William Gibson: "The Digital Is Now Real Enough to Kill You"

William Gibson
William Gibson
Courtesy of William Gibson/Putnam

When William Gibson published his first novel, Neuromancer, thirty years ago, he triggered a seismic shift in the landscape of science fiction. With its vision of a gritty near-future populated by cowboy computer hackers and cybernetically-enhanced mercenaries, the book singlehandedly established cyberpunk as a genre, in the process foreshadowing the growth of the Internet and inventing the concept of the "the matrix" that the Wachowskis would later draw from to make their film of the same name. It also won Gibson the Nebula, Hugo and Philip K. Dick awards, and saddled him with a reputation as a kind of prescient prophet of what's to come.

Gibson's latest effort, The Peripheral, is a mystery that spans two very different futures, an economically depressed corner of rural America where high-tech drug manufacturing and professional gaming are some of the only jobs around, and a far-off London where drone technology lets people interact across space and even time. Westword spoke to Gibson, who comes to Tattered Cover Colfax on November 3, about the disappearing lines between the web and the "real world" and technology's scary side; read on for an edited version of our conversation.

See also: Travis Heerman Aims to Put the Fun Back in Speculative Fiction

Westword: In your early novels, the action happened in two distinct, parallel worlds, the real world and cyberspace. And in The Peripheral, it seems like you've largely erased the distinction between the two. Can you talk a little about this idea of the net invading the real world, and where it came from?

Gibson: I don't even think I had to think about that. It was just a given. The far future in the book thinks of the, from our point of view, relatively near future as having been so unsophisticated as to still make a distinction between the digital and the real. And the people in the far future's past, or our near future, are offended by that. They're like, come on, we're not total hicks. We get this, we've been living with this for a while.

I think really that the built-in obsolescence of the term "cyberspace" is exactly that it dates from a time when the two realms were assumed to be fundamentally separate. And I think we're already well past that.

It's interesting that you mention that, because while you've acquired a reputation as a kind of prophet of the future, your novels also read as really fascinating historical documents. Reading Neuromancer today, you get a really strong sense of the time it was written: Japan was economically ascendent, conglomerates were going to control our entire lives, and eighties-style Wall Street capitalism was starting to eat its own young.

Yeah, I was a native reader of science fiction. I was a huge fan when I was a fifteen-year-old boy. I've since realized that I was totally the demographic that the publishers imagined they were reaching. But when I started to write, I was in my late-mid-twenties, and had a degree in English literature and knew a lot about the history of the modern novel. And part of what I had learned in school was that any work involving an imaginary future is going to be read as a document of the moment in which it was written, and that is inescapable. Because no one knows what's really going to happen.

When you historically look at science fiction, most of it's about how they got it wrong. I was self-aware that way, when I began to write science fiction. While I was writing it I'd think "Wow, I wonder how wrong this is going to be? I wonder how gloriously non-prescient this sentence is going to seem in forty or fifty years?" I was never very excited about the supposed predictive aspect of it, because science fiction doesn't have that great a record of getting it right.

But I thought that the toolkit that the genre had developed was incredibly good for getting a handle on a present time that was so full of change-driving emergent technology that we all had constant vertigo about where we were, let alone where we might be going. It had gone from "Where the hell are we going?" to "Where the hell are we?" And I thought that well, yeah, these tools of science fiction are in effect the tools of a new kind of naturalism that we need to investigate the world of the moment.

So really, from the very start of my trying to write science fiction, I had that foremost in what I was thinking about and what I was trying to do. It makes me happy if you can read Neuromancer for a sense of the zeitgeist of the early eighties, when it was written.

You've said in the past that you're less interested in technology itself and more interested in how people interact with it. It's been four years since your last novel came out. In your opinion, what's been the most important change in our relationship with tech since then?

Over the past four years, specifically?

Or just recently, in general.

My mind doesn't work particularly on that scale. In a way, I do what I do by looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I do a lot of tight-focus stuff on the texture of technology.

