William Gibson : Prophet of Cyber-Grunge

by Uri Dowbenko

Writer William Gibson has seen the future -- and it is Grunge. High-tech. Lo-tek. Artificial Intelligence. Nanotech. Sentient Holograms. Corporate Assassins. Drugs. Hustlers. Low Life Proles. More Drugs. Filtered through Nightmare Noir. Reframed by the Bad Karma-Mojo of pop culture icons William Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard. As Gibson himself admitted during a cameo appearance in the cult TV serial Wild Palms, he's been credited with inventing "cyberspace" -- and "they won't ever let me forget it." Ever since his first novel Neuromancer, HyperNow has been extrapolated to a Surely More Decadent Tomorrow. And Gibson's Future still occupies a grotesque and detailed universe of Quaking Doom and Gloom, tinged with GeeWhiz, Flash and Buzz. William Gibson is, after all, the Psycho-Cartographer of the Astral Plane. In a strange anomaly -- or is it synchronicity? -- Orwell's Novel of the Future -- 1984 -- was published in 1948. It described then current off-the-shelf technology -- Big Brother's blueprint for the world after World War II. Gibson's Neuromancer, on the other hand, was published in 1984 -- the year of Orwell's Big Bad Promise. With a slight southern twang in his voice, Gibson spoke from the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel in an interview by phone.


Because of his detail-heavy descriptions, Gibson's novels and short stories have been disparagingly called "art direction" by Hollywood types. So what did he learn from the experiences of working on the movie version of his short story Johnny Mnemonic (1995), a film starring Keanu Reeves and directed by artist Robert Longo? "That really, really large sums of money, like multiples of millions, have their own peculiar momentum," he answers hesitantly. "People talk about having control and losing control, and I look at that very differently now." "In terms of practical application, I don't think I'm going to know until I get there," he says cryptically. And there were no obvious "lessons" after he passed through the experience? "Only that it's all a lot more serious a business than you can imagine before you've actually been there," says Gibson, alluding to the prototypical shark like behavior of studio execs and others in the entertainment "industry." Johnny Mnemonic was shot in Canada -- in part because of tax incentives for investors. "I was there on set in Canada quite a bit," says Gibson. "Considerably more so than a screenwriter ordinarily would be. Because of my relationship with Robert Longo and also because the script was changing as it was shot." And who was responsible for that? "I was responsible," admits Gibson freely. "It had to do with how we started. We started with a modestly budgeted independent film. Initial estimates held the budget at one to three million. Then the inflation began." "I wasn't very concerned with that at the time," he says. "I think the top end might have been seven or eight [million] which wouldn't have been a very big deal." "We started with an actor who wasn't -- on the day we signed him -- a movie star. When we started with Keanu [Reeves], Speed had not been released. And Keanu was not a star in the way he was after Speed was released. So Keanu's suddenly bankable status as an action star definitely put a spin on what was happening, and it got us a gradually expanding budget. And it also got us in TriStar's pocket because of the escalating budget." "So what we wound up with -- in the end -- I've always said that it's what you would have gotten if the studio had recut David Lynch's Blue Velvet and marketed it as a mainstream detective story." Was there a lot of editing after it was "in the can" -- more or less completely shot? Being diplomatic, I said, "There were a lot of controversial aspects to it. It got dissed pretty regularly." "It might not have been dissed if you'd have the film that I wrote and Longo shot," says Gibson. "It got so radically reconceptualized that when I watched it for the first time, [I said] 'Oh my God, it doesn't make sense.' To some extent, it had been intentionally a comment film, a very alternative sort of SF film, very self-conscious about its genre in an ironic way. When the frame for that was lost -- it got lost after the last cut -- they recut it to their specs." So was the Johnny Mnemonic experience somewhat of an abortion -- with the sense of loss and what could have been? Gibson is non-committal. He says simply, "It was a learning experience." And whose idea was it to cannibalize the "Bridge" -- a future squatters version of the famous San Francisco hallmark -- from Virtual Light and put it in the film? "That was mine," answers Gibson. "At the time, I didn't think that I'd have a chance to do anything else. I saw Johnny Mnemonic as I wrote it, and we shot it as a collage of a lot of things. It was about a particular kind of science fiction. It's not about Virtual Light but about that sort of environment. The set that Longo constructed was stunningly great, and the cut that emerged -- you scarcely get any