http://www.wired.com/underwire...with-william-gibson/William Gibson on Why Sci-Fi Writers Are (Thankfully) Almost Always Wrong
By Geeta Dayal
September 13, 2012 | 6:30 am | Categories: Books and Comics, sci-fi
William Gibson, one of science fiction’s most visionary and distinctive voices, maintains that he and his fellow writers don’t possess some mystical ability to peer into the future.
“We’re almost always wrong,” said Gibson in a phone interview with Wired. Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” and expanded on the concept in his 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer.
In that book, which quickly became a classic, inspiring pop culture and science fiction for decades to come, Gibson predicted that the “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace would be “experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” in a global network of “unthinkable complexity.”
Yet Gibson says he simply got lucky with his prescient depiction of a digital world. “The thing that Neuromancer predicts as being actually like the internet isn’t actually like the internet at all!” said the writer, who has since penned numerous critically acclaimed novels, including Count Zero (1986), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), The Difference Engine (co-authored with Bruce Sterling, 1990), Pattern Recognition (2003) and Zero History (2010).
Gibson’s most recent book, a collection of nonfiction called Distrust That Particular Flavor, was published this year; he is currently working on a new novel, tentatively titled The Peripheral.
In this Wired interview, which will be published over the next three days, Gibson discusses a dizzying range of subjects, including antique watches, comic books, punk rock, fortune tellers, internet memes and the long-running plans for a Neuromancer movie.
Wired: Do you think the category “science fiction” is useful anymore? Your last few books, like the Blue Ant trilogy, qualify as science fiction, but they’re set in a feasible approximation of present-day reality.
Each of them is set in the year before the year in which it was published. I think of them as speculative novels, of the very recent past, rather than speculative novels of the future. They have the bones and viscera of genre SF, but they aren’t quite that. That was the result of a very deliberate program of mine. Well, I don’t think it was that deliberate when it began, but it defined itself for me over those three books.
By the end of All Tomorrow’s Parties, which was my sixth novel, I was starting to be haunted by a feeling that the world itself was so weird and so rich in cognitive dissonance, for me, that I had lost the capacity to measure just how weird it was. Without a sense of how weird the present is — how potentially weird the present is — it became impossible for me to judge how much weirder I should try to make an imagined future. And so those last three books were — whatever else they were — were me building myself a new yardstick for the weirdness of the decade we’ve gone through while I was writing those books. And to judge by the book I’m writing now, for my purposes, I was successful because I now find myself able to extrapolate from this weirdness into another level of imaginary weirdness entirely….
I think the least important thing about science fiction for me is its predictive capacity. Its record for being accurately predictive is really, really poor! If you look at the whole history of science fiction, what people have said is going to happen, what writers have said is going to happen, and what actually happened — it’s terrible. We’re almost always wrong. Our reputation for being right relies on some human capacity to marvel at the times when, yay, you got it right! Arthur Clarke predicted communications satellites and things like that. Those are marvelous — it’s great when someone gets it right, but almost always it’s wrong.
If you’ve read a lot of vintage science fiction, as I have, at one time or another in my life, you can’t help but realize how wrong we get it. I have gotten it wrong more times than I’ve gotten it right. But I knew that when I started; I knew that before I wrote a word of science fiction. I knew that about science fiction. It just goes with the territory. In a sense, if you’re not getting it wrong really a lot when you’re creating imaginary futures, then you’re just not doing it enough. You’re not creating enough imaginary futures. Because if you create enough of them, you’d better get it wrong — a lot.Wired: And yet people always talk about how prophetic Neuromancer was and how your books are so accurate in so many ways, in their predictive capacity.
No, they do, but that’s part of this cultural thing we do as a culture, that we do with prediction. Science fiction writers aren’t fortune tellers. Fortune tellers are fakes. Fortune tellers are either deluded or charlatans. You can find science fiction writers who are deluded or science fiction writers who are charlatans — I can think of several of each in the history of the field. Every once in a while, somebody extends their imagination down the line, far enough with a sufficient lack of prejudice, to imagine something that then actually happens. When it happens, it’s great, but it’s not magic. All the language we have for describing what science fiction writers and futurists of other stripes do is nakedly a language of magic.
