Now that the present has caught up with William Gibson's vision of the future, which made him the most influential science fiction writer of the past quarter century, he has started writing about a time--our time--in which everyday life feels like science fiction. With his previous novel, Pattern Recognition, the challenge of writing about the present-day world drove him to create perhaps his best novel yet, and in Spook Country he remains at the top of his game. It's a stripped-down thriller that reads like the best DeLillo (or the best Gibson), with the lives of a half-dozen evocative characters connected by a tightly converging plot and by the general senses of unease and wonder in our networked, post-9/11 time.
Across the Border to Spook Country
For the last few decades, William Gibson, who grew up in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States, has lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, just across the border from Amazon.com's Seattle headquarters, which made for a short drive for a lunchtime interview before the release of Spook Country. We met just a few miles from where the storylines of the new novel, in a rare scene set in Gibson's own city, converge. You can read the full transcript of the interview, in which we discussed, among other things, writing in the age of Google, visiting the Second Life virtual world, the possibilities of science fiction in an age of rapid change, and his original proposal for Spook Country, which we have available for viewing on our site. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Amazon.com: Could you start by telling us a little bit about the scenario of the new book?
William Gibson: It's a book in which shadowy and mysterious characters are using New York's smallest crime family, a sort of boutique operation of smugglers and so-called illegal facilitators, to get something into North America. And you have to hang around to the end of the book to find out what they're doing. So I guess it's a caper novel in that regard.
Amazon.com: The line on your last book, Pattern Recognition was that the present had caught up with William Gibson's future. So many of the things you imagined have come true that in a way it seems like we're all living in science fiction now. Is that the way you felt when you came to write that book, that the real world had caught up with your ideas?
Gibson: Well, I thought that writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up. And I found that to absolutely be the case. If I'm going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I'm going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. 'Cause I'm going to have to go beyond that. And I think over the course of these last two books--I don't think I'm done yet--I've been getting a yardstick together. But I don't know if I'll be able to do it again. I don't know if I'll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the '80s and '90s--as strange as it may seem to say this--we had such luxury of stability. Things weren't changing quite so quickly in the '80s and '90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don't have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.
Amazon.com: Now that you're writing about the present, do you consider yourself a science fiction writer these days? Because the marketplace still does.
Gibson: I never really believed in the separation. But science fiction is definitely where I'm from. Science fiction is my native literary culture. It's what I started reading, and I think the thing that actually makes me a bit different than some of the science fiction writers I've met who are my own age is that I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and William Burroughs in the same week. And I started reading Beat poets a year later, and got that in the mix. That really changed the direction. But it seems like such an old-fashioned way of looking at things. And it's better not to be pinned down. It's a matter of where you're allowed to park. If you can park in the science fiction bookstore, that's good. If you can park in the other bookstore, that's really good. If people come and buy it at Amazon, that's really good.
I'm sure I must have readers from 20 years ago who are just despairing of the absence of cyberstuff, or girls with bionic fingernails. But that just the way it is. All of that stuff reads so differently now. I think nothing dates more quickly than science fiction. Nothing dates more quickly than an imaginary future. It's acquiring a patina of quaintness even before you've got it in the envelope to send to the publisher.
Amazon.com: So do you think that's your own career path, that you're less interested in imagining a future, or do you think that the world is changing?
Gibson: I think it's actually both. Until fairly recently, I had assumed that it was me, me being drawn to use this toolkit I'd acquired when I was a teenager, and using my old SF toolkit in some kind of attempt at naturalism, 21st-century naturalistic fiction. But over the last five to six years it's started to seem to me that there's something else going on as well, that maybe we're in what the characters in my novel Idoru call a "nodal point," or a series of them. We're in a place where things could just go anywhere. A couple of weeks ago I happened to read Charlie Stross's argument as to why he believes that there will never, ever be any manned space travel. It's not going to happen. We're not going to colonize Mars. All of that is just a big fantasy. And it's so convincing. I read that and I'm like, "My god, there goes so much of the fiction I read as a child."