For a science-fiction writer who has conjured up some remarkably vivid visions of the future, and even coined the word cyberspace, William Gibson seems stubbornly stuck in the present, and the past.
Although his latest novel Agency is partly set in a post-apocalyptic London a century in the future, it is also about the intertwined fates of a group of characters in San Francisco in 2017 living in a reimagined past in which Hillary Clinton became president and Brexit never happened. One of the novel’s central concerns is how people in the future can revisit alternative histories, or “stubs”, as he calls them.
“History is a speculative discipline,” Gibson says, when I catch up with the tall and languorous Canadian author, folded into a copious sofa in a chintzy library in a Covent Garden hotel.
Gibson talks fondly of his love of London (“a sort of inherently fantastic city”), his fascination with how technologies are adopted and adapted, and his fears about looming environmental catastrophe (“we’re looking at the collapse of the only liveable planetary ecosystem we know of anywhere”).
But the author, 71, also talks longingly, and intriguingly, about his own craft, a “dreadful, time-wasting, disorganised process” that eventually coheres into a self-organising and satisfying conclusion. “I never have more than a very, very vague idea of what the ending might be, let alone what the emotional closure would be for the characters.”
His writing technique may sound a little chaotic, but it has worked remarkably successfully for four decades. Hailed as one of the literary prophets of our digital age, he has in his novels had an uncanny knack of anticipating the key technologies that have shaped our world.
Gibson first won international acclaim in 1984 with the publication of his debut novel Neuromancer, a futuristic fiction of “low-life and high-tech” that introduced readers to the “matrix” and popularised the idea of cyberspace before the world wide web had even been invented.
“Cyberspace,” he wrote. “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . . ”
We begin our conversation by discussing the concept of agency and the title of his 12th novel, an idea he came to late but liked because it did not have any one interpretation. Verity Jane, the character who works as an “app-whisperer” in our reimagined contemporary world, exhibits diminishing human agency, “which is something that completely subverts the book’s entire posture as a thriller, somewhat deliberately”.
It also reflects the mood of our times, he says, in which many people feel an acute loss, or lack, of agency. The “Take Back Control” slogan of the Brexit campaigners was so potent because it promised to restore agency to those feeling dispossessed. But the people Gibson says he best knows in London are themselves now suffering from a corresponding and “aching sense of lack of agency” as they watch Brexit come to fruition.
“If I were teaching a quick course in writing generic airport thrillers — something I would never dream of doing — I would tell my students that the basic move is to strip the protagonist of agency and then have something about to be done to his family or a loved one that, in order to prevent, he has to take back agency. That’s the satisfying beat.”
In his own novel, in contrast to Verity Jane, a disembodied and disturbingly intelligent digital assistant called Eunice is in the process of acquiring agency, as computers become more autonomous. This is a theme that has lately aroused the interest of many other novelists, including Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan, who have explored the unnerving frontier between machine intelligence and human identity.
Gibson responds quite accurately — if a little archly — that he has “been living with the concept of the singularity for longer than they have.” But he says he is rather amused by some people’s obsession with the “nerd rapture”, as it is called in Silicon Valley, in which a superintelligent entity surpasses human comprehension in almost every domain. “The way in which the singularity is afeared or embraced is a sort of quasi-religious mass movement thing.”
His own fictional versions of the singularity, he says, have always been “semi-singularities” in which things change a lot, sometimes terribly so, but “don’t go to some sort of perfect godhead”, either good or bad, of artificial intelligence. “I try to keep it naturalised.”
More than 30 years after the creation of the web, Gibson thinks we are still struggling to understand its full impact. But he suspects there will be a never-ending process of adoption and adaptation as the “street finds its own uses for things”. One of Gibson’s most-cited quotations is: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
The early internet evangelists, such as American writer John Perry Barlow, believed cyberspace to be an exciting electronic frontier, a new home of the mind, beyond the reach of governments of the industrial world, those “weary giants of flesh and steel”.