I’m having a week where some well-intentioned person on the internet describes me as “oracular.” As soon as one of the words with a magic connotation is attached — I know this from ongoing experience — as soon as someone says “oracular,” it’s like, boom! It’s all over the place; it’s endlessly repeated. It’s probably not bad for business. But then I wind up spending a lot of time disabusing people of the idea that I have some sort of magic insight…. You can also find, if you wanted to Google through all the William Gibson pieces on the net, you can find tons of pieces, where people go on and on about how often I’ve gotten it wrong. Where are the cellphones? And neural nets? Why is the bandwidth of everything microscopic in Neuromancer? I could write technological critique of Neuromancer myself that I think could probably convince people that I haven’t gotten it right.
Because the thing that Neuromancer predicts as being actually like the internet isn’t actually like the internet at all! It’s something; I didn’t get it right but I said there was going to be something. I somehow managed to convey a feeling of something. Curiously, that put me out ahead of the field in that regard. It wasn’t that other people were getting it wrong; it was just that relatively few people in the early 1980s, relatively few people who were writing science fiction were paying attention to that stuff. That wasn’t what they were writing about.
I was very lucky — ridiculously lucky in the timing of my interests with a science fiction novel about the digital. Ridiculously lucky. When I was writing it, or actually even before, like a couple of years before, when I was writing the two short stories that Neuromancer sort of emerged from, that the world of Neuromancer emerged from — when I was writing them, they took like a week or two to write, each one. When I was writing each one, it was, “Oh please please let me get this thing published before the 20,000 other people writing exactly the same story right now get theirs published.” Because I just thought it was so obvious. I thought, “This is it. This is what science fiction writers call steam engine time for this kind of story.”
You know steam engine time? Humans have built little toys, steam engines, for thousands of years. The Greeks had them. Lots of different cultures. The Chinese had them. Lots of different cultures used steam to make little metal things spin around. Nobody ever did anything with it. All of a sudden someone in Europe did one out in a garden shed and the industrial revolution happened. That was steam engine time. When I was writing those first stories, I didn’t even know to call the thing the digital. But it was steam engine time. It was happening. Some guy in England was selling a computer the size of a dictionary. I didn’t know — and it wouldn’t have mattered to me — that the dictionary-sized computer that guy was selling was as powerful as a Casio wristwatch was going to be in a few years, but that was all I needed to know was that you could order these things in magazines and they were small. So I thought, OK, they’re going to be cheap and ubiquitous, increasingly so. What are people going to do with them? It just seemed to fall together so naturally. I was kind of amazed for years after that, that there hadn’t been this huge wave of science fiction writers rushing up behind me, and squashing me flat as I got out the gate with my little cyberspace thing. But actually they did; it took a while. It was very strange. It was good for me, that.Wired: On Twitter recently, you talked about plans for a new novel. What can you tell us about your new novel in progress, The Peripheral?
Even on Twitter I said too much; Twitter is the only medium that’s ever tempted me to violate my deep, instinctive fear of discussing work in progress. I can’t really get into it any more than I did there. Although, I’m on the record on Twitter as having said that parts of it, at least, are not only set in an imaginary future, but at least two imaginary futures. Any readers who are longing for Gibsonian imaginary future stuff, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be something there for them.Wired: Have you read any good comics recently? You once said that Neuromancer was partly inspired by French comics you read.
It was inspired by me flipping through the English-language edition of Heavy Metal at the corner store, and usually not buying it. But it was the look of it. I had kind of, some people would say a really impoverished life with comics as a form. I was really into them when I was a kid, as all kids were then. And I was really into them in my early teens, but that was interrupted by various changes in my life in my early teens, and because of that, I completely missed the Marvel revolution. I just never had that as part of my life. So I didn’t come back to college until the R. Crumb era of Zap, and underground comics, and I eagerly absorbed a bunch of those. After that, it’s never really been part of my media diet, in the way that I’m sure they would be now, if I had been born 10 or 20 years later.
