An Interview with William Gibson
Conducted by Larry McCaffery.
In 1984 William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, burst onto the science fiction scene like a supernova. The shock waves from that explosion had an immediate impact on the relatively insular SF field. Neuromancer became the first novel to win the triple crown - Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards - and, in the process, virtually single-handedly launched the cyberpunk movement. Neuromancer, with its stunning technopoetic prose surface and its superspecific evocation of life in a sleazed-out global village of the near future, has rapidly gained unprecedented critical and popular attention outside SF.
Prior to the publication of Neuromancer, Gibson had published only a half- dozen stories (since collected in Burning Chrome [1986b]). Although several of these display flashes of his abilities- and two of them, “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome,” introduce motifs and elements elaborated upon in the later novels- clearly Neuromancer was a major imaginative leap forward for someone who had not even attempted to write a novel previously. The sources of all the white light and white heat being generated by this new kid on the block are immediately apparent from the opening words of the novel: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Dense, kaleidoscopic, fast-paced, full of punked-out, high-tech weirdos, Neuromancer depicts with hallucinatory vividness the desperate, exhilarating feel of life in our new urban landscapes.
A number of critics have pointed out Gibson’s affinities with certain earlier innovative SF authors: comparisons with Alfred Bester’s early novels, with Philip K. Dick’s midperiod fiction, and with Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968); Gibson’s reliance on the cut-up methods and quickfire stream of dissociated images characteristic of William S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard are also noted. But equally significant are the influences from sources either wholly outside SF- the hard-boiled writing of Dashiell Hammett, 1940s film noir, the novels of Robert Stone- or only nominally connected with the field- the garishly intense, nightmarish urban scenes and pacings in the work of rock musicians like Lou Reed; or the sophisticated blend of science, history, pop culture, hip lingoes, and dark humor in Thomas Pynchon’s work.
What made Neuromancer’s debut so auspicious, however, was not its debts to earlier authors, but its originality of vision, especially the fresh, rush- of-oxygen high of Gibson’s prose, with its startling similes and metaphors drawn from computers and other technologies, and its ability to create a powerfully resonant metaphor- the cyberspace of the computer matrix- where data dance with human consciousness, where human memory is literalized and mechanized, where multi-national informations systems mutate and breed into startling new structures whose beauty and complexity are unimaginable, mystical, and above all nonhuman. Probably as much as any first novel since Pynchon’s V. (1963), Neuromancer seemed to create a significant synthesis of poetics, pop culture, and technology.
Although often overlooked by critics and reviewers in this regard, Neuromancer is also deeply rooted in human realities. Gibson’s presentation of the surface textures of our electronic age re-creates the shock and sensory overload that define our experience of contemporary life, of having grown up with VCRs, CDs, terrorists broadcasting messages on fifty-channel video monitors, designer drugs, David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, video games, computers. Both disturbing and playful, he also explores much deeper questions about the enormous impact of technology on the definition of what it means to be human. After reading Neuromancer for the first time, I knew I had seen the future of SF (and maybe of literature in general), and its name was William Gibson.
Gibson’s second novel, Count Zero (1986a), is set seven years in the future of Neuromancer’s world, and to some degree it retains the earlier novel’s focus on the underbelly world of computer cowboys, black market drugs, and software. But the pace is somewhat slower, allowing Gibson more time to develop his characters- a mixture of eccentric lowlifes and nonconformists who find themselves confronting representatives of egomaniacal individuals whose vast wealth and power result directly from their ability to control information. More tightly controlled and easier to follow than Neuromancer, Count Zero is nevertheless as extraordinarily rich in suggestive neologisms and other verbal pyrotechnics; it’s also a fascinating evocation of a world in which humanity seems to be constantly outshone by the flash and appeal of the images and machines that increasingly seem to push people aside in their abstract dance toward progress and efficiency.
