When William Gibson published his seminal sci-fi novel Neuromancer in 1984, it seemed improbably dystopic. More than a quarter-century later, so much has changed that he now writes in the present tense. His latest book, Zero History, is the final volume of a loose trilogy that concentrates on a culture increasingly obsessed with branding and, well, stuff (though Gibson prefers the term “artifacts”). “I’ve always been, for whatever reason, very conscious of the world of things,” he says. We spoke at length with him about plenty of these things — from the iPad to those old-fashioned anachronisms called "books."
You’re at the beginning of your national tour. What’s changed about your audience over the years?
Someone remarked last night about how mellow they are, easygoing folks. I used to get more really intense and kind of destabilized folks. I think that was the hard cyberpunk days. When I started writing more about characters who had parents and relationships and emotions, the black-trench-coat guys kind of faded.
Do you miss them?
Not particularly. I didn’t mind them at the time. It just seems like another era now.
The world has changed significantly since you were first published in the eighties. How does the current “real world” play into your books?
In 1981, I was a futurist, or at least I was a guy who put on a futurist hat occasionally and I wrote about the 21st century. Now I’m here in the 21st century and if I write about it, I think it makes me a literary naturalist. But I have the toolkit I was issued at the Science Fiction Academy and that’s actually a really good toolkit to have if you want to interrogate the 21st century and get a handle on this hot mess.
In a 1986 interview, you said, “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.” In your recent books, clothes and spaces are described with so much more detail than people. Why?
You’ve got two versions of me talking at the same time across a vast gulf of space. The perception of the world in a novel like Zero History is being filtered through two viewpoint characters. You can’t see anything, you can’t experience anything that happens in that book except through the lens of Hollis and through the lens of Milgrim. There is no omniscient narrative voice in my style at this point that can draw back and say, “Meanwhile, while Hollis is doing this Milgrim was doing that.” If such an omniscient voice were to focus on the physical details, it would have a very different meaning.
The details that those two viewpoint characters notice are aspects of character. They’re not just random objects floating in the world. They’re the things that Hollis or Milgrim notices. It’s all characterization. In the opening chapter with the endless Mervyn Peak–like inventory of the weirdness of a private London hotel — Hollis has become, in a way, institutionalized. The hotel has colonized her mind and her emotional life, to some extent. We live in a world of artifacts. We live in a human-made environment, largely. All of those artifacts manifest coded intelligence.
What’s coded intelligence?
If you make something, it’s an artifact. It’s something that somebody or some corporate entity has caused to come into being. A great many human beings have thought about each of the artifacts that surround us. Different degrees of intelligence and attention have been brought to bear on anything I’m looking at a tall Starbucks cup right now. The amount of thought that went into getting that Starbucks cup to look exactly the way it is, as it sits on the bedside table next to me, it’s an enormous amount of information. You could write a book, a thick book, about how that cup got to be there. I’ve always been, for whatever reason, very conscious of the world of things. In a way, the Internet of things, as the current expression goes.
The model turned designer character, Meredith, tells Hollis, “Designers become machine nerds. Machines define what you can do.” So are designers searching for the right machine or searching for the right use for that machine?
Literally — I’m not talking symbolically here — a manufacturing machine places parameters on what can be done. Designers can design things that can’t be made, but that’s not good. In the garment industry, they have sewing machines that were made in the 1900s that they’re still using, which is really quite fascinating. They wouldn’t necessarily be able to buy a contemporary machine that would perform the same function. So they buy these ancient machines, which are continually repaired. In central Manhattan, there used to be a sewing machine quarter — I think it was around 20th Street — that sold nothing but spare parts for fabric and garment-fabricating machines. There was nothing there but coffee shops and sewing-machine parts. Now it’s all condos.
No one needs old sewing machine parts anymore?
The sewing machine parts are needed in pre-post-industrial nations that have not yet gone entirely to marketing and branding.
You also wrote in Zero History that terrorism is “almost exclusively about branding but only slightly less so about the psychology of lotteries.” How so?
If you’re a terrorist (or a national hero, depending on who’s looking at you), there are relatively few of you and relatively a lot of the big guys you’re up against. Terrorism is about branding because a brand is most of what you have as a terrorist. Terrorists have virtually no resources. I don’t even like using the word terrorism. It’s not an accurate descriptor of what’s going on.