It’s unusual for me to read comics or graphic novels. When I do I enjoy them, but when I do it’s often because the person who did it is someone I met, or a friend of a friend, and that hasn’t happened lately. I kind of lived for a long time surrounded with them — my daughter got really, really into the indie comics scene and still is to some extent, but I’ve always suspected that one of the reasons she did it is because it was something I didn’t know anything about. I can see that, that would be good. Because otherwise, she likes prose fiction, but if she tells me about prose fiction, I’m all, well, “You should read this.” You need something to be your own exclusive area of expertise. Of defining self, I think.Wired:What do you think about the trend of sci-fi classics being repackaged into mainstream Hollywood movies? Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein is getting a new action treatment, for instance. David Cronenberg’s cult film Videodrome is getting an action-y remake.
Really! Videodrome is getting an action-y remake?Wired: Yes, and it’s not getting remade by Cronenberg.
Well … [laughs] I pay less attention to big Hollywood movies right now than I once did, it’d be fair to say. I suspect that the reason I do that is that the business of making those big movies has become increasingly conservative and risk-averse. And that conservatism and risk-averseness is why you’re seeing remakes of films that were successful in their first release, or subsequently, as with Videodrome, acquired a cult following. Those strike me, the accountants really, as being reasonably safe bets. That said, over the past three years or so, there have been more non-big-budget, non-remake SF movies that I’ve totally enjoyed and they have been in ages, really. I hope we are in a very rich period of non-big-budget, very original, interesting, entertaining SF cinema. Wired: What were some of these movies that you enjoyed?
Inception, although that was a big-budgeted film, Moon, Source Code. Hanna, if you want to call it a science fiction movie, which I probably would — it’s close enough. I couldn’t even get my full list into one tweet, not because it’s too long but just because I have trouble holding it in memory. Splice was one. Anyway, those are a few.Wired: You’ve had some interesting thoughts about social media. You once said, “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.” Can you expand on that?
My friend Doug Coupland recently tweeted something to the effect that he was once again trying to get into Facebook but he said, “It’s like Twitter but with mandatory homework.” That might be another good way to describe it. With Twitter you’re just there; everybody else is just there. And its appeal to me is the lack of structure and the lack of — there’s this kind of democratization that I think is absent with more structured forms of social media. But that’s actually way more abstract and theoretical than I usually get with these things.Wired: You had an addiction to bidding on antique mechanical watches on eBay — an addiction you chronicled memorably in your 1999 Wired essay “My Obsession,” which was included in your recent non-fiction collection, Distrust That Particular Flavor. What’s your addiction now? Is it Twitter?
The watch thing, fortunately, was kind of a self-limiting experiment…. I felt when I started doing that, that I’d never really been able to have a hobby in an adult sense, a hobby that was completely divorced from anything else I do in life, and a hobby that required an impossibly steep, insane learning curve. I actually did that. I just learned stuff about old watches for maybe four or five years…. I got to the point where I could pass for semi-informed in the company of really world-class authorities, but by the time I got there, I realized that it had nothing to do with accumulating examples of one particular kind of thing — which I always found kind of creepy about collecting.
Anyway, I never wanted to be a collector of anything; I just wanted to pointlessly know really a lot about one thing. I did it with that, but there was sort of an end to the curve. I guess the end to the curve was realizing that what it had been about was the sheer pointless pleasure of learning this vast, useless body of knowledge. And then I was done [laughs]. I haven’t had to do that for ages. And I’ve never gotten another one of those; that may have been my one experience with that. But it was totally fun — I met some extraordinarily strange people over the course of doing that.
None of that would have been possible, but for the internet. In the old days, if you wanted to become insanely knowledgeable about something like that, you basically had to be insane — you had to travel around the world, finding other people who were sufficiently crazy to know everything there was to know about that. That would have been so hard to do, dependent on sheer luck, that it kept the numbers of those people down.
But now you can be a kid in a town in the backwoods of Brazil, and you can wake up one morning and say, “I want to know everything about stainless steel sports watches from the 1950s,” and if you really applied yourself, to the internet, at the end of the year you would have the equivalent of a master’s degree in this tiny pointless field. I’ve totally met lots of people who have the equivalent of that degree.
