William Gibson dazzled readers in the 1980s by envisioning worlds few could have imagined then; cyberspace, the Internet, virtual reality...
William Gibson dazzled readers in the 1980s by envisioning worlds few could have imagined then; cyberspace, the Internet, virtual reality. Now the pace of change has become so mindboggling, the Vancouver, B.C.-based author has decided to dwell in the ephemeral present — “We can’t spin futures, because the present has become too brief,” says the author of “Neuromancer” and “Pattern Recognition.”
Gibson’s new novel, “Spook Country,” (Putnam, 371 pp., $25.95) lives in the present, but what a strange and wonderful present it is. Virtual art created with the aid of Global Positioning Systems, rogue intelligence agents who “dead drop” intelligence via iPod, a mysterious shipping container whose trajectory is both tracked and obscured by cutting-edge technology. Three characters — a magazine journalist/rock star, a half-Cuban member of an underground crime family who looks “like an ethnic version of a younger Johnny Depp” and a drug-addicted Russian translator — are drawn into the chase. (Hubertus Bigend, a filthy-rich man-behind-the-curtain from “Pattern Recognition,” makes an encore appearance.)
Along the way, Gibson, 59, keeps the reader Googling, trying to match his uncanny grasp of historical and contemporary culture, from the gods of the Santeria religion to “piggybacking” on wireless networks. (A couple of Web sites named after Node, a fictitious “Spook Country” magazine, track these references — go to http://node.tumblr.com/ or www.nodemagazine.com.)
Gibson will appear Tuesday at Barnes & Noble in University Village, and the bookstore expects a crowd. A B&N spokesperson advised arriving two hours in advance to secure a seat.
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While you’re waiting, you can ponder his thoughts on the past, the present and the future, shared in a recent phone interview:
Q. In “Spook Country,” you write about “locative art” — that is, viewing historical happenings and contemporary artistic images in situ through virtual-reality devices. How much of this technology already exists?
A. The software that Bobby (the novel’s reclusive GPS genius) uses exists, but I have no idea if it conceivably could be made to do what he uses it for — the rest of it you can buy on eBay. I don’t know if anybody actually can do what Bobby does, but if you Google “Locative art,” you get millions of hits.
One of my more technically adroit colleagues pointed out that you can’t use GPS indoors (as Bobby does in “Spook Country”). We hadn’t quite gone to press. But then he said, if you need to use GPS indoors, you can just triangulate it off the nearest cellphone towers. I spent a busy afternoon updating Bobby’s skill set a bit. Whatever relationship I have with the technology … it is not in understanding how it works. I think what it is is seeing the forest for the trees. I don’t know how it works, but what I watch is how people react with it. Which is generally not what the manufacturer had in mind.
Q. This novel seems to be about turning virtual reality outward. Have you found other examples of that?
A. I was looking for something that was symbolic of that (turning virtual reality outward, into the real world). That’s how locative art came up.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, the time we spent in digital systems was a special time. We spent less time there and we noticed it more. Now that’s reversed. The increasingly rare time we spend is that which is not in the system. That’s how it turns itself inside out.
That’s why a term like “cyberspace” starts to go the way of all those things in the 19th century that started with the word “electro” — electro-water, electro-toothbrush. Electricity was a novelty. But as everything is increasingly transacted in what we used to call cyberspace, cyberspace ceases to exist. What becomes special is the world that’s not in it.
I was thinking the other day — I was in a cab, and a ridiculous old mechanical Russian wristwatch I happened to be wearing stopped. There was the irritation I felt — then I realized that my cellphone had the time. At that point, the watch became jewelry.
I realized that all watches are jewelry now. That characteristic gesture people make when they check their wristwatches — that will be gone soon. Today, [the dominant technological-human gesture] is people holding their cellphone to their heads, talking. It looks kind of like grief.
I remember that in London, 12 or 13 years ago, I was headed to a shop I was looking forward to visiting. There was a crazy man talking at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to pass this guy. I really wanted to go in that shop — then eventually I realized he was talking on a cell. He was the first guy I had ever seen wearing a headset.
[Cellphones] changed London in some profound way; I saw it happen. There was a town in which people, of necessity, spent a remarkable amount of time alone, on the subway, on the street. It was not a culture where people chatted to strangers very much, due to the necessity of going through this maze of brick and stone as efficiently as possible to do their business. It was solitary, but it’s over. Now everyone on the tube is talking on one of their various cellphones. No one needs to be alone there anymore.
Q. I read that the finished versions of your characters often bear little relationship to the ones you sketch out in your book proposals. Which of “Spook Country’s” characters were with you in the beginning?
