William Gibson Q&A

William Gibson

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press newspapers, including the Oak Leaves, on February 19, 2003.

When William Gibson wrote about cyberspace in the early ’80s, it was science fiction.

In fact, Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” to describe an imaginary worldwide network of computers in his novel “Neuromancer.”

Eight books later, Gibson is writing about the Internet again, but this time, it’s a novel set in the present day.

Gibson will be at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1100 Lake St., Oak Park, … to discuss and sign copies of “Pattern Recognition,” his first non-science-fiction novel. Readers who aren’t savvy about the latest technological trends might still find it futuristic, however.

The heroine of “Pattern Recognition” is Cayce Pollard, whose job is determining whether proposed corporate logos are cool enough to be a hit with consumers. Cayce finds herself at the center of international intrigue as she hunts for the anonymous maker of a mysterious movie that is popping up on the Internet in fragments.

Gibson, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, spoke by phone from a stop on his book tour.

Q: What was the inspiration for “Pattern Recognition”?

A: I had been threatening … to write a book set in the present. I was uncomfortable when people would … talk about my earlier work as if I actually knew what the future was going to be. And I spent a lot of time saying, “No, it’s not like that. Science fiction is never really about the future. Nobody knows what the future is going to be. But science fiction is a reasonable way to get a handle on an increasingly science-fictional present.”

And I would usually conclude by saying, “You know, I could probably write a novel that is set right now and some people who read it wouldn’t even realize that it wasn’t science fiction, because it would feel more or less like the rest of my work.” And I guess I said it often enough that I had to call myself on it.

Q: When you decided to set a novel in the present, were you immediately interested in the subjects that are in “Pattern Recognition” — Internet forums, the mystery movie, corporate logos?

A: The genesis of any novel I’ve written has been very, very messy and organic. … When I’m starting a novel, it feels more like a matter of finding a way to get myself out of the way and let whatever material has presented itself come to the fore…

This one was no different … except I didn’t have to have the “prop shop” running simultaneously. I didn’t have to have a part of my imagination … inventing a lot of groovy gadgets to make it seem like the future. I just had to look around and see what people were using — and what newer technologies people are getting involved with now.

And I didn’t do a 100 percent job. There are disappointments that are inherent in dealing with the present, that I’ve never really run into before — like I wish now that at least in the London and Tokyo sections of the book, there had been more text messaging. Because I realized subsequently that both (cities) have huge text-messaging subcultures going on — which I don’t think we really have to the same extent in North America yet.

Q: What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you spend a lot of time going onto the Internet and looking up topics?

A: I did a lot Googling. The kind of research that is most fruitful for me is kind of random. This is a very Web-surfed novel. I’d go looking for one thing and turn up something else that was perfect, or might even change the direction of the narrative.

Q: Do you identify with the main character’s feelings about logos and corporate branding?

A: I don’t have her phobia, but I suspect that most people experience a sort of sub-clinical version of her phobia occasionally.

It seems to me that if we are in fact a post-industrial society … it does seem like most of the stuff we buy is manufactured elsewhere in places that are still industrial societies. … So I was wondering, if we’re post-industrial, what do we do? One of the things we do is we brand the stuff that the industrial societies make. That’s a lot of our business.

One of the things I’ve been interested in for the last couple of books is how the industry of celebrity works. Celebrity is sort of like the ultimate branding. You take one individual and their name becomes the brand. They’re the product. …

It’s so much in front of us all the time. It’s very hard to find a completely brand-free environment.

Q: You said earlier that science-fiction writers aren’t trying to predict the future. But when you look back at “Neuromancer,” do you see it as a prediction of things that did occur later?

A: You know, a lot of science fiction writers … are trying to predict the future. Or they think that they’re trying to predict the future.

I always wrote science fiction from the assumption that when it was looked at a hundred years later, it would be very clearly be about the day in which it was written, much in the way that Orwell’s “1984” is so clearly about the world in 1948, the year in which it was written. So I had this kind of anthropological self-consciousness about what I was doing, that I think a lot of other science-fiction writers haven’t had.

