William Gibson Interview – All Tomorrow’s Parties

William Gibson, Author
Portrait of author William Gibson taken on his 60th birthday; March 17, 2008. Photo: Gonzo Bonzo

A long time ago — in the 1990s (holy crap, 20 years ago!) — I was the co-host (with my very good pal Sean Meehan) of a radio show on KSCO/KOMY called “Brave New World: The Coliseum Of Cultural Evolution.”

We interviewed lots of cool and interesting people, like Peter Bart, editor of Variety, who talked with us about the trends in Hollywood film-making; WWF wrestler Mick Foley who had just released his first book; and William Gibson, who had just released the novel “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

For all kinds of reasons, very few recordings or text of the show survive… but I’m stoked that we did capture the Gibson interview.

I’m still looking for the audio file, but in the meantime, here’s the transcript… enjoy!

December 1999

SEAN MEEHAN: The book, All Tomorrow’s Parties, picks up the story of Laney, one of the most popular characters from your last national bestseller, IDORU. Tell us about Laney. Who is he, and what’s his story?

WILLIAM GIBSON: This book picks up Laney as an adult about 10-15 years from now in the early 21st century. As a child he’s been subjected to a series of clinical trials of a drug that has a peculiar side effect, and it’s given him the very odd talent for analyzing data – he can look at huge amounts of data flowing by on the internet and see snags, and nodal points, and places where things are starting to change, so it makes him very valuable to certain people … to large corporations, to media networks.

CHIP STREET: Because the ebb and flow of this information has predictive value in the real world?

WG: Yes, absolutely.

SM: The future that Laney can to some degree percieve is, in this book, a future of grave changes, earth shattering changes, isn’t it?

WG: It’s a future that seems to bring about the end of the world as we know it, although that’s not to say that there isn’t something waiting on the other side. I think this series of three books, which this one closes, for me is about emergent technology and how emergent technology drives social change. And how those changes are very very seldom anything that the inventors or developers of these technologies would or could have anticipated.

SM: This world where developers and technological innovators seem to lose control of their vision, and their vision is shaped in a strange cultural and economic marketplace, as you theorize in this book, is that a future that we live in right now? Is this just sort of a straight line extrapolation of what you see happening right now?

WG: I don’t even see it as that much of an extrapolation. I think in a sense we’re living that today. Social change today, I think you can seriously argue, is primarily technologically driven, one way or another, whether directly or indirectly. And the emergence of new technologies is not legislated – it just happens, it’s market driven. History has become market driven. And that’s a strange and very interesting place to be at the turn of the century.

SM: How far back do you track that? Do you think it goes back to Gutenberg? Do you think it goes back to the industrial revolution? Do you think it goes back to the Romans and concrete? To the wheel? Where do you think that technological innovation ultimately became the driving force behind cultural change?

WG: Well, I think it’s an aspect of the modern period, but to an historian, the Elizabethan’s are early modern … for historians modern is a very long program, and I’m not disinclined to believe that we may be right at the end of the modern (period) – we may be on the cusp between the modern and something else. I think that’s a lot of what we’re feeling that’s mistaken for millennial angst.

CS: Your work, when it first broke into the science fiction genre, somewhat redefined the form, and created a schism within the genre as well, calling into question the goals and virtues of the genre. For a long time the goals of the genre were very technological in a sort of hyperspecific sense, very conservative traditional prose, and a nuts and bolts approach to technology. When you came onto the scene, you redefined those success parameters of the genre. How was that received within the genre? Did you perceive any resentment within the genre?

WG: I was expecting resentment and resistance. In fact, they immediately gave me all of their top prizes, and invited me in with open arms. The actual response was warm and avuncular. I think the central shaft of science fiction remains inherently conservative. Particularly, artistically, remains very conservative. But I’ve sort of built a drainpipe up the outside of that.

CS: Nevertheless, we saw you receiving accolades, tremendous awards, and yet we also saw there being more than an undercurrent of negative critique that said something like “the guy’s just artistry and style … where’s the number crunching? Where’s the hard figuring? Where’s the tensile strength of these alloys? He didn’t do any of the necessary hard work of science fiction.” How did that make you feel?

