William Gibson is the author of the novel Neuromancer, which defined the cyberpunk subgenre. Recent novels include Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History. His latest book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, collects his best nonfiction pieces from the past twenty years.
This interview first appeared on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which currently airs on Wired.com and is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Your new book is called Distrust That Particular Flavor. What does that title refer to?
It’s a phrase from the piece in the collection called “Time Machine Cuba,” and the “particular flavor” is futurists in immediate apocalyptic mode, like, “the world is ending right now, so pay attention to me” . . . it comes after I quote H.G. Wells hitting that particular note in a very particularly shrill way. It’s akin to the “after us, the deluge” rant, which is something I watch for in other science fiction writers, because it’s usually a bad sign.
Futurists get to a certain age and, as one does, they suddenly recognize their own mortality, and they often decide that what’s going on is that everything is just totally screwed and shabby now, whereas when they were younger everything was better.
It’s an ancient, somewhat universal human attitude, and often they give it full voice. But it’s been being given voice for thousands and thousands of years. You can go back and see the ancient Greeks doing it. You know, “All that is good is gone. These young people are incapable of making art, or blue jeans, or whatever.” It’s just an ancient thing, and it’s so ancient that I’m inclined to think it’s never actually true. And I’ve always been deeply, deeply distrustful of anybody’s “golden age”—that one in which we no longer live.
Your new book opens with a photo of a young William Gibson. When was that photo taken, and why did you decide to include it in the book?
I’m not sure when it was taken. It would have been very late ‘80s or very early ‘90s, and I liked it because it was emblematic of the fact that beautiful women actually can marry guys who look like Dr. Seuss characters.
Many of the pieces in the book were written for Wired magazine. How did you first get started writing for Wired, and how did you end up writing so many articles for them?
I had met Kevin Kelly via the Global Business Network, and then Kevin and whoever else started Wired, back when it was a crazy, indie San Francisco thing. So, although I don’t actually remember, I’m sure Kevin called me up and started suggesting gigs, and it was easier and more fun to do that sort of thing with Wired than anybody else, because they weren’t the product of a major publishing company. They didn’t have a huge, ancient culture of magazine publishing in position to make things difficult, so they would suggest genuinely crazy and interesting things to highly unlikely people. I think Bruce Sterling may have gotten in there first and that could have been a factor, too.
Obviously the media world has changed a lot since you first started writing. If you were just getting started today, do you think you’d get into podcasting, YouTube, or webcomics, anything like that?
I think about that when young people ask me what they should do to get started, because when they ask me that, I realize that I don’t know, because I’m not really familiar with the news. When I began, I knew more or less what was possible with what was available then. Today I don’t really know. It’s one of the reasons that writers who’ve been established for a while actually can’t give younger writers very much advice, particularly today, because . . . you know, that stuff didn’t really change much for a long time. I saw advice to young writers when I was in my early teens, in the early ‘60s, that was perfectly valid and useful advice when I began writing in the late ‘70s, because things hadn’t changed that much, but now things have indeed changed quite a lot.
Speaking of your early work, did you basically achieve success right away when you were first sending out your short stories, or did you accumulate a bunch of rejections, like most writers do, before you made your first couple sales?
The first story I wrote was written in a class on science fiction criticism, and then people twisted my arm and forced me to submit it somewhere, and I submitted it to the most obscure market I could find, and it was immediately purchased. That story was “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” in a little magazine called Unearth, which only published people’s first stories. So the next time I wrote a short story, I sent it to that market, and they rejected it. It was some early version of whatever became “Johnny Mnemonic,” and it discouraged me. I was easily discouraged. The rejection discouraged me, and I didn’t go back to writing science fiction stories for a while.
Then a friend of mine, who was much more aggressive and ambitious than I was, had gone to New York and was hustling publication in Omni, and told me they were paying good money and I was a fool not to get in there. So he somehow talked me into submitting to them, and I think the idea of submitting to a bigger market created some pressure that caused me to push a little harder in the rewrite than I would have done submitting to a less big-deal market. Then they bought it. But I went from, you know, a market that paid like $27 for a story to a market that paid like $2,700 for a story of the same length.
So I did everything I could to stay in that market. That was Omni. You know, if you wrote for any of the digest-sized magazines, they’d give you—if you were lucky—a couple hundred bucks. They really didn’t pay. But with Omni you got like $2,700. And that was actually enough money to make a difference. I bought my wife a television set, and I bought myself a plane ticket to New York so I could go and meet the people who’d sent me that check, which actually proved to be a very good investment. After that, I don’t think my science fiction was ever rejected. Omni paid so much more than the other science fiction markets that I never wanted to go anywhere else, and as soon as I got into the novel market, I pretty much quit writing short fiction.
I listened to your Intelligence Squared interview with Cory Doctorow. From what he said, it sounds like a lot of people in Singapore sort of have a complex about you referring to their country as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” Is that the most worked up that people have gotten over something you’ve written, or are there other examples?