For the past twenty years or so, I think the big thing has been the end of the clear distinction between the digital and the "real." I think the digital is now real enough to kill you. Like, somebody getting blown up by a Predator drone is dying in a complexly seamless interaction between the digital and the real.

Between armed drones and NSA surveillance, it does feels like we're seeing a predatory side of technology that we, as a society, didn't have to confront in the past. What, if anything, scares you in tech today?

Well, whatever anxieties I have about technology aren't new. My anxieties with any emergent technology are, what's the worst thing anybody could do with that and who's going to do it first? And that would have been as useful any time in the last thousand years as it is now, if anyone had thought it.

I think that emerging technologies have been driving change one way or another for a very long time now, and the exact nature and scale of the change any emergent technology will bring simply isn't evident to us most of the time. Sometimes it's not evident for hundreds of years.

I once thought that as a science fiction writer, I was called on to be as agnostic about technology as I possibly could. I more or less believe that science and technology are morally neutral until someone does something with them. And then they make an ethical choice in terms of what they're going to do with it.

But we now know there are situations in which great harm can be done simply by not understanding the unintended consequences of using a technology. The people who discovered how to work lead didn't know that they were poisoning themselves and they were poisoning their children, they didn't know they shouldn't be making water pipes out of it. But I wouldn't hold them ethically at fault for not knowing that lead was poisonous.  

A clip of The Peripheral's cover.
A clip of The Peripheral's cover.
Courtesy of William Gibson/Putnam

I'm fascinated by this idea of telepresence that you explore in the book. By using drone bodies, the characters can interact across physical space and even time. Which, actually, with FaceTime and Skype and drones, doesn't seem like it's that far off. When technology abolishes distance like that, what do you think it means for how we interact with and value each other?

I don't know. It's something that I've long been attempting to explore imaginatively. I think someone could probably write an essay just following the evolution of the imaginary technologies that facilitate post-geographical personal reality in my work.

It's subtle. I was looking at something I saw on Twitter this morning, with somebody describing how they didn't like the particular color the sky is today in London, and doing a very funny job of describing it. And I had this very personal sense of what the sky is like in London today that I could never have had before. Just for a moment, I kind of felt the post-geographicality. I had this odd, very intimate awareness of this place today that I couldn't have had 100 years ago, I couldn't have imagined.

One thing The Peripheral has in common with many of your other novels is that it tells a single story through multiple characters' points of view. That's something you did in the Blue Ant trilogy, and as far back as Count Zero. Do you find it's easier to tell a complete story through multiple cameras like that?

Well, I guess I do. I like to think that I do that out of sheer laziness. Pattern Recognition has only Cayce's point of view, and I think actually Neuromancer has only the earlier Case's point of view. So I can do it, but what I find valuable about [writing from multiple perspectives] is being able to show the reader the same thing or the same situation from at least two completely different points of view.

And often neither of those points of view is entirely reliable. There can be a really marked contrast between what one character and another perceives. And to me when I'm writing, it makes it more three-dimensional, in a sense. I feel like it gives it a higher resolution.

Let me ask you one last question. There's a plot that's become a common thread through many of your stories, where a fantastically rich benefactor hires a character to do a job and gives him or her nearly unlimited funds to get it done. If you had access to Hubertus Bigend's or Josef Virek's money, what would you do with it?

Oh, dear. I'd start by asking for help. I think that finding oneself with that kind of money is a huge, dire emergency in almost every case. Windfalls in real life tend to be traumatic if not apocalyptic.

Every once in a while somebody writes a piece where they go and find like six state lottery winners who won the big one and find out what's happened to them. And they're all such heartbreaking stories. It's very interesting, it's not like the lottery company tells you what's going to happen. A think a lot of people are destroyed by it, or at least the life they had before becomes kind of meaningless.

I think I'm old enough now that I know people who work for big enough and sufficiently benevolent NGOs that I think that I could find organizations to help me offload most of it without doing anything too ethically wrong in the process.

Follow Adam Roy on Twitter at @adnroy.



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