“On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather,” Barlow wrote in A Declaration of the Independence of cyber space in 1996.
Gibson knew the late Barlow well. But he says he is “absolutely baffled” by the naive utopianism of the early internet pioneers, who enthused about disruption. Barlow professed to love Neuromancer — according to Gibson — but appeared to have missed the central idea that cyberspace also had its downsides. Even today Gibson says he is puzzled by older readers who approach him at book signings to thank him for inspiring them to pursue a career in tech.
“They’d read a book in which there didn’t actually seem to be any middle class left and in which no characters had employment. They were all criminal freelancers of one sort or another. So, it was always quite mysterious to me.”
In some respects, he says, our current obsession with the impact of technology may even be a cyclical phenomenon. He argues that the Industrial Revolution, which triggered a near-permanent sense of future shock, had similarities with our own age. “When you read accounts of people’s very first railway rides, they’re psychedelic,” he says.
Doctors started treating people for “railway spine” as passengers who had experienced travelling at “inhuman” speeds of 60mph claimed to be suffering from all kinds of aches for months after their journeys. We may be living through our own 21st-century versions of railway spine, he suggests.
But in other respects, we may well be experiencing something totally new in human history as our offline and online worlds merge. “The inventors and developers of an emergent technology can’t begin to imagine how it will actually affect the world should it become ubiquitous,” he says.
For the moment, we live in both the physical world and in cyberspace, but the barriers between the two are blurring so as to become almost indistinguishable. “The online/offline distinction is going to be fully generational soon. Only old people will think of being on or off,” he says.
The diminishing usage of the word “cyberspace” is itself an indication that it is becoming increasingly pervasive — although, he says, the US military still seems oddly attached to the term. “They use it religiously, which I find kind of charming,” he says.
As an example of how the two worlds are becoming one, he talks about a video he watched that morning on Twitter (his handle is @GreatDismal). A man was towing a child’s wagon with dozens of cell phones down a city street to fool Google Maps into flagging a traffic jam, thereby diverting drivers on to other routes. “Our world is everting,” he says.
Concerned though he is by some aspects of technology, Gibson is far more alarmed by the dangers of pandemics and irreversible, destructive climate collapse, which he speculates may become the biggest driver of change in human history. He fears that the world’s FQ — or F***edness Quotient, as he calls it — is rising to a worrying degree.
He laments the fact that the Trump administration has gone “deliberately and horrifically backward” on climate policy. “Denial of impending climate collapse has become an extra leg on the rightwing stool and I suspect it will stay that way,” he says. Rightwing nationalists will always resist the “optimal solution” to climate change, which would be to form an effective and benign world government, as imagined in the backdrop to the original Star Trek series.
Without wishing to go “full Greta”, he argues that the science on climate change is black-and-white and absolutely grim. He envisages a world in which “the entire equator becomes unlivable without a space suit” and millions of people will be driven towards the poles. “That would play into ethnonationalism and xenophobia, fear of immigrants in increasingly ugly ways.”
His latest two novels, Peripheral and Agency, which form part of an ongoing trilogy, are set against the backdrop of the “jackpot”, an unspecified apocalypse that has overwhelmed our planet. Gibson says for some reason he instinctively wrote jackpot in the lower case: “I don’t know why the capitalised version strikes me as being easier to dismiss but it’s simply a combination of quite a few things, quite a few bills coming due, technological ones for the most part.”
Gibson is working on the concluding novel in this trilogy, even though he does not know how it will end. Like fiction, the future remains a speculative realm — but so, in Gibson’s view, is the past. We are constantly learning new facts about what went before and gaining new perspectives in light of subsequent events and evolving attitudes. His own view of the Victorian era, for example, is very different from his mother’s.
“If I could learn one thing about the future,” he says, “I would want to know what they think of us because that would tell me everything I’d want to know about them.”
John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor
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