A. All the characters pretty much made it through, but the ones I put down on paper for the publisher aren’t really the characters; they’re placeholders. I’m capable of changing them at the drop of a hat. Most of the characters I mentioned in the proposal managed to stay in the novel, but what they became when rounded out was unlike anything I could have imagined. The process of them becoming characters was sort of organic, below my radar — to some extent, outside my control.
Q. I found it a bit scary that Milgrim (the drug-addicted Russian translator) is such an appealing character. What were you thinking when you created him?
A. I think I had some early first draft version where there was no Milgrim, just two points of view [of Hollis, the journalist, and Tito, the young half-Cuban], cutting between two points of view. It wasn’t working. Without really paying much attention, I tried introducing another viewpoint. You don’t know much about him at all, but it’s quickly kind of jolting — there he was. It enabled me to make the other two threads more viable. He took over much more than I would have expected.
He’s periodically disinhibited to the point that he can express himself in ways he wouldn’t at other times [laughs]. The way he voices his discomfort with his captivity — you sense it’s not wise to do it, but it’s probably the only time he’s telling the truth.
The book Milgrim is reading [on revolutionary messianic figures in medieval Europe] … I already had the Milgrim character, and I went back to New York to visit a friend of mine. He has this vast book-filled apartment and is obsessive and enthusiastic. He said, here, you’ve got to read it right now. He gave me this old beat-up copy. By the time I got back to my hotel and read a chapter or two, Milgrim was reading it, too.
I found out later, after Bigend’s mother is revealed as having hung out with Situationists, that the book was a favorite of Guy Debord, the “evil genius” of the Situationists [a libertarian group that came out of the French student revolution in 1968] A lot of people at both ends of the [political] spectrum see his fingerprints on all kinds of radical activities. They were so radical they would disown and disavow everybody, so there would only be one guy left. They were so wacky and they were all drunk all the time.
I was really happy with things like that — the material starts communicating with me. I’m not being supernatural about it, but I know I’m really into the material then. Q. The narrative thread of Cuban exiles turning into their own crime family/intelligence agents for hire — is there any real basis for that?
A. No, but before I’d started the book, I got an invitation to go to a seminar somewhere in California about “illegal facilitators” [what Tito is called by rogue agents who are chasing him]. I’m a member of something called the Global Business Network, which is a scenario-spinning organization that has corporate and sometimes government clients. [This organization studies] illegal facilitators — crime families that specialize in smuggling across a particular border. They don’t care what they’re smuggling — if they’ve got enough money, they’ll smuggle whatever it is. This is a big worry for nation-states.
Q. What books have you read lately that you can recommend?
“The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson, about a London cholera epidemic. I’ve also been reading a book I’ve been hearing about all my life, “Our Southern Highlanders” by Horace Kephart. [Gibson grew up in the hill country of southwestern Virginia.] I think he was a high-school teacher in Chicago who went down to Tennessee, and managed to make a living writing about people up in the mountains. It always turns up in every survey of Southern historical sources.
Also, “The Orchard Keeper” by Cormac McCarthy. It’s set in Tennessee, just over the Virginia state line. It was set in the 1940s, during and after the Second World War, and it’s a brilliant window into this world that had gone by the time I was there. But its presence was still there. That was one of the things that made it a special place to grow up in — an intense specificity. It was a county psychology, though not necessarily a good one. Q. Do you think the pace of change we are experiencing will persist through our kids’ lives? If so, do you care to make any predictions of what their lives will be like?
A. In one of my previous novels, one of the characters argues that we can’t do futures anymore. He makes the case that in the old days, the present was bigger and slower moving. In the old days we could stand on it, like H.G. Wells, and imagine an arc of imaginary history.
One thing I’ve always found very comforting is that during most of my mother’s life, there were quite a few people around in that part of Virginia who had lived their lives without hearing recorded music. Before people heard recorded music, music sounded different. As soon as they heard recorded music, something changed. But we don’t know what it is; we don’t even know the difference. Some people would say it’s not a valid distinction at all. Wherever it is that our children are going, things that are major concerns for us are probably not going to be that important for them. I think I can remember the day my father brought our first television set home, but I’m not positive. It was a wooden or octagonal box with a tiny little screen. That means I can remember the world before television. The world before television was unutterably different, but they’ll never know how.
Science-fiction writers, if they have anything going, have to have been continually humbled throughout their careers by that fact. Nothing gets quainter faster than that history you just made up.
The pleasure in reading older science fiction is that patina of quaintness.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org