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THE CYBERHOUSE RULES
WILLIAM GIBSON is no ordinary science-fiction writer. Aside from coining such essential nineties' terms as Cyberspace and Cyberpunk, his work has also influenced everyone from computer hackers to scientists developing virtual reality technology. In the rock world, he's regarded as a visionary and artists as diverse as U2, Billy Idol and The Rolling Stones have all claimed inspiration from his novels. Interview: Liam Fay. Cyberpics: Cathal Dawson.
Liam Fay, 20 Oct 1993
THIS IS rich. William Gibson, cyberspace prophet, virtual reality guru, counter-culture futurist and the man Bono credits as the single, biggest influence on the creation of U2's latest album, has himself not yet gotten 'round to listening to Zooropa because, wait for it, his sound system is buggered.
"I've been having the living room painted," he explains, "and I had to take the whole system apart. It just stands in the room now like a piece of furniture, serving no musical function whatever. Reconnecting it seems such a daunting task that I've continually avoided it. I guess I could've borrowed a Discman from somebody but to do that would've been to admit failure and to admit that I wasn't going to reconnect the sound system. I didn't want to do that."
William Gibson has a special little mordant laugh ("Heh heh heh") which he reserves for puncturing myths about himself and about his chosen trade, science fiction. He never misses an opportunity to laugh this laugh. For instance, no matter how many hundred interviews he's done, he still relishes recounting the fact that when he wrote his acclaimed 1983 novel Neuromancer, a convincingly pessimistic vision of an ultra-computerised twenty-first century, he himself had never even so much as touched a computer.
"I pounded out that novel on an old 1938 manual typewriter that I had," he says with a heh heh heh. "I got most of my ideas by hanging around video arcades and eavesdropping on the slang of the kids who played them. Even today, I couldn't really be described as anything other than barely computer literate."
Six and a half feet tall and as thin as a bayonet, Gibson has a wood puppet's slow and clumsy gait. As he sits down or rather folds himself down into an armchair in the lounge of the Shelbourne Hotel, I find myself scanning his wrists and knees to see if there are strings attached. He's a shy, genial chap who speaks v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and often tortuously but as you gradually get used to him you find that his conversation is mined with wit and irony. Though now forty-five, his geeky, ungainly demeanour and his very seventies brown mop top give him the appearance of an over-sized adolescent sci-fi buff. He can seem blasé, even jaded, by talk of his own success but the slightest stimulation can also have him bubbling and fizzling with enthusiasm.
"Pardon me, I'm going to have to interrupt you and ask a question that could make me appear a little foolish," he says, breathlessly, at one point. "Is that Van Morrison over there?"
When I confirm that the man in the opposite corner of the lounge is indeed Mr. Morrison, Gibson emits a little squeak of delight and claps his hands.
"Wow, that's really made my day!" he beams.
William Gibson's great achievement as a writer of science fiction has been to acknowledge that whatever else changes in the future, human beings will remain essentially the same.
Too much traditional sci-fi has been blinded by its own sci. It's been cluttered and choked with excessive emphasis on the hardware and technological gee whizzery. As Gibson himself explains, he's more interested in the garbage and in all those "messy and fascinating" unofficial uses the human animal inevitably finds for every thing it invents.
"In the science fiction I read as a kid, you were always in the lab with the researcher or in the cockpit with the pilot," he says. "You were never with the guys changing the tyres or the guys burgling the shop. I always wondered what was happening on the other side of the tracks. What were people up to in that world if they weren't being space cadets? All my early work was very consciously written in reaction to things that bugged me about straight science fiction."
Novels such as Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive along with Gibson's short stories portray a future where wealthy kids ride in armoured taxis through urban shanty slums. The rich buy replacements for their eyes from a precision optics manufacturer while the poor rummage through toxic dumps for salvage. Politics and the economy are dominated by organised crime and multinational corporations and the multinationals monitor the behaviour of key personnel by implanting microprocessors in their blood vessels.
On the streets, hookers, hackers, computer cowboys and others ply their various trades amid the hologram arcades, the cosmetically altered flesh salons and the subliminal entertainment centres. Leather jackets and mirror shades (albeit the surgically implanted variety) are still in vogue and drugs are still the hardest of hard currencies. William Gibson's future is like the present, only moreso.
"For historical precedents, I would say that Mary Shelley invented the science fiction novel when she wrote Frankenstein," he avers. "The Americans perfected it as a kind of pop artefact but they also came up with this dismal, Dick Clark version of science fiction. When I started writing, I wrote against this Americanised sci-fi. I'm not a futurist. I'm a science fiction writer writing about the world I live in. I'm just trying to be as topical as I can for the day I finish the book."