When we spoke in August 1986 at his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, William Gibson was working on the screenplay for Aliens III and on his third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), which completes his cyberspace trilogy. Mona Lisa Overdrive expands some of the implications of the two earlier novels- for instance, the interface between the human social world and cyberspace is now sufficiently permeable that humans can actually die in cyberspace; Angie Mitchell (who appeared in Count Zero) is able to tap into the matrix without a computer; and, once again, we witness people (including Molly from Neuromancer) struggling against having their bodies and imaginations manipulated by international corporations who control information and images to suit their own purposes. While these overlaps seem to make Mona Lisa Overdrive less startlingly original than the earlier works, Gibson’s experiments with prismatic storytelling methods, his ongoing stylistic virtuosity, and his presentation of characters possessing deeper emotional resonances all point to a growing maturation and versatility.
Larry McCaffery: There are so many references to rock music and television in your work that it sometimes seems your writing is as much influenced by MTV as by literature. What impact have other media had on your sensibility?
William Gibson: Probably more than fiction. The trouble with “influence” questions is that they’re usually framed to encourage you to talk about your writing as if you grew up in a world circumscribed by books. I’ve been influenced by Lou Reed, for instance, as much as I’ve been by any “fiction” writer. I was going to use a quote from an old Velvet Underground song- “Watch out for worlds behind you” (from “Sunday Morning”)- as an epigraph for Neuromancer.
LM: The breakdown of distinctions- between pop culture and “serious” culture, different genres, different art forms- seems to have had a liberating effect on writers of your generation.
WG: The idea that all this stuff is potentially grist for your mill has been very liberating. This process of cultural mongrelization seems to be what postmodernism is all about. The result is a generation of people (some of whom are artists) whose tastes are wildly eclectic- people who are hip to punk music and Mozart, who rent these terrible horror and SF videos from the 7-11 one night and then invite you to a mud wrestling match or a poetry reading the next. If you’re a writer, the trick is to keep your eyes and ears open well enough to let all this in but also, somehow, to recognize intuitively what you should let emerge in your work, how effective something might be in a specific context. I know I don’t have a sense of writing as being divided up into different compartments, and I don’t separate literature from the other arts. Fiction, television, music, film- all provide material in the form of images and phrases and codes that creep into my writing in ways both deliberate and unconscious.
LM: Our culture is being profoundly transformed by technology in ways most people are only dimly starting to realize. Maybe that’s why the American public is so fascinated with SF imagery and vocabulary- even people who don’t even know what SF stands for are responding to this stuff subliminally, in ads and so on.
WGtlined.“ I use a lot of phrases that seem exotic to everyone but the people who use them. Oddly enough, I almost never get new buzzwords from other SF writers. I heard about "virus program” from an ex-WAC computer operator who had worked in the Pentagon. She was talking one night about guys who came in every day and wiped the boards of all the video games people had built into them, and how some people were building these little glich-things that tried to evade the official wipers- things that would hide and then pop out and say, “Screw you!” before vanishing into the framework of logic. (Listening to me trying to explain this, it immediately becomes apparent that I have no grasp of how computers really work- it’s been a contact high for me.) Anyway, it wasn’t until after the book came out that I met people who knew what a virus program actually was.
LM: So your use of computers and science results more from their metaphoric value or from the way they sound than from any familiarity with how they actually operate.
WG: I’m looking for images that supply a certain atmosphere. Right now, science and technology seem to be very useful sources. But I’m more interested in the language of, say, computers than I am in the technicalities. On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory: I’m interested in the hows and whys of memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to revision. When I was writing Neuromancer, it was wonderful to be able to tie a lot of these interests into the computer metaphor. It wasn’t until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there’s a drive mechanism inside- this little thing that spins around. I’d been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player. That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.
LM: What many readers first notice in Nend scientific information. Pynchon is a kind of mythic hero of mine, and I suspect that if you talk with a lot of recent SF writers you’ll find they’ve all read Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) several times and have been very much influenced by it. I was into Pynchon early on- I remember seeing a New York Times review of V. when it first came out- I was just a kid- and thinking, Boy, that sounds like some really weird shit!
