Addicted To Noise 11/99: William Gibson, Wired.

ATN caught up with the author of "Neuromancer" on the eve of the publication of his new book, "All Tomorrow's Parties." Gibson discussed the evolution of the Web, the peculiar narcissism of rock stars, and how his children forced him to set up an email account.а

By Michael Goldberg


There are certainly trendy, hypermodern hotels where the man credited with inventing the term "cyberspace" could stay when he visits San Francisco. But writer William Gibson prefers to hole up at the dignified, historic Clift Hotel, est. 1915.а For all his futurist tendencies, Gibson, like the characters in his novels, appears to harbor a strong attachment to the past Ч his past, anyway. It was while gazing from a window in his room at this particular hotel a decade ago that the writer was inspired to choose the Bay Bridge as the setting for "Virtual Light."а In "All Tomorrow's Parties" Ч the third book in a trilogy that began with 1993's "Virtual Light," followed by "Idoru" (1996) Ч a modern mercenary sports a vintage 1945 Jaeger LeCoultre watch, while several other characters in the book are also obsessed with antique timepieces. Which is not to imply that these are quaint little books about men who love watches too much.а "I think all three of these novels sort of play with the Bruce Willis flying glass, big-set thriller thing. But in a way that teeters on the edge of irony," Gibson said during our recent interview. "And then, when you cut away from the flying glass, there's someone there, mulling over the nature of time and memory [laughing] and looking at some interesting scenery."а When I spoke to Gibson three years ago, about the time "Idoru" was published, I was surprised to learn that the writer didn't have an e-mail account and wasn't very interested in the then-fledgling Web. More recently, when I met up with Gibson to discuss "All Tomorrow's Parties," he wasn't exactly tricked out in technocessories. However he did have a cell phone attached to his belt, and he admitted that his teenage children had finally convinced him of the necessity of at-home Net access.а Rather than confine our discussion to "All Tomorrow's Parties" (the title of which was inspired by a Velvet Underground song), I thought our interview presented a good opportunity in which to get Gibson's take on technology, the Net gold rush and the demise of Bohemia Ч the latter a theme he touches on in "All Tomorrow's Parties."а

The Interview

Addicted To Noise: Let's start off by talking about the fact that you're in San Francisco and that "Virtual Light" [the first book in Gibson's trilogy] was set mainly in San Francisco, as is "All Tomorrow's Parties" [the final book in the trilogy]. Why did you choose San Francisco as the place where the outcast characters of your books reside? William Gibson: Well, when people ask these origin questions it's rare that the author can actually give an answer to them. But I was right here in the Clift Hotel on, let's see, what would have been the "Mona Lisa Overdrive" tour, and I looked out the window. I got up one morning, looked out the window and saw the nearest cable tower of the Bay Bridge sticking up out of the fog. And for some reason I thought, 'Wow, that's real estate. I could live on top of that in a big plywood box.'а It was one of those images, and it stuck. And when they stick, they're kind of like splinters. Stuff builds up around them and eventually you have the beginning of a narrative.а But it actually wasn't that clean of a job because, in the meantime, I was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to write a story about San Francisco, which would then be given to some architects who would build something, design something based on the story. So I wrote a short story set on what would become the bridge in "Virtual Light" that just dealt with that environment. And then some architects built an actual model for the show here. So, there was this kind of wonderful intermediate step that gave me a lot more of the San Francisco I wanted to do.а As for why San Francisco, San Francisco is a good kind of stand-in for a world city, and in a way that most American cities aren't. It's more like the European paradigm of the city. So, I think of it as being more universal. The combination of having that Euro-pedestrian core and being on the coast of California makes it ideal for my purposes. Also, I don't actually know it [San Francisco] very well so I can kind of wig out on it, in terms of atmosphere, in a way that I can't really do with cities that I'm too familiar with. Addicted To Noise: Some of the characters that pop up on the bridge definitely feel like San Francisco inhabitants, whether you're walking around Market Street or through the whole Haight Ashbury scene and the whole Bohemian scene. Gibson: Well, it's all here, you know, it's all here. But it's other places, as well. So people, readers in London or Paris, get the same kind of identification. It's all late 20th century capitalism anyway, of one stripe or another. So in a way I'm playing to a more uniform, homogenous audience than previous generations of writers.а Addicted To Noise: Do you think about the audience when you write? Gibson: No. I just think of them as the audience. I think of them as a demographic. And really on the other side of the foot-line where I can't see them ... It's probably really just me. In the end, the only mirror I have as to whether these things work when I'm writing them is whether or not they get me off. So I just have to trust that and try to maintain my own interest.а Addicted To Noise: Do you think there are more people in the San Francisco area and in Silicon Valley who have been affected by your work than in other parts of the world? Gibson: Well, there's a passel of them down here, but it doesn't register really excessively on my radar. We get better sales figures here. This is good. You know, the Bay Area has always liked me. I'm grateful for it. But I don't have any more sense of recognition. Turn-outs are good for the readings, but it's pretty much a piece with the rest of the country. Although, 'the country' for me, for a touring novelist, these days, is sort of San Francisco, L.A. and New York. You don't hit much. Maybe Boston, maybe Atlanta, maybe Chicago, but you don't actually hit 'mall world,' where the bulk of the product is probably moving.а Addicted To Noise: I was thinking of the high concentration of 'new media' people in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was thinking a lot of those people would be interested in what you write. Gibson: Yeah, probably. I just don't think in very geographic terms anymore. So, I sort of think I know those people live here and they work here, but I can just as easily bump into them in New York or London or Tokyo. They're all just out there in the new world increasingly doing their thing.а Addicted To Noise: I like the fact that in "All Tomorrow's Parties" you've got this sort of tech-junk shop called Bad Sector. Where did that come from? Gibson: Well, it's kind of a fashion take on Bruce Sterling's Dead Media Project proposal. It's Dead Media as sort of Martha Stewart meets Dead Media, the idea that someone 20 years from now would want to have an Apple IIC on the coffee table. People would admire it. It would be a splendid item of irony and kind of a touching, poignant artifact. The fact that it's all molded and really shitty looking, vanilla-color plastic would date it.а