sense of it. It was probably one of the most beautifully realized science fiction sets since Blade Runner. Really really great. And as we shot it, the film made considerably more use of it, but it did not make it to the screen." So was Longo's and Gibson's "vision" not the same as the "suits," the studio execs and the producers? Or what happened? Gibson answers tentatively, "After a certain point, the suit who was most supportive of us throughout the process -- he would speak to my position by saying, 'At this point I have to speak for the members of our audience who are 'Gibson-challenged' -- and at that point I knew that I was in trouble. This guy was saying that 'whatever it is you're laying down here, bud, they ain't going to get it.' He was just doing his job." When asked about the film directed by Abel Ferrara, New Rose Hotel (1999), also based on another Gibson short story, he says, "New Rose Hotel was a really interesting film. I had absolutely nothing to do with it, so it was kind of a new experience." "Ferrara has a tiny stable, maybe two who do all the screenplays," he continues. "You can't go too far wrong with a film that stars Christopher Walken. It's a very interesting piece of work. It's ferociously idiosyncratic as a film, one that you'd expect from Ferrara." "Probably it would give some people pause," says Gibson. "It's really interesting because it's ostensibly a science fiction film, ostensibly a genre film, but it pays less attention to doing that than any genre film ever made - which I though was quite admirable. It's completely about character and the metaphorical nature of the world these guys have. They say it's the future, but it's really a world that consists of airplanes, hotel rooms, board rooms, and brothels. That's it." Sounds like the basic LA lifestyle. Asia Argento played the girl. "Asia's hot enough in that film to fry a dozen eggs on the street," says Gibson. "She's really, really terrific. And on the basis of that role, she should get a lot of work. That is one funny sexy girl." Maybe she'll get out of that Italian horror genre thing. "Well, she was born into that. You know, her dad Dario Argento, is the grand master [of Italian horror.]"


In the book, All Tomorrows Parties, there's an overwhelming sense of some kind of expectation that people have on a worldwide basis, but it's cryptically very nebulous and amorphous. Since the book is about "the end of the world as we know it," what kind of feelings does Gibson have about the new millennium? "The millennium is just a Christian holiday," he replies, "but the peculiar spin that's been put on that is that, as a species, we have this other consciousness, that we're nearing some sort of cusp, something really big is changing." "Most people haven't really thought about the word "modern" and what that actually means," he continues. "If you use it in the sense of an academic historian, the Elizabethans were Early Modern. "Modern" has been going on for a really, really long time. My hunch is that we are really Late Modern, and I think we haven't really decided what we're going to call the next thing. Some people call it Post Modern for want of a better term, and that's what Post Modern really means." "I think that we're there," says Gibson. "That causes us to experience what literary theorist Frederick Jamison calls the 'Post-Modern Sublime' which he says is characterized by the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy. I think that Dread & Ecstasy R US -- that's really what I'm writing about. I get you to sit still for it because I say, 'relax, it's the future; it's just the future; it's not happening now,' but actually it is happening now. Science fiction is always written about the day in which it was written. When you go back and read old SF, it's never about the future which you are living in when you are reading it. They never get it right. and neither do I." All Tomorrow's Parties implies or infers some kind of Change of Consciousness - something bigger, more momentous, all-enveloping, or all-encompassing - something that hasn't been seen before. "I think it's what T. S. Kuhn called a Paradigm Shift," says Gibson. "He's a historian of scientific revolutions and how the world really works, how it changes, all the pain and friction that happens in humanity when it changes. I think we're going through a whole bunch of paradigm shifts right now, as we find our way to what the new paradigm is going to be. And its going to be someplace where everybody is going to be sitting around looking back at us the way we look back at the Victorians. The Victorians were complex, and in many ways weirldy like us. They were very techno-stressed people. In a way, they weren't really playing with a full deck. They didn't know about the unconscious, for instance. They're not like us. Whoever our descendants are -- sitting up there in the future -- they're looking back at us saying, 'They were very interesting people and they went through some interesting stuff, but they didn't know about ___________ (fill in the blank).' And I can't fill in that blank."