LM: What was the inspiration for your cyberspace idea?
WG: I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver’s version of “The Strip,” and I was looking into one of the video arcades. I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids' eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected. Everyone I know who works with computers seems to develop a belief that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen, someplace you can’t see but you know is there.
LM: From a purely technical standpoint, the cyberspace premise must have been great to hit on simply because it creates a rationale for so many different narrative “spaces.”
WG: When I arrived at the cyberspace concept, while I was writing “Burning Chrome,” I could see right away that it was resonant in a lot of ways. By the time I was writing Neuromancer, I recognized that cyberspace allowed for a lot moves, because characters can be sucked into apparent realities- which means you can place them in any sort of setting or against any backdrop. In some ways I tried to downplay that aspect, because if I overdid it I’d have an open-ended plot premise. That kind of freedom can be dangerous because you don’t have to justify what’s happening in terms of the logic of character or plot. In Count Zero, I wanted to slow things down a bit and learn how to do characterization. I was aware that Neuromancer was going to seem like a roller coaster ride to most readers- you’ve got lots of excitement but maybe not much understanding of where you’ve been or why you- and maybe some people in England and France, who I always assumed would respond to what I was doing because I knew their tastes were very different and because the French like Dick a lot. When I was starting out, I simply tried to go in the opposite direction from most of the stuff I was reading, which I felt an aesthetic revulsion toward.
LM: What sorts of ‘70s SF did you have in mind? All those sword-and-sorcery books or the hard SF that people like Jerry Pournelle, Gregory Benford, and Larry Niven were writing?
WG: Some of my resistance had to do with a certain didactic, right-wing stance that I associated with a lot of hard SF, but mainly it was a more generalized angle of attack. I’m a very desultory reader of SF- I have been since my big period of reading SF when I was around fifteen- so my stance was instinctual. In the ‘70s, during the years just before I seriously thought about writing SF, it seemed like the SF books I enjoyed were few and far between. Just about everything I picked up seemed to slick, and, even worse, uninteresting. Part of this has to do with the adolescent audience that a lot of SF has always been written for. My publishers keep telling me the adolescent market is where it’s at, and that makes me pretty uncomfortable because I remember what my tastes ran to at that age. One new factor around 1975 was that writers started getting these huge advances for SF books, and I saiid to myself, Hey, you can get big money for SF. But by the time I started writing SF, those big advances had dried up, because a lot of them had gone to books that had lost money. I had a sense of what the expectations of the SF industry were in terms of product, but I hated that product and felt such a genuine sense of disgust that I consciously decided to reverse expectations, not give publishers or readers what they wanted.
LM: How would you describe the direction of your work?
WG: When I first started writing, what held me up for a long time was finding a way to introduce the things that turned me on. I knew that when I was reading a text- particularly a fantastic text- it was the gratuitous moves, the odd, quirky, irrelevant details, that provided a sense of strangeness. So it seemed important to find an approach that would allow for gratuitous moves. I didn’t think that what I was writing would ever “fit in” or be accepted, so what I wanted was interested me. When Molly goes through the Tessier-Ashpool’s library in Neuromancer, she sees that they own Duchamp’s Large Glass. Now that reference doesn’t make sense on some deeper symbolic level; it’s really irrelevant, a gratuitous move. But putting it there seemed right- here are these very rich people on this space station with this great piece of art just gathering dust. In other words, I liked the piece and wanted to get it into the book somehow.
LM: Precisely these personal “signatures” create a texture and eventually add up to what we call a writer’s “vision.” You can see this in Alfred Bester, whose books remind me of yours.