Probably Twitter would be the thing, the thing that took over the time slot from that. For the most part.Wired: What’s the current state of plans for the Neuromancer movie, which has been threatening to come out for years now?
If it was in one of its completely moribund phases I’d be willing to talk about it, but because it’s apparently not, I wouldn’t want to say anything about it. If I talk about that, I would be talking about someone else’s work-in-progress. But there does seem to be some progress. If anything were happening that was totally exciting for me, you’d see me tweeting about it. Anything you hear elsewhere, you should check and see if I’m tweeting about it. That will be the tell.Wired: In the 2000 documentary No Maps for These Territories, you made a lot of confident predictions about future tech — and a lot of those predictions have held water since that documentary came out. You said you don’t believe in the predictive power of science fiction, but you seem to have a good handle on where things could go.
Probably, I mean, I only sat through it once. I watched the theatrical release to make sure I hadn’t disgraced myself, or been misrepresented, but I suspect that if you could see the offcuts of that, you’d realize that as they worked on it for a few years, they probably chose stuff where I sounded like I’d gotten it right.
There’s really a lot of that in the futurology game, and everybody who markets any kind of futurological product — be it some kind of corporate advising or a given science fiction writer, has a real vested interest in making their product seem prescient. If I were a total cynical bullshitter, I’d go around trying to make everybody think that I knew what the future was going to be too. But I’ve never really seen the predictive part as being what I really do.
Unfortunately, the predictive part is traditionally a large part of how we market science fiction and the people who write it. “Listen to her, she knows the future.” It’s a really ancient kind of carny pitch, but it’s not what I think science fiction really does. I think science fiction gives us a wonderful toolkit to disassemble and reexamine this kind of incomprehensible, constantly changing present that we live in, that we often live in quite uncomfortably. That’s my idea of our product, but it’s not necessarily a smart publicist’s idea of my product.Wired: Do you think it also something to do with the proliferation of ideas conferences like TED, where you could almost feel goaded into being a dramatic, futurological figure?
I think that the TED phenomenon is the kind of hypertrophied expanse of the sort of cultural impulses that we’ve talked about in part today. It’s really the same thing…. “Yay! He’s going to tell us….” I’m usually not really interested in that sort of thing. I’m also not very often invited; it’s probably all for the best.Wired: You have an essay in a new book called Punk: An Aesthetic about your experiences with punk in the 1970s. I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on music, and on punk rock.
I’m an old punk rocker, a seriously old punk rocker [laughs]. But there are a lot of people my age that are standing in the darkness at the edge of the room…. I bought a lot of [records]. I still have a box of probably really valuable singles down in my basement, that I went through some trouble to obtain, because they weren’t readily available. Of course that was part of the fun — that initially they weren’t readily available.Wired: Do you think that listening to music is less fun now that you can find music so easily?
Well, nostalgia is kind of the warning, always — the warning sign for so many of our species. Whenever I find myself thinking what “X” used to be — “X” used to be more fun, “Y” used to be better in the days of my youth — I check my pulse for conservatism [laughs]. I mean, really. What else should one do? The whole of lit and human history is filled with anguished voices crying out: “What’s wrong with these kids?… They no longer know how to do it old-school.” I’ve heard that every decade of my life since I was old enough to hear it, and I’m desperately holding off doing it myself. Because once I do, I think, in some sense, I’ll be done for. At least in terms of predicting the future. I hate to see things I loved go away. But if that means I’m inherently opposed to change, then I’m in trouble. That’s how I look at it.
What we’ve got now is different in some ways than what we had before. But it’s … at least in some ways similar to what we’ve had before, as it is different. We’re just getting things on different platforms. And I think there are fundamental changes that have happened in the last 30 or 40 years that we quite naturally can’t get a handle on yet. Because they happened to us. We’re in it; we don’t have the distance. History will know.