No, that’s the only thing I’ve ever written that caused a national government to make a formal complaint to the publisher [laughs] . . . and then to ban the magazine for a while.
The documentary No Maps for These Territories features conversations with you as you sit in the back of this moving car with weird psychedelic effects out the windows. I was just wondering, whose idea was it to do the film like that, and what did you think of the result?
That was Mark Neale’s idea. Mark Neale was the filmmaker there. Mark Neale and I are friends. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it, because it involved being gaffer-taped to the back of the car. And since the psychedelic shit out the window was put in later, I didn’t even get to enjoy that. That said, I’ve only seen it once. I saw it in a theater. I felt I needed to see it all, and to sign off on it. But since I seriously can’t stand the sound of my own recorded voice, it’s not something I’ll be likely to sit through again.
Why were you gaffer-taped to the car?
Well, once I got into the back seat, they had to tape a lot of stuff together. The car was rigged with eight or 10 pencil cameras, and wires all over the place. It was extremely difficult to get me in and out of the vehicle once we got into recording mode. So it was a little awkward that way. It was as though I was taped into the back of the car.
One of the pieces in the book talks about your hobby of collecting antique watches on eBay. Could you tell us about that?
The watch thing was about . . . I eventually figured out it was really about pursuing a totally unnecessary and gratuitous body of really, really esoteric knowledge. It wasn’t about accumulating a bunch of objects. It was about getting into something utterly, witheringly obscure, but getting into it at the level of, like, an extreme sport. I met some extraordinarily weird people. I met guys who could say, “Well, I’ve got this really rare watch, and it’s missing this little piece. Where might I find one?” Then the guy would kind of stare into space for a while, and then he’d say this address in Cairo, and he’d say, “It’s in the back room. The guy’s name is Alif, and he won’t sell, but he would trade it to you if you had this or this.” And it wasn’t bullshit. It was kind of like a magical universe. It was very interesting. But once I’d gotten that far . . . I got to a certain point, and there was just nowhere else to go with it. The journey was complete. Maybe one day I’ll use that stuff in fiction or something.
You wrote a script for Alien 3 that was never filmed. What did you think of the direction the series took, and are you planning to see Prometheus when it comes out?
Oh, gee, I might. You know, I’ve never actually seen Alien 3 [laughs]. I’ve seen the first two. But I’m always curious what Ridley Scott does. I’m more interested in Ridley than I am in the Alien franchise.
So when I first started going to science fiction conventions, I heard this funny story involving you, and I’ve never been sure whether it was true or if it happened the way I heard it, and I was just wondering if you knew what I was talking about. It was this story where you go to a hotel to check in, and you say, “Hi, I’m Mr. Gibson‚” and everyone acts all shocked at the hotel.
It was the Beverly Hills Hotel, and, I don’t know, somebody had checked me in. It was something film-related. It was when I had started doing some contract screenplay work after that Alien 3 script. So I got there, and they were like, you know, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The desk people just looked gobsmacked and really unhappy. So the bellman takes me up to this very fancy suite, and in the suite there’s a table lavishly arrayed with very expensive wines and liquors and floral displays, and a big thing that says: “The Beverly Hills Hotel welcomes Mel Gibson.”
And so I looked at the bellman, and I said, you know, “I’m not him, you can take this stuff away.” And he said, “No, no, you get to keep it.” And I said, “What am I supposed to do with it?” And he said, “Call some friends, have a party.”
Have you written any other recent articles or blog posts or anything that people should check out?
No, all I do is tweet. So they can go to @GreatDismal on Twitter, and there I will be.
You had a recent short story appear in an anthology called Darwin’s Bastards . . .
Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. And you know, I wish that somebody would reprint that somewhere where it would be seen, because I quite liked it, and I hadn’t done a short story for ages, you know, for 20 years or something. That was the first one, and it’s quite unlike any short stories I’d done previously. It’s a Canadian anthology—it’s actually a very good anthology, there’s a lot of really interesting fiction in that thing—but it just doesn’t seem to have had much legs.
What was the story about?
It’s called “Dougal Discarnate.” It’s about a guy who takes acid in Vancouver hippiedom in the late ‘60s or the early ‘70s, and has a really tremendous rush from doing it and leaves his body, and then he can’t get back into his body. And his body is taken to the hospital and it eventually recovers and becomes a stockbroker or a real estate agent or something.
And he’s just left this disincorporated, bodiless spirit haunting this particular neighborhood in Vancouver, which for mysterious reasons he discovers he can’t leave—there’s a sort of invisible barrier. I myself am a character in the story, and I discover this disincorporated guy and become friends with him, and take him to the movies and stuff. He becomes my film-going buddy. But the rest of the story is about how he gets rescued from this seemingly hopeless state, and actually winds up married—sort of—and very, very happy, living in Okinawa. That’s all a spoiler, but you can use it anyway. Maybe it’ll encourage somebody to buy Darwin’s Bastards.
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