WG: Bester was into flash very early. When Neuromancer came out, a lot of reviewers said that I must have written it while holding a copy of The Demolished Man (1953). Actually, it had been some time since I’d read Bester, but he was one of the SF authors who had stuck with me, who seemed worthy of imitating, mostly because I always had the feeling he had a ball writing. And I think I know exactly what it was that produced that sense: he was a New York guy who didn’t depend on writing SF to make a living, so he really just let loose; he didn’t have to give a damn about anything other than having fun, pleasing himself. If you want to get a sense of how groovy it could have been to be alive and young and living in New York in the ‘50s, read Bester’s SF. It may be significant that when you read his mainstream novel (which is pretty hard to find over here, but it’s released in England as The Rat Race), you can see him using the same tools he used in those two early SF books- but somehow it doesn’t work. Bester’s palette just isn’t suited for convincing you that you’re reading about reality.
LM: This business about realism often seems misleading. You said that Bester’s books gave you a sense of what it felt like to be in New York at a certain time- that’s realism, though different from what you find in Zola, Balzac or Henry James; it’s the realism that cyberpunk supplies, that sense of what it really feels like to be alive in our place, at our time.
WG: My SF is realistic in that I write about what I see around me. That’s why SF’s rol- and I remember thinking, “Reading all these SF novels has given me a line on this topic- I know where this fascist literature is!” I thought about working on an M.A. on this topic, though I doubt that my approach would have been all that earthshaking. But it got me thinking seriously about what SF did, what it was, which traditions had shaped it and which ones it had rejected. Form/content issues.
LM: Were there other literature classes that might have influenced your thinking about SF?
WG: Most of the lit classes I took went in one ear and out the other. However, I remember a class on American naturalism, where I picked up the idea that there are several different kinds of naturalist novels: the mimetic naturalist novel- the familiar version- and the crazed naturalist novel- the kind Hammett writes, or Algren’s Man with the Golden Arm (1949), where he tries to do this realistic description of Chicago in the ‘40s but his take on it is weirder than anything I did with Chiba City in Neuromancer. It’s full of people with neon teeth, characters with pieces of their faces falling off, stuff out of some bad nightmare. Then there’s the overt horror/pain end of naturalism, which you find in Hubert Selby’s books. Maybe related in some way to these twisted offshoots of naturalism are the books by William Burroughs that affected SF in all kinds of ways. I’m of the first generation of American SF authors who had the chance to read Burroughs when we were fourteen or fifteen years old. I know having had that opportunity made a big difference in my outlook on what SF- or any literature, for that matter- could be. What Burroughs was doing with plot and language and the SF motifs I saw in other writers was literally mind expanding. I saw this crazy outlaw character who seemed to have picked up SF and gone after society with it, the way some old guy might grab a rusty beer opener and start waving it around. Once you’ve had that experience, you’re not quite the same.
LM: Has the serious attention you’ve gotten from the SF world made you feel any less alienated?
WG: Yeah- everyone’s been so nice- but I still feel very much out of place in the company of most SF writers. It’s as thbe interconnected in a single fictional world?
WG: No- it would look too much like I was doing one of those Stephen R. Donaldson things. People are already asking me how many of these books I’m going to write, which gives me a creepy sensation because of the innate sleaziness of so much SF publishing. When you’re not forced to invent a new world from scratch each time, you find yourself getting lazy, falling back on the same stuff you used in an earlier novel. I was aware of this when I was finishing Neuromancer, and that’s why, near the end, there’s an announcement that Case never saw Molly again. That wasn’t directed so much at the reader as at me. If you had told me seven years ago that I would write a SF trilogy, I would have hung myself in shame. Posthaste.
LM: The obsession today with being able to reproduce a seemingly endless series of images, data, and information of all sorts is obviously related to capitalism and its drive for efficiency; but it also seems to grow out of our fear of death, a desire for immortality. The goals of religion and technology, in other words, may be closer than we think.
WG: I can see that. But this isn’t something that originated with contemporary technology. If you look at any of the ancient temples, which were the result of people learning to work stone with the technology available to them, what you’ll find are machines designed to give those people immortality. The pyramids and snake mounds are time machines. This kind of application of technology seems to run throughout human culture.