't think that, in my lifetime, I don't think the present has ever not been madly futuristic. Occasionally, as a culture, there's a way we kind of get used to it, you kinda go, "Oh yeah, iPads," you know.
"Gene therapy, whatever."
Yeah, whatever, we get used to it, but I think that's just some kind of organic survival response to the howling wind tunnel of technologically driven change we've been forced down. Through my whole life, now, it never stops. And, we, yeah, if we're lucky, it never stops.
One of the things that a number of science fiction writers have been thinking about lately - partly, I think, spurred by Neal Stephenson's ideas about writing optimistic science fiction - has been trying to create works that are self-consciously encouraging people to think about the future in constructive or positive ways, and I can tell from your eye rolling that you're like, "How could you?" Do you ever think about that?
Well actually, in spite of my eye rolling, I always thought — I thought when I wrote Neuromancer — that I was doing this ludicrously optimistic science fictional thing, because when I wrote Neuromancer, anyone with half a brain woke up every day with consciousness that they could be humanity's last day. Everybody you knew was going on in the world, and just took that for granted. Because the US and the USSR were sitting there with umpty-billion nukes pointed at each other, and actual live humans with the controllers watching radar screens, I mean, Tiptree's (11:58) last couple of years, her letters are filled with this terrible grinding resignation she and all of her friends in the CIA felt at the impending end of the world.
So, my childhood was very colored by that stuff, and it was still going on in 1981 when I started publishing fiction, and there didn't really seem to be any end in sight. The drying up and blowing away of the Soviet Union wasn't in sight yet, and so the world of the future of Neuromancer was, in those early short stories, was to some very real extent created to depict a world that had a little bit of a nuclear war, and something had happened, probably the corporations probably just said "No wait, we're not making any money, you can't do that anymore."
"You can't make money if people are dead."
Yeah, you know, that's over. And consequently, you can't prove that the United States still exists as a political entity in Neuromancer. It seems to be some sort of system of city-states. But where I wasn't prescient, as I so often am not, is the Soviet Union looms in the background, like this huge heap of slag which is too big to fail. And so, I missed that. If I'd gotten that right, people would have burned me as a witch eventually.
So, it sounds like you feel that writing about a future where humans are still around is itself a kind of optimism, basically.
Yeah. Well, I think it is. I really think, yeah, I really think it is. I don't know, I'm a little uncomfortable the idea of the novelist as a vehicle for boosterism. Or the novel as a vehicle for boosterism, because my idea of what good novels do is to kinda go out and read the signs, and come back and make something in their image, and the idea is, the signs aren't always very good, and lately they're kind of wildly un-good. But we never know. I mean, the nuclear wasteland of my childhood never happened, in spite of it having been this terribly real emotional place.
We kind of got through that, and now it's another future.
Now we're doing something else. I don't know, I've never been a fan of didactic fictions, and I would assume that moral-boosting science fiction would necessarily be didactic.
Yes. You start out with a message.
In some some sense. Although, then, there could be an alternative moral-boosting science fiction that doesn't necessarily depict futures that the dominant status quo today would be comforted seeing depicted. I mean, one man's dystopia is another man's paradise.
It's true. Sort of on the same theme of optimism, I guess, I wanted to ask you about how you treat your characters, which a lot of critics and fans talk about as being, well, experience as being very gentle. Like, I feel as if you don't — a lot of science fiction writers and literary authors take a character and help you get invested, and then kind of torture them, or kill them, or kind of wanna, you know, wanna show you the ugliness of human character — and I feel like, in your work, I never worry that I'm gonna see a character brutalized for no reason. I feel like a lot of times there's almost a sense that the good guys end up surviving in a way that's relatively comfortable, and oftentimes bad guys get punished, but not in a horrible brutal way very often, and I wonder if you, how you think about your characters. Do you think that they're actually people and you wanna let them kind of speak for themselves? Or do you feel like you're steering them a little bit into a future for that character that's a benevolent, or at least not malevolent, future.
You know, happy endings are about when you roll the credits. And the futures that I can imagine for some of my characters that come out of the book with two hundred dollars and a new girlfriend, and they're happy as pigs in shit, that's when the credits roll.