When asked if he feels like he has to produce his work in a certain style, a style to which his readers have become accustomed -- like the doomed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, who was forced to use certain iconographies because of their market value, Gibson is unequivocal -- sort of. "That which doesn't grow -- dies," he answers. "If I was only in this to make a buck, I would be gearing up to strip mine my own earlier work and giving you fifteen volumes of young Molly Millions and how she got her fingernails." "God forbid, if I was old enough and sufficiently artistically corrupt, you might see it. I've seen it happen to better men than me. I hope I have the courage to change." And how would it feel if he did something radically different? How would it be received? Does he have it in him? Is that even an option? "I think [Bruce] Sterling and I did it to an extent with The Difference Engine," replies Gibson. "The result of that was that a certain percentage of my readership probably enjoyed it, and others said 'what the hell was that about? I didn't get it'. And there's this other interesting contingent who came in and said 'that's the best thing you've ever done? when are you gonna do something else like that?" The writing of The Difference Engine had its own methodology and rules, according to Gibson. "It was a full-on literary collaboration. We wrote it together," he says. "We actually could have done it by e-mail if we had e-mail, but it predated e-mail for both of us so we did it with floppy disks." Gibson describes this work as an evolving piece of art. "I could tell you the actual rules though it's a little complicated. The only hard and fast rule was that the text as it existed on this increasingly thick stack of floppies was the text. Neither of us had absolute carte blanche to change anything in there. But neither of us was allowed to go back to any previous version or ever refer to any previous version of the text. "That's what it had to be, if it was going to be anything other than a cheap sci-fi novel," Gibson continues. "That's the way we had to do it. I would write a chapter, send it to Bruce. Bruce would get it and he'd change anything in there he wanted to, add a little more and send it back to me. I would start at the beginning and change anything I felt like changing, add a little more and send it to him." "It took about two years to write. It was a very, very labor intensive piece because when you do alternate histories you have to go and learn real history. And it's very demanding that way. So we were doing a lot of reading and lot of research all the way through it -- and sort of keeping our selves in this Victorian mind space. "By the time we were a third of the way into it, it was as though the book was being dictated by this third party -- whom neither of us had met and neither of us had particularly liked. If we wanted to have a book that was real, we had to go where the author was taking it." Channeling The Difference Engine? And where was it going? "It was very Victorian in its pace," Gibson explains. "It didn't move. It moved like a Victorian novel -- like Benjamin Disraeli on crack [?]. A very strange piece of work. It's the only book of mine, if I can call it that, that I would go back and read for my own enlightenment. I would go back to it and see what that guy who didn't exist wrote." Channeling may be an accurate description after all. This poetic enigmatic novel of an alternative Victorian London is both cryptic and hallucinogenic. "William Burroughs wrote about it," says Gibson. "He called it the 'third man syndrome.' He was fascinated by literary collaboration. He said all good literary collaboration generates a literal third entity out of the personalities of the two writers. And as the third entity takes over the book, the writers don't feel that kindly disposed toward this poltergeist narrator they've created unconsciously." "I think Burroughs was probably thinking of his work with Bryon Gysin. A lot of what Burroughs did was a kind of collaboration anyway because he would cut up other people's text and collage them in. Sterling and I were doing that too, although the stuff we were cutting up was hundred year old tabloid reporting, Victorian pornography, and Victorian pulp fiction." So did Gibson and Sterling actually use Burroughs' well-documented cut-up method? "We did it in a sense," he says, "but the difference was that with word processing, we had a power tool. A lot of my technique, my solo technique, owes quite a lot to Burroughs' cut-up technique, but with word processing, I've got it sort of automated and I can spray paint the scene and alter it." Gibson describes his writing methodology. "I'll find a piece of text somewhere, a description of something, a piece of technical literature, and I'll drop it right into the mix, but with cut and paste, I can sort of dither the edges, as they say in Photoshop and tweak it a little bit, file the serial numbers off, and wind up with something that's sort of disturbing, but a little more realistic than I might have come up with." This faceless geekish descriptive writing actually has a name. It's called "technical writing." "Right," says Gibson, "that's what J. G. Ballard calls 'invisible literature.'" Referring to the so-called "literature" of commerce, this is the euphemistically named "sales literature," including ad copy, spec sheets, white papers and reports written in the ubiquitous bureaucratese. Creatively speaking, Gibson's most recently announced project is the new Neuromancer screenplay, based on the novel of the same name, the first in the now infamous CyberPunk trilogy which also includes Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. "It's in the very early stages," he says. "I've been working with Chris Cunningham, a young British director who hasn't done a feature [film] yet. So I've got another director [like Robert Longo] who hasn't done a feature yet. He's done a bunch of brilliant brilliant videos, some really great television commercials. We're at the stage now of discovering what our mutual creative language might be." Gibson himself, however,states quite clearly that he has no aspirations to direct. "Having seen what it takes, I just think now that I like having a life," he continues. "That [directing] has to be the hardest job that I've ever seen anyone do -- even directing a television episode." Referring to future garage-moviemaking, he adds that "if it becomes an inexpensive and leisurely activity in the evolution of digital cinema, maybe I'll do that in retirement." Imagine William Gibson in his own Act III. Just like Chevette's documentary filmmaking friend Tessa in All Tomorrow's Parties, he's prowling the streets with a handheld minicam In Search of His Own Private Armageddon. A more likely scenario? Gibson knits his brow.He tweaks the sentient holograms in his basement's Virtual Reality Studio, then smiles.


