Sunday, August 19, 2007

21st Century Gibson

Every decade or so, a writer of such talent comes along that he completely redefines a genre. William Gibson is one such writer. He literally invented cyberspace, both the word and the concept. His innovations concerning the relationship between man and computers and society have become conventional wisdom and even cliché. If anyone can claim to have created the future instead of merely predicted it he can. The brothers Wachowski owe Neuromancer a debt they can never repay.

As soon as I found out that Gibson was coming to the DC area in promotion of his new book Spook Country, I knew I had to be there. I bribed my wife with banh mi and pho and headed down to the BigBoxOfBooks in Baileys Crossing, Virginia.

Taller and even lankier than his book jacket photos would suggest and wearing an iPod Shuffle on a olive drab bandolier, he read a passage at random and then took questions. The biggest controversy over his last two novels is how contemporary they are. There isn’t a neural interface jack or set of bionic fingernails in sight. He explained that when he started writing in 1981, he was writing about the weird complicated world of the 21st century and the actual 21st century has proven to be weirder and more complicated than that. It may take him awhile to let his imagination stretch to fit the new possibilities.

He sometimes writes sentences of such pure hallucinogenic twistedness it’s like a Beat poet took a snort of Betaphenethylamine and got stuck in his typewriter. He explained that sometimes he writes a phrase so poetic that even he is only barely aware of what it means. He allows the reader to take them or leave them as they see fit.

Continuing on the rift between literary fiction and genre fiction, he made two interesting observations. One was that the original derivation of the world “novel” inferred novelty and that as genres became established, the effect was to create novels that weren’t uncomfortably different what you might have already read, thus losing much of their novel-ness. He also expressed dismay that hardcore science fiction fans refer to non-genre fiction as “mundane”. He noted that that dismissive word encompassed the works of Mark Twain, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

He literary influences include J.G. Ballard and Thomas Pynchon. He is confounded that Ballard does not get more credit than he does and he notes that Pynchon’s writing filled the hole in his reading that Philip K. Dick does in others. He praised The Man In The High Castle, but remarked that Dick and his books became clinically insane towards the end.

He defended charges of being obsessed with brands by saying he was only taking a naturalistic approach to writing. Ignoring marketing and advertising in today's culture, he said, would be akin to writing about Victorians and ignoring factories. It's what we do. He asserted that most people know what brands they were wearing at any given time whether they wanted to admit it or not. Since I was wearing a Chinese counterfeit Ralph Lauren polo shirt, I was busted.

I asked a question about his characters that seemed to have a penchant for collecting antiquities and his own collecting habits. He said he wasn’t so much interested in collecting as he was in examining the rationalizing of the value of stuff in your attic through eBay. He said he uses eBay to collect a file of jpeg’s of his dimly remembered childhood toys. Thanks to the meticulousness of the internet he can recite information such as years of production and point of origin for toys that as a child he didn’t even realize had names.

He indulged me when I dropped a rather tall pile of hardbacks to be signed including a first edition of Count Zero. He was impressed that my copy of The Difference Engine had been signed by co-author Bruce Sterling at Worldcon 50 nearly 15 years ago. I hope to still be reading Gibson’s predictions and observations fifteen years from now and even further.

I leave you with a short excerpt of his reading where he details a barbeque stand that serves as a central meeting place in Spook Country.

BlantantCommentWhoring™: What other writers have so radically transformed a genre?


Anonymous said...

It's been quite a while since I read Gibson, and I think Count Zero was the last. In a lot of ways, his stuff from back then was so firmly rooted in its period, that it is almost quaint now. (The macguffin in Neuromancer is 3 MB of memory. People wouldn't get that worked up about 3 petabytes of memory these days.) I don't know if he really transformed the genre or if he simply tapped into the zeitgeist. Did cyberpunk really have any long-lasting effect on SF? Compared to Campbell, Heinlein, or the New Wave authors, I'd say he didn't change much.

Anyway, the obvious answer to your question is Tolkein. Certainly, fantasy has never been the same since. It is also a change for the worse, if you look at adult fantasy before him: Mervyn Peake, Cabell, Fletcher Pratt and De Camp, several others that just vanished out of my head. Of course, the fault isn't Tolkein's, but Lester and Judy-Lynn Delrey, who essentially forced writers to turn out cookie-cutter fantasies, thus killing genuine adult fantasy literature and making it highly profitable at the same time.

And Anne Rice turned vampires into overwrought, fey, drama queen anti-heroes. When in the last 25 years, has a vampire been a bad guy unless he's opposed by another vampire?

yellojkt said...

Terry Brooks in my mind destroyed fantasy. Sword of Shanarra was such a blatant Tolein rip-off that it emboldened everybody else.

Never read any Anne Rice, but you probably have a strong point.

Anonymous said...

Sword of Shannara not only ripped of Tolkein, but Star Wars, too. And who published a book by an author who showed promise but wasn't quite ready for the big leagues? Delrey.

A lot of authors will express very strong opinions about both Brooks and the Delreys depending on how offguard/loudmouthed they are. Barbara Hambly is the one who tipped me off about Delrey. Apparently, Lester forced her to make some changes in a couple of her early novels that she was less than happy about.

2fs said...

I'm not sure, as I'm not an expert on any particular genre of fiction...but I do know that Gibson's an astonishing stylist and a compelling storyteller. I think one thing he's done is help de-ghettoize SF: I'm guessing that twenty years ago, someone like Neal Stephenson, having written a 2000-page historical novel like The Baroque Cycle, would have huffily insisted it was just that (historical fiction) rather than, as Stephenson does, insisting it's still SF because there are a handful of historically anomalous elements and oddities there, beyond just the usual liberties historical fiction writers might take. And writers like DeLillo and Pynchon can write novels that are nearly SF and not have them (or themselves) marginalized for doing so.

I'll have to pick up that Gibson book.

yellojkt said...

Vonnegut once said that the only problem with being stuck in a drawer labeled "Science Fiction" is that so many critics mistake it for a urinal.

A lot of writers have tried to break out of the ghetto with indifferent success. It causes a lot of confusion about where to look for a book.