Addicted To Noise: I think that's already happening.

Gibson: Yeah, it's already happening. It's funny it happened. I'm working without a net here. The future has gotten so close-up. When I was writing ["All Tomorrow's Parties"], those super-colorful Macs [iMacs] were just barely there. The lollipop look has taken over. I think that's great, but I felt like I was actually making a point, like, 'Hey guys, quit molding this ugly, ugly beige plastic.' And they did, but before I got the book out.а Addicted To Noise: They needed to wait a couple of years. That would be another thing that people could say you predicted. Gibson: Yeah, I play with that because nothing dates more tragically than science fiction novels. And I know that, so I'm aware of it. Rather than experience it as pain, I prefer to experience it as a fun thing. So I'm throwing these little bits of stuff into these books and I look at them fondly and I think how stupid and how outdated this is going to seem even three years from now. There's no way of knowing. It could seem totally cool and impressive or it could just be like this howling clunk or the Soviet Union looming monolithic in the background of "Neuromancer," and everybody else has gone postmodern capitalist. I couldn't imagine the Soviet Union just drying up and blowing away. Addicted To Noise: Yeah. I don't think anyone could. Gibson: Yeah. I lived with it all my life. A guy I knew in the '60s, this really nice pentagon technocrat who is the father of a really good friend of mine ... I was living down in Washington, D.C. And this guy used to go in and design smart bombs. He was very much on the other side of the fence for me, politically. We used to sit up at night drinking J&B arguing about Vietnam and he used to say Communism really sucks. 'If you went there, if you went to Russia, you really would not like it. You'd be less happy there than you are here. These guys are really bad news. But all we have to do is contain them long enough and they'll just crumble from within because they're cooking their books and they can't actually produce enough food to feed their people. The whole thing is just going to dry up and blow away if we contain them.' And I used to say, 'Sure,' [sarcastically]. And he was right. If I ever run into him, I'm going to say, 'You were right, Damon. That's what happened.' And, you know, I even missed it. Like in "Neuromancer," I was really proud of presenting this North America where you couldn't tell, from internal evidence, whether or not the U.S. existed as a political entity. And I thought, 'Well, that's a radical move.' But when it came to what's going on in the East, all I could think of was that they'd just be there, kind of like a heap of slag iron. Nothing could wear them down. They'd be there, and be stupid, and it would all still be going on. But no, human nature, I guess, caught up with them. And media. I still think it was mainly the media. Nobody would buy it anymore. I think the same fate awaits the people who are running China these days, and every other country that still is at least pretending to operate on that basis. Not that there's any left or that the Chinese are Communists these days. But I just don't think you can do business that way anymore. Each generation is more plugged in.а Addicted To Noise: Right. We've seen that with China already in terms of some of the communication that's gone on with the Net. Gibson: Yeah.а Addicted To Noise: Rydell uses these cyber-glasses, and they work as a phone but they also have him wired into whatever the Net is at that point in time. Gibson: Yeah, in some bad kind of Kmart way. They don't actually work.а Addicted To Noise: Well, that was the thing I was going to say. People are hacking in and they're static-y, like a bad cell phone connection. There's also this kind of cheesy virtual reality stuff that's in there. Gibson: Well, that was part of the response to some criticism that I really did listen to over the years from people who work every day with computers and the Internet, and they all said, 'This is really believable, except that all this shit works all the time. It doesn't work. It's always screwing up. That's actually sort of part of its nature.' And eventually I heard that enough times from enough people that I guess it got through. And there's also the manifest versions of virtual reality, which have gotten to us since the vapor wear stage, that have for the most part been fantastically cheesy, like that hideously ugly virtual model who's everywhere, I forget what she's called. But she's god awful -looking. She is scary. She'd make, like, a really good Mayan death goddess. And how can they spend all that money and expect to sell clothing with this hideous, cheesy mannequin-like creature. I could be wrong. She could be huge, but the way we actually receive this stuff, now, it's often so wonderfully degraded from the Sunday supplement vision.а Addicted To Noise: Yeah, and with those CD-ROMs, back in the earlier part of the '90s, where you supposedly move through these hallways where there'd be paintings and it was always the same and it was always, I guess, 'cheesy' is as good a word as any. Gibson: I'm out of my league here, but I've always assumed that was the result of trying to deliver an envisioned experience where the platform just wasn't even close to it.