William Gibson was born in 1948 in Wytheville, Virginia, a small town with seven thousand inhabitants and no library. "I had the classic childhood of an American science fiction writer," he recalls. "Intense, geeky isolation in a rather dull environment."
This sense of isolation was deepened by the death of both his parents before he was seventeen. Expelled from school for sneaking off to coffee-houses and folk-music clubs, he drifted northward to Toronto in Canada which someone had told him was "a happening scene."
With a vague idea about getting a job as an underground journalist, he spent most of the late sixties and early seventies drifting through Toronto's counterculture, browsing through junk shops for semi-valuable chrome-plated ashtrays and lamps which could be resold to antique dealers. In terms of reading material, he had long since abandoned sci-fi and was now immersing himself in the novels of William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon.
Among Gibson's hippie friends was a woman called Deborah Thompson with whom he fell in love and later married. When Deborah decided to finish college in her home town of Vancouver, he moved with her and the couple have been Vancouver residents ever since. He was still unemployed, however, and maybe even unemployable. He'd had a job once - for three weeks - in a boat factory, but he hadn't liked it. To pass the time, he took university courses, largely because they made him eligible for Canadian government education grants.
By the early eighties, Gibson found himself on the wrong side of thirty, the father of two young children and dependent on his wife's meagre income as a teacher for survival. Out of desperation for cash, he decided to chance his arm as a writer. Back in 1977, he had published a short science fiction story entitled Fragment Of A Hologram Rose and had earned the staggering sum of $23. Still flushed with this success, he reckoned his best bet was to stick to the sci-fi genre. A career was born.
"I realise now that I could never really have written anything else but science fiction," he muses. "It's so much where I'm from and it would be so false of me to deny that that was my only literary culture as a child. That and rock music. I have a kinda glossy overlay of university literature courses and reading arty avant garde novels but, at heart, my core culture is sci-fi and thrashy pop records."
In the decade since he published Neuromancer, William Gibson's ideas have glided into the mainstream faster than a speeding cursor on a computer screen.
The term Cyberpunk, originally coined to describe the hard-boiled writing style of Gibson and his acolytes, has become an all-embracing label for everything remotely associated with underground computer culture, psychedelics, smart drugs and a certain type of avant garde art emerging on the West Coast of the U.S. Throughout the world, thousands of teenage computer hackers, emboldened by Neuromancer's depiction of them as heroic information-liberators, worship Gibson as a visionary. Two years ago, a German hacker known as Pengo, who admitted stealing data from U.S. computers and selling it to the KGB, told a judge that he had been inspired to do so by Neuromancer.
Gibson's concept of Cyberspace - a hallucinatory realm that his hacker heroes enter by plugging their minds directly into their computer terminals - has been cited by scientists as a major influence in the development of virtual reality technology. Especially in his later novels, Gibson has written extensively about the potential benefits and dangers of V.R. So, what's his worst case scenario, where is the most heinous place that virtual reality could go?
"Actually, I hesitate to suggest it," he replies. "Its potential as an instrument of political torture is unspeakable, truly, truly unspeakable. You could do the Orwell thing without having to feed the rats. As a brutal tool of torture, it would probably be hard to match, even at the level to which it's been developed now."
Gibson is always quick to remind us that the future is already here. He hates the kind of science fiction that concocts fantastic catastrophes and disasters for a world that has yet to be imagined when so much genuine chaos exists right under our noses in the real world.
"In a way, my idea of a nightmare future is a clapped-out world with too many shopping channels, and we've got that already," he says. "As for technology doing terrible things to us, what if we irrevocably damage the ozone layer with hair spray and refrigerators which don't on the face of it appear to be dangerous technology? We can't say for certain that we haven't already done that.
"All technologies are absolutely morally neutral until they're applied. Nuclear explosive devices are themselves morally neutral. It depends what you do with them and where you do it. If you set off a nuclear device in deep space to power a starship or a probe out to Andromeda, you're not polluting anything in particular. There's a lot of radioactivity in space anyway. So, it's what we do with the technology that counts."
In this context, William Gibson likes to work directly in the world of science fact as well as science fiction. He is a member of the Global Business Network, a consultancy group that dispenses "drive-by futurism" to companies such as Volvo and he is also a corporate advisor to at least one multinational which is concentrating on the development of V.R. technology.