One thing that I like to remind myself — to try to get some balance in the middle of all this — is to compare what the Victorians thought they were to the way we see them. Because the way we see them is nothing like the way they thought they were…. They’d probably drop dead from shock, because they thought they were the crown of creation. We sure don’t think they were the crown of creation; we think they were tragically flawed, incomplete beings, who were totally full of themselves. And I think that’s what the future will think of us, exactly, but in a different way. But we don’t see it any more than the Victorians could see it, because we are it.
That’s OK, but I just think I find it healthy to keep that in mind, and of course I like to apply it to myself as well…. It’s not like I’m saying everybody else is doing that and I’m not.Wired: Is there new music you’re listening to now? Do you listen — perhaps with fondness, not nostalgia — to the music of your past?
One of the things that digital has done for me personally is that it’s made music of my ongoing now completely atemporal. I no longer have any idea or any anxiety about not having any idea about what’s happening now, because that no longer seems very important. Now, last week, 30 years ago? What’s the difference? What does it matter? It’s all there on YouTube. And so I find myself discovering things like a decade late, or I discover things before very many people have found them. It’s atemporal. It’s just all over the long calendar, and that’s going to make things different. But that’s been going on for a long time.
There’s a thing that parents have known ever since the advent of The Beatles, as the vast cultural trope that they are. Parents have been watching their children discovering the Beatles. Kids are still discovering the Beatles; it takes about two weeks for them to ingest the whole thing. It’s often quite a big deal for them over those two weeks. And then they have the Beatles. The bizarre thing about that is the way in which the Beatles live outside of time — the trope of the Beatles and their recorded music. It’s not like a ’60s thing. But really it’s … eternal. Really very weird. Every once in a while, I get one of those in my car and I mess up the tuning on the radio and I get a classic rock station. I get this really weird science fictional feel: Could I be listening to this exact same playlist in 2046? Could somebody be listening to this in 2046? Maybe. What would it mean? Will that stuff ever go away? That’s the one way in which I think we’re in some seriously new territory. Possibly.Wired: Someone once described Led Zeppelin to me as sonic wallpaper — that it was inescapable, ubiquitous, almost like furniture, part of the environment.
I know that feeling; I certainly know that feeling. Not thinking of Led Zeppelin particularly, but how much of our lives have been spent in total listening to “Stairway to Heaven”? Like hours! You may have listened to like 30 or 40 hours of “Stairway to Heaven” in your life. I hope you were doing something else really enjoyable while you were doing it, because otherwise you’re never going to get it back. That’s a strange thing that’s happened to us that didn’t happen to previous members of our species, not until relatively recently.Wired: The way you talk about music being atemporal reminds me of how you’ve talked about cities. You once said, “In cities, the past, present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, it’s just life; it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. In American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand new — every square inch of it.”
I think my relationship with cities was formed by initially not growing up in one. I grew up in a very small town that wasn’t near any big city. And the few really big cities I glimpsed as a child were just total other places. And I was interested in that. And the television seemed to emanate from big cities, and media emanated from big cities, and media was more of the day than the place in which I lived, and so as it happened, as soon as I was able to get myself out of my small place, and into a city, I was happy. They were better for me; big cities were better places for me to be. I’ve lived happily in them ever since.
I used to think that I was the odd man out for liking big cities, but the way it seems to have gone is that most of humanity is the same way, and every year more of us migrate into huge human settlements. There’s a pressure to do that that has a lot to do with random opportunity. Your chances of getting lucky at anything are proportionally a lot higher in a big city. Unless you really want to be a farmer or something.Wired: In your essay in the new book Punk: An Aesthetic, you write that punk was the last pre-digital counterculture. That’s a really interesting thought. Can you expand on that?
It was pre-digital in the sense that in 1977, there were no punk websites [laughs]. There was no web to put them on. It was 1977, pre-digital. None of that stuff was there. So you got your punk music on vinyl, or on cassettes. There were no mp3s. There was no way for this thing to propagate. The kind of verbal element of that counterculture spread on mostly photo-offset fanzines that people pasted up at home and picked up at a print shop. And then they mailed it to people or sold it in those little record shops that sold the vinyl records or the tapes. It was pre-digital; it had no internet to spread on, and consequently it spread quickly but relatively more slowly.