WG: It certainly didn’t surprise me. Science fiction is my native literary culture, and a lot of what I was doing, the program I activated when I started writing this stuff, came from a really conscious effort to go in the opposite direction from what I had been told was right. An example that comes to mind is that I was very careful to ensure that you cannot prove from internal evidence in Neuromancer that the United States exists as a political entity. We know that New York and Chicago and Boston exist, but they could be city-states. It’s as thought the United States has been balkanized from without. Perhaps in order to protect the rest of the world, but I was very careful not to be specific about that, and I did that because in the science fiction I had grown up with, which was mostly American, the future was America. It wasn’t really a global fiction at all.

SM: And was there anything wrong with that? White bread and Protestantism all around the globe!

CS: There is no gee-whiz quality to the technological aspects of your fiction, as was largely the case for so many decades in the genre. Your technologies are natural outgrowths of cultural and economic evolution, and have, as we’ve said, unexpected consequences in culture and society, and in a certain sense is somewhat dystopic. Are your books cautionary tales about where we’re headed in terms of our dependence and interconnectedness with our technologies, our depersonalization? Or are these just stories about guys?

WG: I think that I have some sort of intellectual obligation to remain neutral. These are neither dystopian Luddite fantasies, nor technopheliac raptures, which are sort of the two ends of the spectrum in the genre. I think that by and large technology is neutral until you do something with it. I’m sure that there are all kinds of really, really wonderful things that we could do with broadcast television, that we’ve never done. That’s because in real politic, somebody has to pay for broadcasting it. I think we’re sort of at the end of broadcast television now, but when you look at what we’ve done with it, what we did with it was nothing like what it’s inventors, I would imagine, thought would be done with it.

SM: All the promise and the glory.

WG: Yeah.

CS: Do you feel that way about the internet as well? Obviously there were high ideals surrounding the introduction of television. The introduction of television was going to cure so many social ills. Once television got in there, everything was going to be fixed. I think we’re seeing similar claims being made for the new information distribution technologies, like the internet. Do you think there will be a similar vulgarization of the goals of these new technologies?

WG: I was recently reading that the telegraph was thought to herald world peace. It was sort of a late Victorian version of the sunnier rhetoric around the internet. I would think a more on-the-money response to technology at the turn of this century would be a fifty-fifty mix of dread and ecstasy.

CS: There are other authors who, like you, are considered somewhat more Literary than the traditional Golden-Age authors of the genre. Ursula LeGuin has said that she didn’t intend to be a science fiction author, that she just wrote what she wrote and it was science fiction editors who bought her work.

WG: Yeah, but you know, she was a published poet, and her parents were world class anthropologists. I’m sure she didn’t set out to be a science fiction writer. (laughs)

SM: What about you? Did you intend to focus on the science fiction genre, or did it just sort of work out that way?

WG: When I was fifteen years old, I absolutely knew that the gig I wanted today was the gig I’ve got today … to the extent that I could imagine being a science fiction author at the turn of the century. By the time I was sixteen, I realized that was sort of goofy, and not really worthy of my attention. It wasn’t until I was pushing thirty that I came back to that, because I hadn’t found anything else to replace that initial vision of something to do.

SM: We have heard assertions that your work includes little keys and homages to the works of Nabokov, or of Pinchon. True? Untrue?

WG: No Nabokov and no Pynchon that I know of… there’s quite a lot of Steeley Dan in there (laughs).

SM: So you went for high art?

WG: Yeah, I’ve done quite a lot of Steeley Dan homages. I mean really, science fiction and rock and roll are the only really native cultures that I have. Everything else is sort of a micron thin overlay of, like, college stuff.

SM: And what is Burning Chrome but a giant riff on Hey Nineteen?

WG: Burning Chrome is a giant riff on Ricky Don’t Lose That Number!

SM: I would have assumed that was Count Zero, but my mistake.

CS: We have decided that the coolest book title that we have ever heard and wished we had thought of is Mona Lisa Overdrive. We just want to thank you for that. Where did that come from?

WG: You’re very welcome. I don’t know where it came from. I literally drove around in a car with the windows open sort of singing to myself and somehow that emerged.

CS: Well, we appreciate it.

William Gibson, Author of Neuromancer, Burning Chrome, Mona Lisa Overdrive, IDORU
Latest release, All Tomorrow’s Parties (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY) .
Currently working on a screenplay for Neuromancer to be produced by Peter Hoffman, directed by Chris Cunningham (music video director for Madonna and Bjork).

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