Here's more of my conversation with William Gibson, author of the pioneering cyberpunk novel Neuromancer and, most recently, the present-day thriller Zero History, who'll be speaking at SCAD-Atlanta on Sep. 20:
By your own admission you knew nothing about computers when you wrote Neuromancer, and I read an interview with you from 1993 in which you expressed no interest in being on-line. Today, you’re very active on Twitter. Why did you start using the Internet?
It was the Web, really. In 1993, I was probably still saying that I’d only do e-mail when dogs and children could do it. Before the Web, there was nothing to do on the Internet but send e-mail and play games. And people forget how much of a learning curve it had — it was like becoming a ham radio operator to even do it. At the time, I thought it was really interesting, but I never wanted to do it myself.
The web turned it to an entertainment realm. It sort of became my first mass medium I’d had in a long time, other than popular music. I sort of lost broadcast television in the 1960s, and anything that was interesting on TV I absorbed through cultural osmosis. Ignoring broadcast TV gave me a whole other life, and time to do things like write books.
Do you think the Internet takes up the equivalent of “a whole other life,” like television would have?
I think it’s kind of the opposite. If I weren’t taking advantage of the Web at this point, I think I’d be doing less and having a less interesting time. If we had some sort of count of absolute informational content, there wasn’t that much information on broadcast television, because it had a top-down corporate model. Given the completely opposite nature of the Internet, there’s infinite points of information. The challenge is finding them. I think I’m almost certainly having a better and more rewarding time today than I otherwise would be. But I do enjoy my moments of non-connectivity. And I don’t have a smart phone, or a phone connected to the Internet.
My wife and I recently bought a phone with a keyboard, because texting is the best way to contact one of our daughter’s babysitters.
That’s kind of beautiful. It’s beyond generational. It’s not that the babysitter has different beliefs — it’s like she’s on a different platform. She is a different platform.
How do you research your current books, which feature cutting-edge technologies and trends?
Research, like the kind a journalist does, is very hard work. I don’t think it’s work I could actually do. I hestitate to evoke this name, but I think there’s been a bit of a Tom Clancy effect. After I wrote Neuromancer, knowing nothing about computers or the Internet, a lot people turned up who did. When I wrote Pattern Recognition, people turned up who know a lot about marketing and branding. People volunteer things a lot. It’s not like I have secret sources.
How many of the gizmos and things in the new books are real, versus ones based on technologies that haven’t been invented yet?
There’s a higher percentage of real-world gizmos, like a 90:10, real to made-up ratio. The Festo Air Penguins are completely real — you can see them on Youtube.
Do you recognize the influence of your Victorian computer novel The Difference Engine, co-written with Bruce Sterling, on today’s Steampunk movement?
In flagrant contradiction to my experience with cyberpunk and its influence, I was taken aback when Bruce Sterling and I started to receive relatively little credit for steampunk. We tried to do a “steampunk novel” early on and in a self-conscious way. The steampunk meme became what it is today as a descriptor like “cyberpunk,” but there never was that much in the way of a steampunk school of literature. It’s like you don’t have to have the literary movement to have the meme.
Is it true you attended Woodstock? What was it like?
It was extraordinary uncomfortable. I left early and thought, “That was like going to a Civil War battle.” I was up all night, got no sleep, was covered in mud, and getting back to D.C., where I lived at the time, was this epic, horrible experience. The other people I knew who went felt the same way: “God, that was horrible! We’re lucky to be alive!” The next morning I saw these headlines: “Woodstock, it was so beautiful!” “We’re so lucky to have been there!” I remember having this total disconnect moment. I’m sure there were people who went who had a pleasant time, but there were also people who bought the headline, because they really wanted to buy the headline.
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