What do you think is going on?
Asymmetric warfare, when you’ve got a little guy and a big guy. [There are] a lot of strategies that the little guy uses to go after the big guy, and a lot of them are branding strategies. The little guy needs a brand because that’s basically all he’s got. He’s got very little manpower, very little money compared to the big guy. The big guy’s got a ton of manpower and a ton of money. So this small coterie of plotters decides to go after a nation-state. If they don’t have a strong brand, nothing’s going to happen. From the first atrocity on, the little guy is building his brand. And that’s why somebody phones in after every bomb and says, “It was us, the Situationist Liberation Army. We blew up that mall.” That’s branding. By the same token, you get these other, surreal moments where they call up and say, “We didn’t do that one.” That’s branding. That’s all it is. A terrorist without a brand is like a fish without a bicycle. It’s just not going anywhere.
Did terrorism find the right time to shine because it’s so easy to disseminate your international brand?
Everything about the world we live in today furthers dissemination of brands or any other sort of information. It’s a rich time. Forget terrorism, it’s the age of branding. I’m becoming increasingly unwilling to call it terrorism. It plays into a particularly ignorant sort of rhetoric that is very widespread. If the terrorist can get you to think about what he’s doing as terrorism, you’re already in his win position.
The rest of it’s about the psychology of lotteries. It’s extremely unlikely that either you or I will ever be directly injured by any sort of terrorist event. It’s just as unlikely that either of us will ever win the big lottery. Or even a medium-size lottery. People buy tickets because of some evolutionary quirk in our pattern recognition that causes us to go, “Oh, I could win. I could win that.” But in fact, you can’t. Somebody will, but you won’t. That’s how terrorism works.
But the lottery is about hope. Terrorism is about fear.
Terrorism is a hopeful thing if you’re a freedom fighter. Terrorists and freedom fighters are two sides of the same coin. The freedom fighter lives in hope that he will overthrow the vast injustice of whoever. The people who live in the vast injustice can, if they choose, live in fear that the terrorist will come and do something bad to them. I don’t know. People are such suckers for the most part. The terrorists are smarter, in a way. The terrorists are at least playing a game that makes sense and has various win positions. If they can make you frightened, they’ve won. If they can make you deform your society in ways that will decrease everyone’s pleasure in life, they’ve won.
No one in Zero History seems to be from anywhere, and indeed could be in London or Paris or New York and it didn’t really matter — just that they were in urban areas. Are we losing the concept of home and the notion of being from a specific place?
I’m happiest with people who’ve gotten furthest from traditional ideas of nationalism. I’m happiest in wildly multicultural post-national environments, which most large world cities now are. I’m writing about places I like. Last year I thought about the first time I traveled through Europe, which was in 1970. When I traveled through Europe, each country had not only its own currency but its own brands of cigarettes, its own everything. That was such a wonderful experience. Each country in Europe was a pocket universe. That’s gone. It’s just gone. They all just have EU stuff and a lot of American stuff and a lot of Japanese stuff. It’s not as charming. But it’s the way it is. I don’t really see how we could have kept it the way it was. I don’t feel nostalgia for what it was. I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad. I don’t traffic in nostalgia. We’re becoming a global culture.
What are the dangers of that, if there’s a dominant popular culture from which products are emerging?
If it’s becoming genuinely global, then you don’t have one nation from which the culture’s emerging. Maybe we’ll wind up with just a kind of ubiquitous widespread single culture. But I don’t think about “the future” that way or where anything is going.
People will be surprised to hear that.
I’ve been saying that from the start. I don’t know what’s going to happen. In our culture, with the position of the science-fiction writer, we’re assumed to do that. When I started writing fiction, my narrative strategy was science fiction. I didn’t feel that my genre was science fiction. I didn’t want to be bound by what genre is and isn’t supposed to do.
Do you feel bound by it now, or do you just keep getting questions like that from people like me?
Any genre is by definition supremely culture-bound. Science fiction is my native literary culture. It’s totally where I came from. I’m a guy from southwestern Virginia, and I’m a guy from science fiction. But I don’t particularly behave like a guy from southwest Virginia, and I don’t particularly write like a science-fiction writer.
So if someone is born now into this global world, do you think they even have a native culture?