I suspect — and I don’t think this is nostalgia — but it may have been able to become kind of a richer sauce, initially. It wasn’t able to instantly go from London to Toronto at the speed of light. Somebody had to carry it back to Toronto or wherever, in their backpack and show it, physically show it to another human. Which is what happened. And compared to the way that news of something new spreads today, it was totally stone age. Totally stone age! There’s something remarkable about it that’s probably not going to be that evident to people looking at it in the future. That the 1977 experience was qualitatively different, in a way, than the 2007 experience, say.Wired: What if punk emerged today, instead of in 1977? How do you think it would be different?
You’d pull it up on YouTube, as soon as it was played. It would go up on YouTube among the kazillion other things that went up on YouTube that day. And then how would you find it? How would it become a thing, as we used to say? I think that’s one of the ways in which things are really different today. How can you distinguish your communal new thing — how can that happen? Bohemia used to be self-imposed backwaters of a sort. They were other countries within the landscape of Western industrial civilization. They were countries that most people would never see — mysterious places. You’d pay a price, potentially, for going there. That’s always cool and exciting. Now, where are they? Where can you do that? How are people transacting that today? I am pretty sure that they are, but I don’t have that much firsthand experience of it. But they have to do it in a different way.
My initial experience of punk was I went to Toronto, and I happened to go to a couple of nights of what historically turned out to be their first punk concert series. They had some bands from as far away as Los Angeles playing this kind of music I’d never heard before. So I absorbed that, and went home to Vancouver sort of thinking, “I wonder what that was about.”
Then a friend of mine who had been in art school in London returned with a knapsack full of British punk zines and everything that the Sex Pistols had released up to that point. And he pulled these records out of his knapsack. I had never heard of the Sex Pistols, and neither had anyone else in Vancouver. By the end of the evening we were all talking about them [laughs]. That’s just a very different kind of spread, than getting up in the morning and seeing the first page of Boing Boing.Wired: Perhaps punk, if introduced now, would be a meme that goes viral, and the Sex Pistols would have millions of hits on YouTube.
You know that “Gangnam Style” video from Korea? That’s kind of in the ballpark, you know? That’s something from a subculture we would have no way of knowing anything about, and suddenly it’s on YouTube and it’s got millions and millions of hits, and people all over the world are saying, “Wow, will you check this out?” That’s something. That’s something like that. But it doesn’t necessarily play out in the same way…. Our expectations and what it could become are different. But you know, I want to see his next video [laughs]. I will be totally on it. I’m sure I will be, because people will tell me about it on Twitter.Wired: You’ve had some interesting thoughts about the dawn of recorded sound, and how weird it must have been to suddenly have recorded sound. And in the early days, how it was almost grotesque to hear sound emanating from a disembodied source.
People at the time learning about it….were extremely upset, judging by the records they left of it. I think what I said there, and I know I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere, is that it’s harder to imagine a world without recorded music than it is to imagine some things in that strange, fabulous imaginary technological future.
The recorded music industry was a huge deal for those of us who lived through it, and we took it absolutely for granted, and now it’s really gone; it’s not what it used to be. You can’t really get super rich just doing that; you have to be able to sell merch or something to go along with it, or have concert tours.
One thing I realized when I was having my vintage wristwatch hobby was that the mechanical wristwatch lasted from about 1914 to about 1970. We still make them and stuff, but they’re actually kind of pointless, because a two-dollar quartz watch is more accurate than all but the very finest mechanical watches, which cost as much as small cars now. So that was something that all humanity took absolutely for granted, that this technological thing that was absolutely ubiquitous, and kept the world on time, and was absolutely necessary. It’s gone because it was supplanted by something cheaper and more efficient.
And recorded music — in the sense of what it was when The Beatles arrived — was probably really gone with the advent of cassette tape. Because that was all of what it took to break
the monopoly of production, of manufacture. There was never any real way to copy a vinyl record except to make another record, or make a copy on a reel-to-reel machine. It just wasn’t something you could carry around. But as soon as that cassette tape was there, the monopoly was gone and the things started falling apart…I’ve yet to come to a very clear opinion myself on how that’s going to play out with printed books, but definitely, something is happening.