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William Gibson in Austin, June 11, 2008

William Gibson at his reading at Barnes & Noble in Austin in 2008

William Gibson gave a reading, answered audience's questions and signed books in Barnes & Noble on June 11, 2008. He started by saying he was glad to be back in Austin, a city that 14 years ago was ground zero for the "so-called" cyberpunk movement. Then the microphone failed. The irony of this happening right before the speech of a writer who pioneered a new attitude towards technology in science fiction did not escape the audience. After a few attempts by B&N staff to fix the microphone, Gibson gave up and said he'll do a reading a capella. "I don't let technology get in my way," he said. "People have been reading books aloud for centuries. I'm gonna do it the way Byron did it, the way Dylan Thomas did it, except sober." And he read part of the first chapter of his latest novel, "Spook Country".

Then Gibson answered audience's questions. A few of those questions were specifically about "Spook Country", and they didn't make much sense without having read the novel. Others were about writing and Gibson's view of the world in general. Here are a few questions and Gibson's answers. Does he consider his works to be dystopian? Does he create his characters deliberately, or do they spontaneously generate themselves? The latter is definitely the case, as in an example of a character that grew out of a white room. Is there really such a cultural phenomenon as cyberpunk? Last, not knowing much about technology can enable a SF writer to see the forest for the trees.

Pictures available in my photo gallery.

William Gibson at Barnes and Noble

William Gibson smirks at a nonworking microphone. More pictures available in my photo gallery.

Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder

Q. Do you consider your works, sort of settings, to be dystopian, or is that not accurate of how you see near future, or our current predicament?

A. Dystopia is an absolute, a literary conceit, and so is utopia. Nobody ever really lives in a dystopia, people just live in a really really nasty society. Take a book like Neuromancer. The sprawl in Neuromancer, is it tending to dystopia, or to utopia? It depends on whether you are a white middle class American, or in Zaire. People all over the world would migrate to the world of Neuromancer in an eyeblink. It would be so much better than what they currently live in. They would be all over the docks, clutching tickets.

Characters that force themselves on the writer

Q. Do you find yourself creating characters, or do you find characters spontaneously generating themselves?

A. If I create them, they're not very good. If they force themselves onto me from my unconscious, and refuse to do what I sort of brought them to do, then they turn into a good character.

When I was studying comparative critical methodology, I ran into Forster's dictum, that a writer isn't doing his or her job if he or she is in some degree of control over his or her characters. Back then I didn't know what that meant, but when I started to write fiction, I started to get it. It took me a long time to cultivate the necesary loss of control. I still find it incredibly scary. I find when I am in control, I won't like the work, and I won't like the characters as much.

I found myself really liking the character of Milgram, and he came out of nowhere. He wasn't [originally planned to be] in the book. But I tried to picture Brown when Brown breaks into Tito's room to change the battery [?], and I found this nameless point of view [...], and it was Milgram. He came from nowhere nad I couldn't really control it. And I have no idea why he's addicted to benzodiazepines. I totally made up his neuropharmacological state.

Gibson doesn't necessarily do research to plan a character's personality and behavior. "The characters arrive because I've already got something to hang them on," he says.

With Tito it was an odd combination of things. It was photograph that a friend of mine in New York put up on a website, an interior of his place, somewhere down around where Tito's place was. It was one tall square room with white walls, in a building where people are probably not supposed to be living. The characrters drew out of the picture of that room. I started elaborating, and fleshing it in, and suddenly I got this kid, who was very complicated, gratifying and weird background. This guy's arrived, and he's got baggage. He's got a ton of great baggage. I can spread the baggage all over the stage, and it will feel more real.

What has become of cyberpunk?

One person in the audience seemed to suggest that iPhone was inspired by cyberpunk literature, and asked what other cyberpunk inventions inspired real technology. Gibson's reply suggested he does not credit cyberpunk with anything as serious as that. He thinks of cyberpunk as some kind of retro 80s idea. He said, "I think of cyberpunk as a phantom ship of popular culture. When they say, did you those shoes Pat was wering at a club last night? They were kinda cyberpunk! [...] Cyberpunk is from when we were here, and cyberspace was kind of over there. But now cyberspace is here, and "over there" is where's there's no connectivity. [...] The kinda stuff that you can follow every day on Boing Boing is what cyberpunk grew into."

Steam engine time

William Gibson says: "When I was writing Neuromancer I was in a terrible hurry, because I thought 20 other SF writers were doing the same thing. There's this thing in SF called steam engine time. It's a historical peculiarity that ancient Greeks built those little toy steam engines, but never used them. Suddenly a time comes and [everybody's using them]. In SF community, 20 writers get the same idea and mail off novels at the same time. With Neuromancer I didn't feel prescient at all. I just wanted to get my idea out first. But then what happened, I noticed there weren't many novels like that. Traditional SF writers would come up to me at conventions and said, this would never happen. There will never be enough bandwidth. And you know what my secret weapon was? I didn't know what bandwidth was." Unfamiliarity with technological details allowed him to see the forest for the trees, he says.

Here is my blog post on William Gibson's 2010 appearance promoting his latest novel, "Zero History".