In the words of the commissioning editor who is behind this piece, this interview by Ned Beauman with William Gibson, on the occasion of the release of his novel The Peripheral, is the ‘nerdiest ever bit of commissioning’:
Let me make one thing clear from the start: this is not going to be one of those hard-hitting Lynn Barber-type profiles. I am a huge William Gibson guy, and I have been since I was 13 years old. Earlier this year I took my devotion to the extreme lengths – the excessive lengths, let’s all admit – of publishing what was essentially a William Gibson tribute novel, like a small-town Black Sabbath playing an evening of wonky covers at the pub. So when I tell you that Gibson picked me up in his car from my hotel in Vancouver, so I didn’t even have to get a taxi – and indeed that he was impeccably hospitable and generous over the ensuing 24 hours – you might think: “How awfully convenient that this lifelong hero of Beauman’s, whom he is clearly desperate to be friends with, should happen to be a really nice guy.” Yes, I agree, it is awfully convenient, but sometimes things just turn out that way.
The effect that Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer had on me when I read it as an adolescent – comparable to a defibrillator applied directly to my forebrain – was the same effect that it had on speculative fiction in general when it was first published in 1984. People who wouldn’t normally be seen reading a book about a hacker in the future who sneaks on to a space station to help a computer turn into a god – and that’s a lot of people, perhaps including you – they made an exception for Neuromancer, because it was just too brilliant to ignore. Neuromanceroriginated a subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk, which later withered away, redundant, because cyberpunk had become the condition of the real world. Gibson could therefore be credited with anticipating the information age, with the result that for the last 30 years he has regularly been pressed into service as a prophet. And yet you’re not giving his fiction its due if you just score it on the accuracy of its predictions like a six-horse accumulator. Call me biased, but I think the most interesting thing about a novelist is the inherent quality of his or her novels. And Gibson’s – 11 so far – are some of the best and most singular novels by anyone writing in English.
Gibson picked me up that day so that we could drive about 20 minutes northeast to Dusty Greenwell Park, a margin of grass overlooking Vancouver Harbour. Dusty Greenwell Park is not the most arcadian of retreats. Down the slope, past a snarl of blackberry bushes, is Canada’s largest container grain-loading facility, where trainloads of malt are disgorged into containers and then trucked off to the shipping terminals. Trains thunder past for minutes at a time, almost drowning out conversation, and a grain elevator, discoloured by rust and moss and pigeon shit, blocks part of the view of the North Shore Mountains across the bay. We visited because this was the setting of one of the climactic scenes of Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country, in which “the narrow park leap[s] into shivering, seemingly shadowless incandescence” as a spy flees a patrolling helicopter.
Spook Country is not the book that Gibson, 66, is currently promoting. That is his superb new novel The Peripheral. But The Peripheral is set partly in the American south in the 2030s, and partly in London in the 2100s, so it would have been difficult to find a directly relevant excursion within the Vancouver city limits.
In the book, it’s a sort of transtemporal Skype running on a mysterious Chinese server that accounts for those two eras becoming entangled in a single story. By bringing them face to face, Gibson was addressing the tendency of any given generation to assume that “the inhabitants of the past are hicks and rubes, and the inhabitants of the future are effete, overcomplicated beings with big brains and weak figures. We always think of ourselves as the cream of creation.” Although he generally defers to his unconscious when asked about his creative process, Gibson allowed that this book may have had its origin in a news story he read about a midwestern Christian militia called Hutaree whose members were arrested in 2010 for an alleged conspiracy to kill local police officers.
“The thing that struck me was that several very young teenagers had been left to fend for themselves when all of the adults had been taken away to jail,” he said. “I started imagining being one of those kids and how I would understand the world.” The setting also fed on Gibson’s own upbringing in small-town South Carolina, the film Winter’s Bone and the HBO series Deadwood, about a lawless town during the Gold Rush. “I wanted the equivalent of the city slickers, from a very different world, turning up in Deadwood. Initially I thought the other world would be New York or Los Angeles. But at some point I realised that could be the future.”
By now we had found a bench and we were both sipping from little cans of Boss Coffee that we’d picked up at Fujiya Japanese Foods on the way to the park. This made the outing rather Gibsonian in ways that neither of us realised at the time. Boss Coffee is manufactured by Suntory, and I’ve since learned that a lot of the malt in the containers before us would have been bound for Suntory’s beer and whisky breweries in Japan. Huge Japanese conglomerates with tentacles in the most unlikely places; the hypercomplex networks of globalised commerce; really good espresso – these have been quintessential Gibson tropes ever sinceNeuromancer.
By and large, I like Gibson now for the same reasons I liked Neuromancer when I first read it: his books are really cool – and I don’t mean “cool” as in “hip” or “chic”, I mean “cool” as in “awesome” or “rad”. That sounds like faint praise, because 13-year-olds have no taste and “cool” is not a respectable term of critical approbation. But what I mean by “cool” is that Gibson presents you with something new – a technology, a garment, a building, a scheme, an expertise, a power structure – and this new thing is burnished with so much imagination and lyricism and attention to detail, and so much of the noir and the gothic and the postmodern all at once, that it’s electrifyingly exciting just to contemplate. He does this several times on every page, and intersperses some old junk that he did not invent, and then connects all this stuff up so unpredictably that the connections are themselves exciting. And before long the connections are dense enough that he has a world, and he lets you shadow a small cast of reprobates as they pinball through every echelon of that world.