"I've signed non-disclosure forms so I can't go into detail," he states. "But to my mind, what's going on is extremely benevolent and enlightened in its intent. It's an attempt to head off some of the more nightmarish possibilities of V.R. technology and to find a better way to do it.
"In general, I'd have to say that what little I've had to do over the past decade with real multinational corporations has caused me to think that they sometimes do act out of enlightened self-interest. It never occurred to me when I was writing books about how these corporations are the governing entities of the planet that they would wish for our survival. We are the cells that comprise the organism, we are the protoplasm so they want us to be well and to prosper. Or they should. Some of them are malignant, undoubtedly, but some of them are rather enlightened and we should remember that."
Gibson takes his role as a "visionary" seriously and is loathe to be misunderstood. At the moment, he is writing special afterwords for East European editions of Neuromancer in which he explains that readers mustn't interpret his references in the novel to the Soviet Union as indicating that he anticipates the return of the USSR. "Nothing dates a novel quicker than mention of the Soviet Union or characters engaging in unprotected sex," he says.
William Gibson sells quite a lot of books in Eastern Europe. He's even been translated into Serbo-Croat. He's also big in Japan and has visited Tokyo on a number of occasions. Inevitably, Gibson being Gibson, he found some of the eh, more uncelebrated aspects of the Japanese technological revolution to be the most impressive.
"If you want cheap electronics you should go to Singapore or Hong Kong," he argues. "Japanese electronics are too expensive and you can get them over here just as easily. I was far more impressed with their minor plumbing accessories. They make absolutely the best tub and sink stoppers in the world. They're black rubber balls.
"I used to think that the British ones with the replaceable rubber grommets were the best, especially compared to the ones we have in the States or Canada which have a tendency to sorta rot. But the Japanese ones are fantastic. They're on a chain so you just drop this heavy black ball into the sink and gravity takes it down and it just lays there. It's very elegant-looking the way it just dangles there. I bought a couple of dozen for my own house. They're my favourite piece of Japanese technology."
Aside from the sci-fi pulp of his youth, pop music is William Gibson's single greatest literary influence. His dream, he says, is to write science fiction novels with power chords. "I can't play and I can't sing and I can't really even write lyrics but I've tried to approximate something of all that in my prose," he chuckles.
Gibson has never actually been in a band but the progenitor of cyberpunk did endeavour to hoist his own rock 'n' roll flag during the wars of '77. "I would surreptitiously write lyrics and slip them to friends of mine who were in those kind of bizarre bands in which no-one could play but everyone was creative," he recalls. "But basically, my lyrics were infinitely too strange, even for 1977. Nobody seemed to get the point of them so I stopped due to public demand."
The irony, of course, is that these days the very name William Gibson has become one of the hippest touchstones in rock music. Bono is far from the only megastar to have genuflected in his direction. Artists with such varied consciousness levels as Billy Idol, Donald Fagen and Laurie Anderson have also bragged of how their work has been influenced by Gibson's writing.
"From very early on, I've been getting feedback from musicians about my stuff and that's been very gratifying," he says. "I've also gotten feedback from all sorts of other types of people but as a group musicians seem to make up the biggest bloc. I think it's a symptom of the drawing near of inter-activity or The Blob as the folks in Apple like to call it and which is a much better way of thinking of it. People are sensing the approach of some new synergy among the various media including music. What used to seem like the unholy marriage of rock 'n' roll and television is now taken pretty much for granted and we're gearing up for more such marriages."
Inevitably, some fear that rock 'n' roll may be marrying beneath itself and that it will be ultimately dragged down into a technological swamp of gimmicks and computer static.
"The romantic side of my nature really, really wants the music to matter more than the hardware," insists Gibson. "It's a scary business but I have faith in the fact that music is just one of the things we do. I think it's also one of the things we require. We can't really live without it and I think we'll be doing it whatever we become and whatever our technology becomes. It may not be recognisable as music to us but think of how much of our music would be utterly unrecognisable as music to someone from the eighteenth century or someone from the 1900s for that matter."
During William Gibson's short promotional visit to Dublin, he was contacted by another fan from the rock world, one Mick Jagger, who invited the author and his wife, Deborah, to sit in on a Rolling Stones recording session in Windmill Lane Studios where the band are currently working on their next album.
"I've spoken with Jagger on the phone a few times and he reads me, with full comprehension apparently, which is very flattering," says Gibson. "I was first put in contact with him by Fisher-Park, the London architectural firm who did the Stones' Steel Wheels set and who did Zoo TV. They told me that they had sold Jagger on the Steel Wheels concept by giving him some of my books. They said that the Steel Wheels set was 'très Gibsonian' (laughs).
