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William Gibson

Gean Moreno

William Gibson at the Key West Literary Seminar, 2014. Photo Courtesy: Nick Doll and KWLS

“Burning Chrome”—the story that gives the title to William Gibson’s only collection of short pieces is one of my favorite texts of his. I like it mostly because it gets things absolutely right and absolutely wrong. In the story, two hackers break into Chrome, a quasi- or uber-banking structure that handles mob money. Shaping fictional forms that Reaganomics and neoliberalism would make all too real, the story also matters because its mirror-version is just as true, prophetic really, and more terrifying: hackers may be able to break into all the different corporate and state Chromes that they like, and release all the nefarious material that they find there out into the world, subtended by Wiki-ideology that equates transparency with power, but the Meta-Chrome, the global market, Capital as a kind of alien intelligence that is slowly reconfiguring the entire planet, traverses us all. It’s broken through the firewalls of subjectivity and reconfigured the algorithms. The “consensual-hallucination” is that we still captain the controls and that experience hasn’t been atrophied irreparably.

Another reason I like “Burning Chrome” so much is that in it we find a prescient micro-model of the way Gibson’s fiction generally works: every character and every situation carries its own antithesis. Hubertus Bigend in the Blue Ant Trilogy is both a relay point of global forces—that is, a crisp and shorthand explanation of how the dematerialized world of Finance Capital works; its inevitable nodal figure, clad in coolness—but also the grotesque emblem of a rentier class and all the devastation the self-maintaining of which unfurls on the world. “The footage” in Pattern Recognition—anonymous snippets of a strange narrative that are being distributed online—is both a rethinking of distributive potentials that digital technologies open up for art and the retrenching of a deeply romantic and outmoded understanding of art as the last holdout of damaged beings.

The latent doubleness of everything, often waiting for the future to unearth it, spreads under all that Gibson writes, and it works because it seems to mimic the ways in which we can respond to and map the world we currently move in. I went to interview Gibson about his new book of essays, Distrust that Particular Flavor, at the Key West Literary Seminar in January. We met, but he felt a little too out of it for a sit-down talk. Instead, we decided on an email exchange. —Gean Moreno

GEAN MORENO (RAIL): The Blue Ant Trilogy is in some way about the end of the capital-F future, as are a number of the essays in Distrust That Particular Flavor. But is the future back now, as the desire to compose new social formations, which seems to be repurposing certain media like twitter, and reshuffling some of the hierarchies of our prosthetic collective memory? I’m thinking of the rise of Occupy and other movements like the indignados in Spain, the Arab Spring, Wikipedia and Snowden, etc.

WILLIAM GIBSON: The end of “the Future” of course is in no way “the end of history” (we’ve seen how well that one flies). “The Future” was, though, for a while, very popularly imagined as that. As if the end of history was one big win position. Or its opposite.

RAIL: More than the end of the Future, it seems like it’s the end of the Internet, not in a decline in usage or access, but in the vanishing of the potential that originally fed the hope placed on it. Now it seems to be more about NSA surveillance, the consolidation of the Stacks, and the mapping of user patterns for purposes of profit than about the shared resource of listservs, a freeing of cultural material and knowledge…

GIBSON: I’m tempted to say that it currently looks to be headed in more the direction I imagined when I was writing Neuromancer, when I knew literally nothing about whatever the Internet consisted of then, and certainly didn’t imagine anything like what it so interestingly and variously managed to become in the meantime.
I did wonder why nation states should necessarily continue to take the Internet lying down, so to speak, as it seemed so antithetical to their project of remaining nation states. Technology, I think, generally is morally neutral until we do something with it, and “we” in that sense includes nation states. I’ve found it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine convincing scenarios in which US intelligence agencies wouldn’t have done pretty much exactly what they did, given, well, everything. What would their motives for not doing that have been, exactly? But I also find it somewhat difficult to imagine a scenario in which it all didn’t eventually leak, given the nature of the Internet’s culture as we’ve known it. It seems to me that we legislate after the fact of having had to wait to see what we’ll actually do with a given technology. With a steadily emergent technology, we’re perpetually behind the legislative curve.

RAIL: In various essays in the new book, you propose that “social change is driven primarily by emergent technologies.” This seems, increasingly, half of the equation. The other half is the intensification of the capitalist capture of these technologies to see how profit is extracted from them and from us, even at the risk of stunting them.

GIBSON: It seems to me that emergent technologies drive, or at least enable, changes in styles of capitalism. Though it can certainly be envisioned as a synergy.

RAIL: Cities, too, seem to be playing a role in complicating the glide into our post-future world. Not just spaces for branding anymore or getting lost in, they are increasingly sites for new struggles. One thinks of Cairo, but also of London and all the rioting there during the past few years.


Gibson’s 2012 collection of non-fiction pieces.

GIBSON: Cities still seem to be where people increasingly want to be, post-geographicality and all. Some of the world’s larger human settlements, now, aren’t even cities, in the traditional sense. Cities, and city-scale settlements, still optimize randomness of personal interaction, some of which, historically, go full Butterfly Effect. I suspect that cities that overcook themselves, that do a bit too well, eventually suffer from a loss of sheer possibility. Though that may just be snark and wishful thinking on my part. I find cities that lack ramshackle interstices to be less stimulating, myself. Perhaps cities aren’t something we benefit from doing too efficiently.

RAIL: Scaffolding on that last question, I find in your shantytowns and references to the global south a sense that cities can be in some way a challenge to any totalizing logic of the mesh of collected information. A last holdout. Something extra gets lodged in the informal urban morphologies and dynamics.

GIBSON: I think that that’s about the randomization of personal interaction, again, but that’s definitely happening on the Internet as well.