If you’re born now, your native culture is global, to an increasing extent. There are things that are unknowable for futurists of any stripe, be they science-fiction writing charlatans like myself or anthropologists in the employ of large automobile companies who are paid to figure out what people might want in ten years. One of the things that’s unknowable is how humanity will use any new technology.
No one imagines that we’d wind up with a world that looks like this on the basis of the technology that’s emerged in the last hundred years. Emergent technology is the most powerful single driver of change in the world, and it has been forever. Technology trumps politics. Technology trumps religion. It just does. And that’s why we are where we are now. It seems so self-evident to me that I can never go to that Technology: threat or menace? position. Okay, well, if we don’t do this, what are we going to do? This is not only what we do, it’s literally who we are as a species. We’ve become something other than what our ancestors were.
I’m sitting here at age 52 with almost all of my own teeth. That didn’t used to happen. I’m a cyborg. I’m immune to any number of lethal diseases by virtue of technology. I’m sitting on top of this enormous pyramid of technology that starts with flint hand-axes and finds me in a hotel in Austin, Texas, talking to someone thousands of miles away on a telephone and that’s just what we do. At this point, we don’t have the option of not being technological creatures.
What technology do you use in your daily life?
Currently my relatively new iPad, which I’m just sort of taking the measure of. I’m not an early adapter of technology. I’ve got this five-year-old flip phone that’s starting to look like a water-worn stone. I’ve never had an iPhone. I don’t have a lot of sexy high-tech gear around. But if I see people with sexy high-tech gear I go right over and have a look. But what I’m observing is how they relate to it and what it seems to mean to them and what they might be doing with it that the manufacturer never imagined.
You’ve taken to Twitter (GreatDismal).
I have indeed. I’ve taken to Twitter like a duck to water. Its simplicity allows the user to customize the experience with relatively little input from the Twitter entity itself. I hope they keep it simple. It works because it’s simple. I was never interested in Facebook or MySpace because the environment seemed too top-down mediated. They feel like malls to me. But Twitter actually feels like the street. You can bump into anybody on Twitter.
You have more than 32,000 people following your feed. But you’re only following 87 people. How do you decide whom you’re reading?
I do it on the basis of random encounters, for the most part. Usually the stuff that entertains me has some kind of high-information content. The people I’m following work for me as a sort of conglomerate aggregator of novelty. As it is, with 87 people it’s more than I can take in.
You’re using it in a different way than many other people do. There’s a lot of output on Twitter, not a lot of taking anything else in.
Twitter’s huge. There’s a whole culture of people on Twitter who do nothing but handicap racehorses. I’ll never go there. One commonality about people I follow is that they’re all doing what I’m doing: They’re all using it as novelty aggregation and out of that grows some sense of being part of a community. It’s a strange thing. There are countless millions of communities on Twitter. They occupy the same virtual space but they never see each other. They never interact. Really, the Twitter I’m always raving about is my Twitter.
Why books? Why are they still an appealing medium to you?
Because it offers me the most control over the product that reaches the consumer. Absolutely. Recorded music offers you that, although music can be remixed. Books aren’t remixed. The old-fashioned words-in-a-row platform suits me down to the ground. It doesn’t involve anyone else. I marvel at people who make films and television —bwhat they have to put up with. Writing books is such a clean procedure. One person builds the whole experience.
Any thoughts on why the tea-party movement is so successful right now? Why is everyone so upset?
It helps to have a black guy in the White House. Any black guy. If you want to do an old, grumpy white folks party, get a black guy in the White House. You get your old grumpy white folks to turn out.
So has this been simmering and now’s the time for it to come out?
Basically. The Civil War was scarcely more than 150 years ago. It’s yesterday. Race in American hasn’t been sorted out. This used to be a country that was run exclusively by white guys in suits. It’s not going to be a country that’s run exclusively by white guys in suits, and that doesn’t have anything to do with politics, it’s just demographics. That makes some people very uncomfortable. The tea party is like the GOP’s Southern strategy coming back to exact the real cost of that strategy.
That sounds ominous.
It is ominous in the long run, for the GOP. They’re going to have to find a different way to operate or they’ll go the way of the Whigs. Not like next year, but eventually. You can do all sorts of crazy shit when you’re not in power to interrupt what the guy in power is doing. But it costs you down the line if it really was crazy shit.