William Gibson's trademark science fiction novels extrapolate the fast-moving worlds of biotech, life extension and artificial intelligence into the dark regions of the imagination -- a soulless netherworld of spiritual emptiness in the midst of material abundance. It seems that Gibson takes for granted that Science Marches On, regardless of the cost to human rights and values, making moral or ethical implications a moot point. Is that really the way he feels about it? "What's happening is that emergent technology is driving social change," says Gibson in a recent interview. "That's what's driving it. Because it's driving the market, we're living in the triumph of global capitalism, so emerging technology is driving social change. It's not legislated into existence. It's brought into existence by creativity and markets." The fact that it could be driven by globalist mega-corporate cartels which control resources and capital somehow escapes him. "Or sheer clout of power?" I ask. "Are you familiar with what are going to be massive anti-globalism demonstrations in Seattle at the end of November 1999? Are you familiar with that at all?" "No," answers Gibson. "There's going to be a World Trade Organization meeting with hundreds of groups from left and right that are going to demonstrate and protest in the streets," I tell him. "5000 teamsters bussed in. Environmentalists rappelling off of skyscrapers." "Sort of like protesting the New World Order?" asks Gibson. "That's right," I say. "It's interesting because it's a coalition of people that are saying to global capitalism, 'enough is enough,' this runaway technology etc. must be stopped and reassessed." "I don't get how they think they're actually going to stop it," says Gibson. "The nature of this protest is that it's out of control. Some of the more sensitive theorists -- my friend Kevin Kelly comes to mind -- have pointed out that it actually works." "What works?" I ask. "Emergent technology emerges best when it's out of control," he continues. "The internet is the classic example because no government on this planet would have given permission to build that. No way." Gibson's statement betrays his ignorance of 20th century history -- DARPA and the US Department of Defense were the progenitors of what has become the World Wide Web as well as the infrastructure of the Internet. "They would not have ceded that degree of control," Gibson continues, "and in fact they have probably, to some extent, planted the seeds of their eventual withering dissolution." Dumbfounded, I ask him, "You really believe that?" "They're going to have to play a cleaner game of pool from here on in because no government can control its citizens' access to free information. Not now. You just can't do it. It's not working." He pauses, then says, "The Chinese can do it." Gibson obviously never heard of the draconian information scooping technology of the Echelon spy satellite systems. "With all due respect," I continued, "there are websites that are so politically incorrect they're hacked by government hackers. Like http://www.dcia.com The guy was doing major exposes on CIA-drug dealing connections. This site has been hacked badly for several years now. Slashing, trashing and crashing a site - that's more likely to be the future. And then there will be more fall guys paraded before our eyes as having so-called 'terrorist links'." Gibson remained nonplussed. "What surprised me about the Internet emerging as it emerged," says Gibson, "after Neuromancer -- not that Neuromancer made it emerge -- I expected it to emerge as primarily a corporate/military realm. That's the way it's depicted in Neuromancer but it emerged as a more populist, democratic, non-hierarchical thing, which is way more interesting."


