William Gibson interviewed: Archangel, the Jackpot, and the instantly commodifiable dreamtime of industrial societies
William Gibson's 2014 novel The Peripheral was the first futuristic book he published in the 21st century, and it showed us a distant future in which some event, "The Jackpot," had killed nearly everyone on Earth, leaving behind a class of ruthless oligarchs and their bootlickers; in the 2018 sequel, Agency, we're promised a closer look at the events of The Jackpot. Between then and now is Archangel, a time-traveling, alt-history, dieselpunk story of power-mad leaders and nuclear armageddon that will be in stores on October 3.
It's been nearly 20 years since I first interviewed Gibson and in the intervening decades we've become both friends and colleagues. He was kind enough to submit to an email interview again, in advance of Archangel's publication.
Cory Doctorow: This feels like an intermediate step between today and Agency, which is, in turn, an intermediate step on the way to The Peripheral. I know that when you first wrote The Peripheral, you didn't really know what The Jackpot was... Is this you taking successive runs at either side of The Jackpot, trying to get up to the edge of it so you can get a better look
William Gibson: It feels like that to me now, but the whole thing’s been completely unintentional.
Mike and I (Michael St. John Smith, the actor, who’s also a screenwriter) started bouncing things around after I’d finished The Peripheral, which I assumed would be a one-off, but I found myself still in the grip of the “stub” alternative timeline thing, so Archangel wound up with a similar mechanism (rules of time travel invented, as far as I know, by Sterling and Shiner). Meanwhile, Agency was conceived as a book set in 2016 San Francisco/Silicon Valley, but treating contemporary reality there as if it were a near future (which of course it feels like to me, because I’m old). But I’m also slow, so Trump got elected before I’d finished, and suddenly I had about half of a manuscript that felt like it was set in a stub, a world that never happened. Extremely weird feeling! So I had this one extra thing to be pissed off with, about Trump! But then I wondered what would happen if I considered it as exactly that, a stub, but to do so I felt I needed to hook it up with the further future of The Peripheral, the London of the klept. Meanwhile, Archangel had been coming out from IDW, and when I went down to meet them at ComicCon, in 2016, the possibility of a Trump win naturally came up. So, through to November 8th, part me was looking at that, and the other part was No Fucking Way, and, well, you know.
For the record, in the graphic novel's script, pre-election, the Pilot winds up where he winds up in the comic, but it’s a nice WTF moment.
CD: You've written screenplays and novels but not, AFAIK, comics. You're on record as thinking that the comics previously adapted from your work were visually disappointing. You are one of the most visual writers I know, a font of extremely specific and striking visual details -- tell me what it was like to be able to collaborate with drawing-type people who could make visual things happen? How did it compare to screenwriting, how close did it come to your mind's eye, did this scratch some long-felt itch to conjure those visuals up and make them tangible?
WG: Well, previous attempts were well-intentioned, I don’t doubt, but comics have gotten a lot more sophisticated in the meantime.
Maybe because I'm a very visual writer, I don’t actually have any specific urge to see someone else render the things I’ve already seen, myself, in mind’s eye.
That said, the process with IDW was extremely gratifying. The talent and experience of a lot of professionals, all bent toward making this thing right. And budget not an issue, just a question of what could be drawn and fit in available space. You want an atomic explosion, you’ve got it!
CD: You once told me that Neuromancer was optimistic because it only featured a couple of limited nuclear exchanges instead of the holocaust we'd all be expecting. The futures you've written this decade all feature much more grave catastrophes, with much higher death-tolls. Is your optimism (such as it was) waning?
WG: I think I was relatively optimistic then, and remain so, but less so. I’ve never felt that my optimism, such as it was, was particularly logical. Often it felt deliberately quixotic to me.
But I’ve also observed a tendency, over my years as an sf reader, for sf writers of a certain age to give the After Us The Deluge speech, so I promised myself I’d try to be watchful of the onset of that, try to fend it off as best I could. I suspect that when people notice how much of the world they grew up has already ended, it’s quite natural to feel that the world is ending. Because the world one knew quite demonstrably is. But it always has been ending, that way. You can read the ancient Greeks, say, doing it at great length. When younger, though, this sounds like something one can simply choose to avoid, just as old people, to the young, appear to have made some sort of inexplicably terrible decision to become old.
There aren’t many catastrophes in my work, in our traditional cultural sense. There’s the California quake that forms the backstory of the Bridge trilogy, and the somewhat deliberately goofy Singularity that closes it. Otherwise, the catastrophic landscapes are simply human civilization, ongoing. The Peripheral introduced something new, for me, with the idea that our cultural model of catastrophe is still largely one of a uni-causal event of relatively short duration. We are ourselves of relatively short duration as individuals, and thus do we look at the world. Is our widespread use of fossil fuels a single extended catastrophe? Did it become one at some relatively late point? Is our species itself catastrophic (see Sterling’s “Swarm”)? Would it seem so to tigers, could they consider such things, and know that we’re on the brink of bringing about their extinction? I don’t see why it wouldn’t.
It seems to me in retrospect that Ballard’s work had a certain arc, in its employment of catastrophe. Early on, he’d unleash catastrophes of the sort our culture recognizes as such, though with wonderfully poetic results. As he continued, however, the catastrophe became humanity. Not a world made desert, or drowned, but a world made Cannes writ large, and terrible through being the very opposite of deserted.