RAIL: We are constantly highlighting emergent technologies in relation to a ratcheting up of the intelligence of our environments, increasing the transparency of interfaces and the like. But I think just as interesting are certain unexpected things that emergent technologies have made possible, like the explosion of digital filmmaking in Nigeria in the last decade, which all of a sudden displaces the imported film market, but moving to other rhythms and other desires, running a new tributary away from an increasingly homogenized culture.
GIBSON: That’s the great thing about unevenly distributed futurity: you don’t know what Nigeria will do with it until it gets to Nigeria. More of that, please! I’d be curious to see the cultural spread tracked from that. Will there be teens in Detroit who mainly watch Nigerian films? Will aspects of the new Nigerian cinema be emulated? I think we still have only a dim idea of what “global” could really mean.

RAIL: Reading the essay on digital filmmaking, “William Gibson’s Filmless Festival,” I fantasized that the Third World Cop in the movie that you mention, relying on local knowledge and reading the street, could be some kind of counterpart to Hubertus Bigend, emblem of the rentier class, who reads and extracts value from flows of global information. Some conceptual dissonance could be generated if we stood them up as opposing prototypes of current ways of moving in the world.

GIBSON: If I had a multiverse structure, I could hook up Bigend (from Pattern Recognition) and Rydell (from Virtual Light). Rydell is literally a third world cop, though his third world lies within the United States. They’d probably work quite well together, and Bigend has frequently hired lesser talent by far!

RAIL: In Distrust, Japan looms large (as it has in the novels, of course). In one of the essays, you write that it’s the “global imagination’s default setting for the future.” Do you still see it this way? How about the future that China seems to be carving on the horizon?

GIBSON: I think I should probably have capitalized “future” there. Japan’s future and China’s future have never seemed to me to be the same. When I started to write about Japan, Japan was getting a lot of play as the new Future, but was in fact in a bubble. Capital-F futures, interestingly, have always, actually, been bubbles. If only intellectual ones.

RAIL: Like contemporary Japan, Victorian England emerges again and again in your essays. You compare it to our times—they had the Industrial Revolution, we have these massive technological infrastructures that are completely reconfiguring the world. And like them, we need to somehow displace the shocks of this new world. They had gambling halls and roller coasters. What outlets do you think we have? Do you ever see your eBay/watch obsession in these quasi-therapeutic terms? Or the Tokyo that you write about as an immersive and baroque but controlled environment in which we live the uncontrollable changes that are visiting us?

GIBSON: I think that the sensation (or illusion) of change has in itself become a product-element. Or the product-element. We see it in the long lines for new iPhones that may not actually be all that breathtakingly new. The (then new) Victorian middle class were terribly concerned about the slight wear on a collar, say. Terrified of entropy. Of being seen in “used” clothing when the poor, downmarket, could seldom afford a genuinely new garment. We’ve become perpetually anxious, some of us, about not having the newest iteration of this inherently iterative technology. That feels somewhat like a bubble to me, though I’m so far unable to imagine what its bursting would look like.

RAIL: I just saw you at the Key West Literary Seminar. While I liked the presentations that I saw (probably less than half), I thought that they all spun around the scene of the writer fighting the limitations and exploiting the freedoms that genre makes available. Understandable, as it was writers speaking. But I was left wanting to hear something about genre and the social, about the way there may be certain historical junctures at which genre, with its naturalism and some of the tropes it returns to again and again, can get at slippery things and feelings that are in the air in a way that other modes of writing may not.

GIBSON: When I started to write fiction, I had somewhat that sense, that what naturalism (when new, an utterly punky and bad-ass modality) had become was perhaps no longer able to get much of a handle on the world around us.
Genre was primarily valuable to me, as a young reader, in the way that it was so utterly unpoliced. Science fiction, for instance, was then regarded as so far beneath the dignity of any sane adult that it simply wasn’t policed at all, even at the nadir of McCarthyism. The people who would have suppressed it couldn’t be bothered to read it. So I secretly received a huge infusion of mixed ideological peculiarity from the wire paperback rack at the local drugstore, and the adults around me were never the wiser.
Today, I don’t think it works that way, perhaps because it’s no longer necessary in the same way. “Genre,” for quite a while now, hasn’t generally been a word that causes me to perk up with anticipation.

RAIL: In the last essay in Distrust, “Googling the Cyborg,” you write of the world cyborg: not a local machine/body meld, but the melding of our bodies into a vectorized space of tele-connectivity. As I was reading this, I kept thinking of the way neuroscience is coming up with a new picture of our brains: we are just neural circuitry hard at work, meat and chemistry and electrical discharges. The world as nothing but a massive mesh whose weave is just tightened and loosened in different regions: tight biochemical networks stitched to sprawling electronic ones. Do you think that the very logic that the cyborg named—us here, the apparatus there—may be up for tweaking?

GIBSON: The dichotomy may well be past sell-by, yes!

RAIL: You are working on a new novel that reengages sci-fi more directly. I know that you don’t like to talk much about it. But I was wondering if, as it happens with “the footage” (in Pattern Recognition) which slowly unfurls through vague vignettes, you would add something here to the little that is swirling around out there about it.

GIBSON: It’s called The Peripheral. It’s set entirely in two successive futures, one about twenty years off, the other about seventy, with the latter on the far side of a fairly vicious piss-take on the so-called Singularity. They don’t call it that, though. They call it “the jackpot”, and hitting it seems to have been the most mixed of blessings, except for the most rapacious and subsequently wealthy. So it’s very much science fiction, or rather it’s as much science fiction as anything I’ve previously done. The story’s nearer future is something like Winter’s Bone with Google Glass, but I’m finding they mirror one another in ways I didn’t expect.