When I wrote “Neuromancer,” I took it for granted that something was going on with personal computing. Personal computers were just starting to emerge on the market. Very few people had them.

I didn’t know anybody who had one. But I knew that they existed, and I had some idea of what they could do. And for some reason, I took it for granted that people would find a way of connecting them. That just made perfect sense to me. I didn’t think about how they would do that, whether the telephone company would do it or whether they would have little radios in them.

But once I had imagined, all over the world, all these small computers connected — I had something that worked sort of like the Internet. That’s the basis of what notoriety I have.

When I wrote “Neuromancer,” the learning curve required to send or receive e-mail was very, very steep. … I just overlooked that. I thought, “It will be easier.” … I glanced at what people were doing with e-mails and personal computers in 1981, and I thought this is the amateur radio phase of something that’s probably going to be a lot bigger and more pervasive.

It’s like the days when people would send away for crystal and 300 feet of copper wire and spend all night winding a coil to make a crystal radio. Most towns in the United States got their first radio when some kid was winding coil out in a shed. Nobody else knew about it and nobody else cared. It was too tedious and boring to be popular. There really wasn’t anything being broadcast to listen to.

And I thought that was what that Internet stuff was like in the early ’80s. But I thought that from those guys winding that coil came MTV. So I just … skipped everything else and imagined the Internet equivalent of the MTV phase.

Q: As you watched the Internet become a popular phenomenon, were the aspects of what happened that confirmed what you expected and aspects that surprised you?

A: The thing that I could never have imagined was its complete ubiquity and the way in which people use it literally for everything. There’s somebody somewhere right now using the Internet for probably everything human beings have ever figured out a way to do.

There’s a trap that you fall into when you write fiction set in an imaginary future about new technologies. From your point of view, when you’re writing about it, that new technology seems very sexy, because you don’t have it yet.

So for someone in 1850, this instantaneous long-distance telephone conversation we’re having, with satellites and stuff, is like a miracle. It’s an unimaginable level of technology. And for us, it’s nothing. We don’t even think about it.

That’s what you never get right when you write science fiction. You just can’t do the “And they don’t even think about” part. You get excited about it.

In “Neuromancer,” there’s a certain amount of heavy breathing about the technology. “He found himself in the depths of cyberspace! It was infinite!” It wasn’t like, he logged onto a porno site. That’s the part I couldn’t predict.

But also, in “Neuromancer,” nobody has a cell phone. There are pay phones in “Neuromancer,” and it’s supposed to be 2030. There’s a mechanical printer. And somebody asks for a modem at some point.

Nothing gets quaint so quickly as an imagined future. For me, a big part of the pleasure of reading older science-fiction novels has been that quaintness that they have — how 1968 looked from 1942.

Q: Do you recall coming up with the term “cyberspace”?

A: I had a yellow legal pad with, I think, three neologisms written in red Sharpie. One was “dataspace,” one was “infospace,” and one was “cyberspace.” It was a no-brainer. Cyberspace was the one.

If I’d called it infospace, you probably wouldn’t be talking to me. It’s just not a good logo.

Q: How did cyberspace go from being a term in your book to a widely used word?

A: I don’t think anybody would know the answer to that. It’s one of those profoundly mysterious processes of real language. It caught on, and it probably caught on with techies in the computer business. …

While I was working on “Neuromancer,” there were a bunch of people working on competing models of virtual reality. … These guys were having trouble explaining to investors and other people what they were trying to do.

A lot of them told me that when they found “Neuromancer,” they … went out and bought 20 copies and carried them around and gave them to the people who hadn’t been able to grasp what they were talking about. (They’d say) “Read this. What we’re talking about is sort of like this.”

From that, it spread somehow into general use. It still amazes me. I’ll pick up a newspaper, and it’s always there somewhere.