You leave the reader with that. You leave us with this sense of a kind of a gentle ending for Milgram, for example.
Oh dear, well I don't know, I mean, really? Really?
He's had a rough time, and I think he winds up feeling a little bit better.
He's had a rough time? Look at his mother-in-law. They're going to Iceland to work for Bigend, that's gonna be good?
Hey, it's better than being locked up with a bunch of feds and fed drugs and things like that. That's a happy ending for a guy like that. Iceland is a nice place.
That's true, relatively. But you know, right at the end of the book, he looks across the ballroom of the Bigend's ground-effect palace, and realizes that Pamela is his fiance's mother, and to me, that was like, poor Milgram.
Yeah, he's gonna keep getting pushed around, I think.
Just when he thought it was going okay. I don't know, it isn't that I'm taking care of them, or protecting them - it doesn't feel that way. I'm not sure what that is. Sometimes, I can myself be frustrated by books that seem to me to be insufficiently realistic about the world's potential for just being totally a randomly bad place. So, you know, I have some empathy with that, but, to the best of my ability, it doesn't feel to me that that's exactly what I do. There's a kind of liminal space that I can feel in my work between the harshest possible depiction of reality, and just on the other side of the scrim, the ritual dance of fantastic fiction, and in that little space, I myself find adequate room for the depiction and definition of the random evil of the world. If I moved it out of that interstitial place, and put it at the front of the stage, people could see it, but I don't think it would have nearly as much chance of making someone aware.
I think that gets back to what you were saying about didacticism, like, not wanting to have that heavy hand kind of come in and push things around from the get-go.
Well, writers who consciously work out what's going to happen in their books, that's like literally incomprehensible to me, coming from my method, because if I did that, I would get, like, the worst book. It'd just be this hopeless thing, because the part of me that would write it would be the part of me that's sitting here talking with you, and I don't know how to do that stuff. My job when I write a book is to access a lot of parts of myself that aren't magical or they aren't particularly remarkable, but they aren't available to me ordinarily, they become available through the process of writing the book, so I sometimes get that strange sense of sitting there and just like watching it happen. Which is great, you know, it's good work when you can get it. I don't get it that often, but very seldom am I sitting around going, "Well, if the butler did it, where did they hide the poker?" It doesn't, that's sort of not my mode, and I don't see how you could - unless you were just an unbearably optimistic, Pollyanna-like writer - I don't see how you could just, like, get wells of optimistic, good possibility. This is not a downer science fiction imagination coming out, but I can't see how you could sit there and go, "Okay, what can I think of that would depict a happier future for Europe and the United States?" Oh, I don't know, I find that just a very strange idea. I await its fruits, actually. I await the fruits of that idea.
Of the optimism injunction.
Or at least, I await the reviews of the fruits.
Yeah, we'll see. So, speaking of watching your work kind of appear, I just wanted to ask you a final question, which is, do you know anything about the Neuromancer movie? The all-Canadian production of Neuromancer? Have you worked with them at all, or talked to them?
I'm quite good friends with the putative director, Vincenzo Natali, and I'm a big fan of his work, but beyond that, I don't like to talk about other people's work work-in-progress. And after the history of the different versions, different films of Neuromancer that have been, you know, one could write a book, a terrible book, a book of terrible, terrible stories. But, I would say that, you know, it's still at the point where anything you hear, unless you should one day miraculously hear it from me, is just noise, like, when people are trying to get these things going, they make noise, so they're out there crying across the primordial slops of the film industry trying to attract another entity that will make it all mean something.
Across the social media prairies, it's like, cries.
Yeah, so, you know, you're hearing cries and groans and various kinds of grunts and I really have no more, I have little more way of interpreting them than anyone else does. I mean, it both touches me and horrifies me to see the ease with which people jump, seemingly, at least on Twitter, to the absolute conviction that yes, now this is going to happen. But, that said, it seems to me that it's in a better position to happen now than it has been before, so I suppose that's progress.
Interview transcribed by Rob H. Dawson.