Illo: Rob Beschizza. Photo: Frederic Poirot
Author William Gibson discusses Victorians, John Shirley and the early days of his career. A longer version of this interview appeared in the 197th issue of Paris Review
Do you think fiction should be predictive?
No, I don’t. Or not particularly. The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby, it seems to me. Used bookstores are full of visionary texts we’ve never heard of, usually for perfectly good reasons.
You’ve written that science fiction is never about the future, that it is always instead a treatment of the present.
There are dedicated futurists who feel very seriously that they are extrapolating a future history. My position is that you can’t do that without having the present to stand on. Nobody can know the real future. And novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism. I know that from the moment I add the final period, the text is moving steadily forward into the real future.
There was an effort in the seventies to lose the usage science fiction and champion speculative fiction. Of course, all fiction is speculative, and all history, too—endlessly subject to revision. Particularly given all of the emerging technology today, in a hundred years the long span of human history will look fabulously different from the version we have now. If things go on the way they’re going, and technology keeps emerging, we’ll eventually have a near-total sorting of humanity’s attic.
In my lifetime I’ve been able to watch completely different narratives of history emerge. The history now of what World War II was about and how it actually took place is radically different from the history I was taught in elementary school. If you read the Victorians writing about themselves, they’re describing something that never existed. The Victorians didn’t think of themselves as sexually repressed, and they didn’t think of themselves as racist. They didn’t think of themselves as colonialists. They thought of themselves as the crown of creation.
Of course, we might be Victorians, too.
The Victorians invented science fiction.
I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing technoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.
But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”
Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steam-punk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.
You wrote your first story for a class, didn’t you?
A woman named Susan Wood had come to UBC as an assistant professor. We were the same age, and I met her while reconnoitering the local science-fiction culture. In my final year she was teaching a science-fiction course. I had become really lazy and thought, I won’t have to read anything if I take her course. No matter what she assigns, I’ve read all the stuff. I’ll just turn up and bullshit brilliantly, and she’ll give me a mark just for doing that. But when I said, “Well, you know, we know one another. Do I really have to write you a paper for this class?” She said, “No, but I think you should write a short story and give me that instead.” I think she probably saw through whatever cover I had erected over my secret plan to become a science-fiction writer.
I went ahead and did it, but it was incredibly painful. It was the hardest thing I did in my senior year, writing this little short story. She said, “That’s good. You should sell it now.” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Yeah, you should sell it.” I went and found the most obscure magazine that paid the least amount of money. It was called Unearth. I submitted it to them, and they bought it and gave me twenty-seven dollars. I felt an enormous sense of relief. At least nobody will ever see it, I thought. That was “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.”
How did you meet John Shirley?
Shirley was the only one of us who was seriously punk. I’d gone to a science-fiction convention in Vancouver, and there I encountered this eccentrically dressed young man my age who seemed to be wearing prison pajamas. He was an extremely outgoing person, and he introduced himself to me: “I’m a singer in a punk band, but my day job is writing science fiction.” I said, “You know, I write a little science fiction myself.” And he said, “Published anything?” And I said, “Oh, not really. This one story in this utterly obscure magazine.” He said, “Well, send me some of your stuff, I’ll give you a critique.”
As soon as he got home he sent me a draft of a short story he had written perhaps an hour beforehand: “This is my new genius short story.” I read it—it was about someone who discovers there are things that live in bars, things that look like drunks and prostitutes but are actually something else—and I saw, as I thought at the time, its flaws. I sat down to write him a critique, but it would have been so much work to critique it that instead I took his story and rewrote it. It was really quick and painless. I sent it back to him, saying, “I hope this won’t piss you off, but it was actually much easier for me to rewrite this than to do a critique.” The next thing I get back is a note—“I sold it!” He had sold it to this hardcover horror anthology. I was like, Oh, shit. Now my name is on this weird story.
People kept doing that to me, and it’s really good that they did. I’d give various friends stuff to read, and they’d say, “What are you going to do with this?” And I’d say, “Nothing, it’s not nearly there yet.” Then they’d Xerox it and submit it on my behalf, to places I would have been terrified to submit to. It seemed unseemly to me to force this unfinished stuff on the world at large.
Do you still consider that work unfinished?
I had a very limited tool kit when I began writing. I didn’t know how to handle transitions, so I used abrupt breaks, the literary equivalent of jump cuts. I didn’t have any sense of how to pace anything. But I had read and ad- mired Ballard and Burroughs, and I thought of them as very powerful effect pedals. You get to a certain place in the story and you just step on the Ballard.
What was the effect?
A more genuine kind of future shock. I wanted the reader to feel constantly somewhat disoriented and in a foreign place, because I assumed that to be the highest pleasure in reading stories set in imaginary futures. But I’d also read novels where the future-weirdness quotient overwhelmed me and simply became boring, so I tried to make sure my early fiction worked as relatively solid genre pieces. Which I still believe is harder to do. When I started Neuromancer, for instance, I wanted to have an absolutely familiar, utterly well-worn armature of pulp plot running throughout the whole thing. It’s the caper plot that carries the reader through.
What do you think of Neuromancer today?
When I look at Neuromancer I see a Soap Box Derby car. I felt, writing it, like I had two-by-fours and an old bicycle wheel and I’m supposed to build something that will catch a Ferrari. This is not going to fly, I thought. But I tried to do it anyway, and I produced this garage artifact, which, amazingly, is still running to this day.
Even so, I got to the end of it, and I didn’t care what it meant, I didn’t even know if it made any sense as a narrative. I didn’t have this huge feeling of, Wow, I just wrote a novel! I didn’t think it might win an award. I just thought, Phew! Now I can figure out how to write an actual novel.
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Published 5:47 am Fri, Oct 14, 2011
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