а Addicted To Noise: When I spoke to you in September of '96, you weren't that interested in using the Net. Gibson: I was never interested in it in what I think of as the crystal radio phase. I wasn't interested in it during the hobbyist phase where it was something that you had to know how to do. You didn't have to sit at home and wind your own copper coils, but close. It was complicated. There was a learning curve, I think. When the Web started happening, I saw it as having this potential as a kind of global entertainment medium of some very peculiar and different sort. I started paying a different kind of attention to it and it actually had gotten into the house. It sorted of piggybacked in on my children. You can't have kids, you can't have teen-agers, without having Internet access. They got it, and as soon as they got it, I was kind of stuck with it myself. They'd get mail for me or I'd give people their addresses, and they'd start bitchin' about that, so eventually I had to be hooked up. I had to get hooked up 'cause I had a website for awhile that a guy in Vancouver was designing. And when he initially started doing it, I didn't have any way to look at it. I didn't actually know what a website was.а Addicted To Noise: When was this? Gibson: This was about a little over two and a half years ago.а Addicted To Noise: So, maybe early '97? Gibson: Yeah, early '97. So since then it's become part of my life. I know that was when "Idoru" came out, which was the last time that I saw you. When "Idoru" came out, we had just gotten one computer on the Net, and I, very laboriously and slowly, was able to download a still of the first virtual idoru. Because I had been writing that book, I was imagining that it would take awhile for them to come out. I think I even eventually managed to download a crude animation of her dancing that went with this music, and I thought, 'This is really interesting.'а And watching the growth of that, it gave people a territory in which to do actual human stuff on the net that wasn't private stuff. So I started seeing things like eBay, which sort of slots into my fascination with flea markets and junkyards and things that I have some kind of ongoing jones for. And it started to seem more real to me and, by that point, you just kind of got on and did it. You didn't have to take any lessons.а Addicted To Noise: Well, yeah. You wrote that piece for Wired about eBay and also you became fascinated with eBay ... and you also have this interest in watches. Gibson: Well, I'm not like the guy in the book. He's autistic, and I needed something I could pour an enormous amount of specialist information into to approximate this aspect of his autism. And that was handy because I researched that piece for Wired in a very short time and I learned more than I now remember about vintage wrist watches.а It could've been something else. It could've been baseball scores, but that doesn't appeal to me as much. I thought the watches worked because they were resonate of the industrial age. They're mechanical, they're poetic. There's something going on in that book about time. I don't know what exactly, but there's something going on.а Addicted To Noise: At the time, the last time I talked to you, I think you used a fax as a way that a lot of people communicated to you. Gibson: Yeah, I was using my fax machine as a kind of e-mail substitute. It was a good one, but it generated like miles and miles of paper and when I wrote "Idoru" I used to print out the pages and fax them to the guy that was acting as the first reader of them, and the next day he'd fax back his response to them.а Addicted To Noise: So, the nanofax thing in the new book ... I just kind of laughed when I read that because of having either heard, or maybe you mentioned something, about using the fax machine so much. Gibson: Yeah, well, there's a kind of three-dimensional laser lithography. Maybe I've seen sort of a run-through of something, a sort of cad-cam system that generates a 3-D plastic model of the object you've described. Wherever you send it, they get an actual widget and they can take it out and see if it fits in their machine. And I think the nanofax may have come partly from that.а But it also comes from the fact that nanotech gives me the giggles, and they may be nervous giggles. It really works for me as a technological singularity. I figure that if we've got that happening, all bets are off. On the other side of functioning nanotech is this unknowable world. And whatever is standing on the other side looking back at us probably wouldn't understand us any better. So, I have that looming at the edge of the table in these three books, literally as the unthinkable. Addicted To Noise: Interesting, maybe this relates to the "Idoru" character. How do you pronounce her name? Gibson: I think it's Rei Toei, but I'm just approximating what the Japanese ... Those are two authentic Japanese names, but I don't really know how to pronounce them.а Addicted To Noise: But she learns from and changes based on being in different environments? Gibson: Well, she's somewhere. Somewhere there's some kind of huge database for her, I would assume. I never really worked out the mechanics of the thing. But that projector that Laney carries around so that she can manifest and do her Tinker Bell act and whatnot, isn't where she is. She isn't really anywhere. She's happening in a bunch of parallel processors, but she sort of gets more human the longer she's around.а Addicted To Noise: Well, it also seemed like she evolved past the rock star character in "Idoru," whom she was going to marry, because there was a point where he wasn't changing and she was. Gibson: Well, he wasn't going to change much anyway because he had some kind of borderline narcissistic personality disorder that isn't that rare among rock stars.

