William Gibson's randomized experience
William Gibson — the writer who famously coined the term "cyberpunk" and whose classic tech-punk novels like Neuromancer and The Difference Engine helped spawn a couple generations' worth of bleak, busted fantasies — is now on tour promoting his first collection of nonfiction. Comprising essays, articles, and speeches from the last 30 years, Distrust That Particular Flavor surveys Gibson's real-life inquiries into far-flung locales (his critical piece on Singapore got Wired magazine banned there in the '90s) and Internet trends like eBay. I spoke with him recently over the phone from his home in Vancouver about everything from the challenge of non-fiction, the Internet as a tool in social change, the disappearance of the future from our imaginations, and last year's Stanley Cup riots.
“Any version of history that somebody can explain to you over the course of two beers is a conspiracy theory.”
I have memories of seeing some of this in original format and your careful, inquisitive tone still holds up — what do you think? I'm glad — as you can probably tell from the introduction, I wasn't too sure about the project initially. Prior to that, I was scared to go back and look at all that stuff because I was afraid I wouldn't think much of it. And it's not like I fell in love with it, but I came to terms with it. I can see that it's where I'm from.
With a lot of your commentary throughout the book, there's sort of an apologetic tone about it, like you're pulling out old embarrassing clothes from a trunk. I guess so. I mean, to me it would be even creepier if you were pulling the clothes out of the trunk and going, "Damn, this was hot!" That would worry me more. I think the correct response to one's earlier work is a kind of guarded sort of, "It's . . . okay. That's sort of okay." Otherwise, I'd be totally into myself, which is something that writers can famously do. It's something I've always thought to watch out for.
When you were first getting involved in this kind of writing, were you seeking out assignments like this or were magazines seeking you out? I didn't do anything actually. It's funny because it was kind of an inadvertent career. I didn't have business cards made or network at all. I think probably Rolling Stone was the first real magazine to ask me to do anything, and that brought me to the attention of other magazines. Then Wired magazine, back in the pre-Conde Nast crazy period, really got it going. They were quite successful, so they could afford to do crazy things. They'd call me up and say, "Where would you like to go?" [Laughs.]. I'd say, "Okay. How about Singapore?" That was very interesting that way. I think they sent Neil Stephenson completely around the world following some Internet cable. Like, physically, from continent to continent. You should see the pieces about it. It was a very interesting that way.
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