Before William Gibson became a famous author of outre science fiction, he left the United States for Canada. It was during the Days of Rage against the Vietnam War. Reflecting on his personal history, he says, "I went there [Canada] and then I wasn't drafted. I don't know why. I suspected they knew I was there." In retrospect, Gibson says, "It was never a legal problem. I stayed there and I got into it. It [Canada] became where I lived. I had the emotional experience which was pretty heavy. I didn't hang out with the draft dodger community when I was there because it was too depressing. A lot of those guys were clinically depressed and very disturbed by what had happened to them. There were a lot of suicides." "They [draft-age young men] were totally traumatized by having to leave under these bizarre circumstances [the Vietnam War]," he continues. "Their families had disowned them. The emotional tenor of the times was actually difficult to connect. It was very heavy for some people to have a kid who would refuse the patriotic obligation to serve. It's different now. Whatever happened changed that." "I went there to evade military service," admits Gibson, "but I never had the really hard decision of having gotten the [draft] letter and saying should I go back, or should I stay here? I guess I kind of went sideways, and I got lost in the paperwork for which I'm really grateful." Gibson's bio reads, "He spent his childhood in southwestern Virginia, attended a boys' boarding school in Tucson, and decamped at age nineteen for Toronto, intent on avoiding military service and experiencing the historical singularity recalled today as The Sixties." Now he states simply, "We definitely hit one. A singularity in the sense of a black hole. We hit something in our social history and all went down it. Everything on the other side of it has been very different than it would have been if we hadn't. Because we went down it -- that's the nature of what we are. It's not easy to get a handle on it. There's a passing awareness that it really really changed a lot of things." Would he liken it to the paradigm shift he mentioned before? Gibson gropes for words. "There's a much broader palette of colors in the world." So it comes back to the issue of drugs and their consciousness changing modus operandi? Gibson hesitates. "Maybe that was central, but in a way, drugs were a metaphor for the actual experience [of the singularity]. The actual experience was societal, but drugs gave you an excuse for having this societal experience."


One of Gibson's characters in All Tomorrow's Parties, Laney, was given drugs as a human guinea pig for the government. These drugs changed him, enabling him to have so-called extra-perceptive abilities. He's the one who eagerly awaits the Change of the World As We Know It. During the interview with Gibson, former math professor Ted Kaczynski, in prison for the Unabomer bombings, came to mind. Interestingly enough, he was also dosed with drugs in Harvard, as a "volunteer" for a government drug testing program, according to Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn. This is one of the subterranean historical trends they don't teach in High School History -- the covert experimentation by military-intelligence agencies on an unsuspecting population. "Yeah," Gibson laughed. "I'm sure it happens." When I told him that it seemed to be like a reality bleed-through from his subconscious, he said, "I've read about that stuff." In fact, he agreed that the Sixties Singularity, as he called it, was a paradigm shift that included the entire world -- from overt hedonistic drug-taking by a self-medicating population to the covert experimentation by the CIA who initially introduced and distributed LSD throughout North America. Gibson agrees. "The CIA predated a lot of the civilian stuff. There's a great book, Storming Heaven, and it lays this stuff out. As usual, it's a lot more fuzzy and multiplex than the conspiracy theory version." "People like conspiracy theories," Gibson maintains, "because they present a sort of comprehensible universe and consequently I always think ALL conspiracy theories are cop-outs to comfort." And what "conspiracy theories" come to Gibson's mind? "Everything from 'who killed Kennedy' to the 'Trilateral Commission,'" he replies. "Anything that is a conspiracy theory that purports to explain everything. I think that's why these things are popular. They're inherently comforting." "My take on that stuff is that any depiction of the real nature of history that I can get my head around can't be true," Gibson concludes. "If I can get my little mammalian brain around a theory of history, it's got to be woefully inadequate to describe reality on the face of it. I'm thinking of the short-form MK-Ultra, 'aliens are stealing our genetic material'... or the 'Freemasons run the universe' kind of thing." The irony, of course, is that Gibson's fiction is rife with ruling class conspiracies and underclass counter-conspiracies. Indeed his books pulse with the rhythms of subrosa plots, counterplots and intercorporate multinational ruling class warfare. Subterfuge and double-cross are, in fact, the life blood of the denizens of Gibson's world. Gibson, by the way, has also written for conspiracy exploitation shows like X Files and Harsh Realms, mining the deep dark lodes of real life treachery and intrigue. Conspiracy Theories -- and science fiction -- are after all "just entertainment." Conspiracy Realities, however, are still not ready for prime time. Copyright 2000 Uri Dowbenko Uri Dowbenko is CEO of New Improved Entertainment Corp. He can be reached by e mail at u.dowbenko@mailcity.com