"Later, Jagger asked me to come up with some set ideas for his solo tour. So I sat down and described something but unfortunately I did it without having seen Steel Wheels and I wound up essentially re-inventing the whole Steel Wheels idea which wasn't quite what he had in mind. But he still phones me up occasionally and it's just a real coincidence that we've ended up in Dublin at the same time. I guess, you never know who you're gonna bump into."
William Gibson squirms a little when I ask him to list some of his current favourite bands. "I always feel I disappoint people when I answer a question like that," he sighs. "My list is not that distinctively hip, I'm afraid. Some of the things I enjoy seem to be considered extremely uncool. I was being interviewed in London last week by my buddy, Charles Shaar Murray, and when I told him I'd discovered The Sisters Of Mercy and was really enjoying them quite a lot, he made this appalled face. But I actually do like them. I think Andrew Eldritch is quite a good lyricist. He's a very funny writer, particularly 'Vision Thing' which is a favourite song of mine.
"Most recently, I've also been catching up with, or trying to keep up with, Neil Young. There's a Californian band called Come that are very, very strange and a West German band called Plan B who write English lyrics and sound like a cross between early Elvis Costello and the Attractions and a hip hop band. My listening tastes are extremely random. It's definitely not informed by any kind of theory."
Nevertheless, Gibson does admit to having an insatiable weakness for reading rock criticism. "A really odd pleasure of mine over the years has been to read an awful lot of album reviews," he says. "It's hard to explain the pleasure. There's something about the prose in rock criticism that I find really appealing. Often when I'm reading short album reviews I try to imagine that these are in fact reviews of novels and I try to imagine what the novels would be like. I've been doing that for years. It's kind of a steady minor pleasure of mine, albeit a strange one."
So far, the nineties have been frustrated and disjointed for William Gibson. He's spent a lot of time commuting between his Vancouver home and Hollywood where he worked on various projects including an adaptation of his short story New Rose Hotel and an early, eventually abandoned script for Alien 3.
Gibson's attitude towards Hollywood is now one of almost complete disdain. Several of his stories have been sold to movie producers but he expects these to arrive on the screen as little more than "Hideous, diluted Total Recalls." He's also been quite disturbed to learn that one of his own screenplays has now wound up in the hands of Sylvester Stallone of all people. "My impression is that he was given it in exchange for letting someone off the hook on a deal that had gone sour," he explains ruefully. "That's Hollywood for you."
If nothing else, however, Gibson's Hollywood sojourn did inspire his latest novel, Virtual Light, a fast-paced thriller set amid the cracks of a class-riven, twenty-first century California. It's narcotic, sleazy and funny with a gaudy backdrop that comes complete with a chain of take-away porno joints called McDonna; quintessential Gibson and, like all his best work, its roots are firmly embedded in the here and now.
"Even when you're working in Hollywood as a lowly writer, where you're basically a kind of expensive plumber, you're put into this padded tube of comfort," says Gibson. "You fly first class, cars pick you up and you stay in fancy hotels. They keep you off the street so the background in Virtual Light came from a curiosity about what the street was and why I was being kept off it. I would make these midnight forays into Los Angeles which is entirely different from Hollywood The Industry. I was in the middle of Virtual Light when I saw the riots and I thought 'Whoa, I'm on to something here'."
As with all his novels, Gibson says he found Virtual Light easy to begin but torture to complete. He writes in the basement of his family home, starting in the morning after he has packed his three kids off to school and working straight through till about four in the afternoon. It seems orderly enough but a few months into every book, Gibson enters a period of intense chaos and comes slam up against an immovable writer's block.
"I invariably go through an extraordinarily black period of depression and loathing for the text," he says. "It very nearly prevents me from finishing. There's some revulsion I have for what I do that always surfaces at some point. I've just sorta learnt to grit my teeth and plough on even if I think I'm writing shit 'cause somehow I know I'll turn a corner and look back on it and say 'Ah, it's almost there'. When it's finished, it's never as good as I would've liked it to be but I can live with it."
Whatever about the vicissitudes of the job, William Gibson's sole ambition is to keep on writing. Call him old-fashioned if you like but he just doesn't really think very much of any of the other new-fangled art-forms.
"I don't really feel much tendency towards multi-media activity myself," he laughs, heh, heh, heh. "I think I'm really a bit of a fogey 'cause what I really like is words in a row. Putting one word after another like bricks and then sending them half way round the world to provide someone with a complex emotional experience. That's a good trick and it doesn't really require high technology."