CD: One place where this catastrophic business wraps around to touch your visual sense is in the cyberpunk aesthetic: for decades, you've been frontrunning the mainstreaming of bohemian subcultures. Archangel features gorgeous, eyeball-kicky sequences in an illegal nightclub in war-torn Berlin, with lots of well-dressed weirdos (there's also a Bowie-esque protagonist in the cast of characters). Today, it's hard to imagine a genuinely underground culture that isn't also something you can buy at the mall, with a few exceptions (e.g. extreme racist alt-right Pepe trolls who have to order their t-shirts off the internet or get them in a flea market). Can you imagine an uncommodifiable futuristic bohemian subculture that today's post-cyberpunks could deploy to make really edgy teens and young people? (Scott Westerfeld suggested that tomorrow's punks might opt for acne in a post-zit world)
WG: I accepted Sterling’s description of bohemias as “the Dreamtime of industrial societies” immediately, but I also took it (and still do) to imply that that might not be true for post-industrial societies. Bohemias were the product, if Sterling was right, of societies in which information was relatively unevenly distributed, specific information being what you needed in order to auto-other yourself into subculture. Roots of “hip”: to know, to be "with it”. A more universal, post-geographical availability of information seriously messes with that, because you don’t need to physically go to Montmartre or the Haight to get with it.
Mr. Baby’s club in Archangel is envisioned as a scaled-up version of what you get when Berlin’s Weimar bohemia becomes a platform for the postwar black market, so imagine it as primarily extra-legal, but staffed in part by pre-war counterculturists.
It’s interesting to consider the Pepe trolls as a subculture, because if they aren’t, why aren’t they? Yesterday a friend showed me a passage from Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon, Devil’s Bargain, describing René Guénon as an influence. So I checked out Guénon’s Wiki for the first time. Highly recommend it. Trippy, as we used to say! Guénon was, among other things, a convert to Islam (albeit a raging esotericist along with it, so not just any Islam) and otherwise deep into Egypt. So in the way of things internet I wound up diving his correspondence with Julius Evola, who kept him up to date on what Aleister Crowley was up to, and explained why this Jung character was even more dangerous than Freud. Both these guys, Guénon and Evola, were obviously total hipsters (in the original sense of the term). Subculturalists, unmistakably. With-it dudes. Whatever “it" was.
But then I never felt I truly understood many aspects of what I’d experienced in the countercultural ‘60s until I got a prof at UBC whose central interest was the mass psychology of fascism. Guénon and Evola and, hell, Bannon, come with big deja-vu, that way. Guénon also influenced Andre Breton (doesn’t surprise me). So the Pepe trolls, however distantly, have this weird lineage, which feels countercultural to me. (Is Bannon hip to the Dark Enlightenment?)
Subcultural “cool”, it seems to me, is inherently commodifiable. Subcultures may have pre-dated cool, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There was a countercultural boutique in Greenwich Village in the 1890s, called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the first I know of. Sold the outfit a girl needed to self-other into Village-ness (but she still needed cigarettes, too).
CD: Last question: When I first interviewed you, 20 years ago (!!), we talked about why Japan was a wellspring of cool futurity and China was (in the cyberpunk pantheon, at least), an also-ran. Now, Chinese authors are winning Hugo awards and China is projecting more heavy zaibatsu-style force into more territories (including orbit) than Japan ever dreamed of. In The Peripheral, China is a mysterious, closed technocracy that may or may not be the source of interdimensional semi-time-semi-travel. Now that you've written two more books that circle The Peripheral's future, are you homing in any more on what role China plays in this future you're playing in?
WG: In The Peripheral, I thought of China as a much more sophisticated and advanced species of klept. So that “the” klept, as Netherton thinks of it, comes out of the jackpot controlling everything still habitable that isn’t China. Which has become some sort of super-advanced sphere of its own, with little need of dealing with outsiders. Which gave me this other, unknowable realm, a sci-fi Faerie, where impossible magic can conveniently happen without my having to invent an explanation for it. But that’s not any literal prediction for China. That’s me using China as a plot device.
What I wanted from Japan, when I started writing sf, was that it was Japan. It was wonderful for me that it was Japan during the Bubble, because that slotted perfectly into my being sick of sf futures basically being America. But that was really just another excuse for me to write about Japan. The thing that makes me nuts about Japan, as near as I’ve ever been able to express it, is the way in which all of all their culture, their stuff, seems to be fractal. You can break it down into smaller and smaller bits, and each one is still Japanese. For whatever reason, I’ve never gotten that from China. For me, Japan’s gotten steadily more interesting as that Next Big World Player thing has receded. I don’t want to hang with whoever has the most money and spaceships. I want to hang with whoever has the best shadows, the most exquisitely weird and poetic history of being whacked with alien technology, becoming the first industrialized Asian nation, trying to take over their side of the world, getting nuked for their trouble, and inventing the Walkman. I think it’s probably something like you and Disneyland: I’m just so there.
Roguelike games (previously) are "a subgenre of role-playing video game characterized by a dungeon crawl through procedurally generated levels, turn-based gameplay, tile-based graphics, and permanent death of the player character" (Wikipedia).
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