Addicted To Noise: Or film stars, TV stars ...

Gibson:: Yeah, so he wasn't going to change much anyway and he was not an emergent system. Why the marriage didn't work, well, she was an emergent system and he wasn't. He thought he was. He'd like to think of himself as an emergent system, but in fact he's steady state and she's always changing. In a way, he had fallen in love with a relatively short-term phenomenon. If he couldn't keep changing, he couldn't be there with her. And I figured that's what happened to them. [laughs]а Addicted To Noise: Your books operate on several levels. Parts of "All Tomorrow's Parties" feel abstract and philosophical. The Laney chapers and the Zen mercenary Konrad kind of fit into that. And then you've got this whole plot and story and very identifiable characters going on, and it's constantly shifting from carrying the reader along with a story that anybody who likes to read fiction could be carried along by, but then you keep breaking away to these kind of interesting abstractions.а Gibson: Well, that's the trick of it in these books, at least for me, is to not stay in the abstractions long enough to lose the reader who, like myself sometimes, wants some narrative traction, wants to be carried along. I think all three of these books sort of play with the Bruce Willis flying glass, big set thriller thing. But in a way that teeters on the edge of irony. And then, when you cut away from the flying glass, there's someone there mulling over the nature of time and memory [laughing] and looking at some interesting scenery.а And then someone else smashes through the window. I've been doing it long enough that I have to look for another mode. Well, not look for one, but let one emerge and I think one is emerging. I felt, with this book, some sense of closure that satisfied me more than I had expected. When I gave it my one read through, when I finally got the hard copy from the publisher and I thought, 'Yeah, I got closure on this in some wacky way and the next book I write is somehow going to be a different book.'а Addicted To Noise: Don't you feel you kind of did that? You wrote the first trilogy, then you wrote this one. And this one is definitely different. Gibson: Yeah, it's a different thing. It's time to do that again. I know people don't probably believe me because I've been saying this for so long, but I never designed either of these. I never set out to produce two trilogies. I was quite proud of "Virtual Light" because I thought it was an absolutely stand-alone deal. And then I discovered to my fascination there were all these connecting cables and things dangling off that seemed to suggest something else. And so I went back and did it again and I guess when I finished "Idoru" I realized those two had to triangulate on something else. Maybe next I'll actually succeed in writing a one-off book that doesn't link up to anything.а "To be continued..."