Gibson, William Ford (Profile)
It seemed like a good idea to take William Gibson up the CN Tower. From the virtual-reality arcade in the basement to the space needle's blinking spire, the tower is Toronto's earnest monument to The Future. And people are always asking William Gibson about The Future. The Vancouver-based science fiction writer is, after all, the oracle credited with coining the word "cyberspace." But Gibson - whose work ranges from the blockbuster novel Neuromancer (1984) to the new movie Johnny Mnemonic - is quick to disclaim any prophetic powers. And as it turns out, he is bemused, even faintly annoyed, by the tower, an artifact of '70s naïveté that reminds him more of the past than the future. "It's just like the one I went to in East Berlin," says the lanky author as he steps from the elevator onto the turntable floor of the revolving restaurant. Over dinner, he admits to feeling a little queasy from watching the windowsill slowly slide by. But as the sky darkens, he marvels at the view, the electric riddle of the city spread out below, like a vast circuit board. He picks a glowing blue rectangle out of the matrix. "Is that a swimming pool," he asks, "or a giant PowerBook screen?"
Gibson has become adept at viewing the world from a mind-warping distance. In essence, that is what he does in his writing. The 47-year-old author, who was raised in Virginia but has lived in Canada since 1969, has reinvented the landscape of science fiction. He brought fresh literary cachet to a pulp genre, a New Wave sensibility that owes more to William Burroughs than to Jules Verne. Neuromancer, a first novel that swept the major sci-fi awards, lit up the zeitgeist in flashing neon. With lyrical prescience, it described the Internet before the Internet really existed: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination ... data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding." Gibson, says Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, "is a poet of this new world. He has popularized it, and coined new words, without even trying."
Remarkably - and this has become part of the Gibson mystique - the poet laureate of cyberspace has never really spent any time there. He wrote Neuromancer on a 1927 Hermes portable typewriter. He now uses a relatively ancient Macintosh SC/30 computer - without a modem. Recently, he did some on-line publicity stunts to promote Johnny Mnemonic. But he says he has not surfed the Net, and is in no hurry to. Now, Gibson figures that he might as well wait for the technology to mature. "I'll have a much more intense initial experience if I let it cook for a few years," he says. "I want real-time video, the works."
Gibson speaks in an easygoing, laconic drawl that is still strongly colored by his Virginian upbringing. There is a studied casualness to his appearance: a wayward thatch of brown hair, polished English walking shoes, a black jean jacket framing a green Gaultier tie with a gold handprint. Gibson is not entirely comfortable with his media image. "I owe my reputation as an oracle to the Sunday supplement writers of the world," he says. "But I can't claim to have completely clean hands, because I'm marketed as science fiction - 'Yo! Here's your hot ticket to the future, get the new William Gibson novel!' As penance, I spend almost every interview saying [in a singsong cant], 'Science fiction is not really about the future. I'm not predicting anything. I just want you to watch CNN through a different lens.' "
Gibson is often called the father of "cyber-punk," a mongrel blend of hallucinatory sci-fi, existentialism, satire and hard-boiled crime narrative. Since Neuromancer, he has published three novels - Count Zero (1986), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) and Virtual Light (1993). They are tales of computer cowboys riding the digital badlands and lethal women performing hot-wired voodoo. They live under terminal capitalism, in cities of scary drugs and secret data, where outlaw hackers hide out in industrial ruins, trying to outwit sinister corporate entities with roots in Japan. It is a multinational world of multiple personalities, overlapping characters who fade in and out of the cybernetic ether. Duelling with hardware and software, they chase each other down byzantine corridors in places with names like Night City and the Sprawl.
Gibson's fiction is intensely cinematic, but translating it to the screen is a daunting prospect. "Some very bad movies could have been made of Neuromancer over the years," says the writer, who has vetoed a variety of proposals. "It's a franchise. In order to do it well, it would have to be an $80-to-$90-million movie." But Gibson offered Johnny Mnemonic, one of his early short stories, to a friend, New York City artist Robert Longo, who had directed some experimental films and rock videos. "By then, virtually everything else I'd written was under option," he recalls. "So I dusted this off and said, 'Look, it's short, but it has in larval form everything that I did subsequently, which we could appropriate for our own purposes.' "
In fact, Gibson's script freely pirates material from his novels. "It's heavily larded with Gibsonisms and quotes from my work," he admits. "Part of me was saying, 'If they make this, you may never get to do it again, so you might as well put in all your favorite things.' " But he was careful not to use certain franchise trademarks, such as the retractable razor nails that Neuromancer's heroine inherited from her predecessor in the original Johnny Mnemonic. Longo and Gibson had originally planned to make a low-budget art film. But Johnny Mnemonic mushroomed into a $38-million movie backed by Tri-Star Pictures and Canada's Alliance Communications, with Keanu Reeves heading an eclectic cast including rapper Ice-T and Japanese star Takeshi. Gibson plunged into the film-making process, lending a hand in everything from set design to editing. The shoot took place in Toronto and Montreal, and by most accounts it was a rough one - a case of a novice director in over his head. "It's the closest I'll probably get to what it's like to be in a war," says Gibson, "except you're not killing anyone. The actual production is like a medieval military operation. It has enormous charm. You fall in love with people two or three times a day. But overall it's a difficult thing."
Stung by some early hostile reviews, last week Gibson was bracing himself for the possibility of a disastrous reception to his movie. "But I don't think I have anything to be ashamed of," he says, adding that he cannot be accused of selling out. "This took four years, longer than it took me to get a BA in English. I made less on this than I make on writing a novel in a year and a half." Gibson's contract for his new novel, Idoru, which is due out next year, could earn him well over $1 million, although the figure is contingent on it becoming a major best-seller and generating a Hollywood movie deal. Meanwhile, he says that Neuromancer "sells more copies every year. It gives me a good living all on its own."
A landed immigrant, the author lives with his wife of 24 years, Deborah Thompson, a former English teacher, and their two children - Graeme, 18, and Claire, 12 - in a restored 1911 wood-frame house in Vancouver's Kitsilano district. He drives a Dodge Caravan. He is about to move to a slightly larger wood-frame house a few blocks away. And he says he has no desire to go back to live in the United States - "I like countries with strong gun laws."
William Gibson III (as he is named on his passport) grew up in Wytheville, Va., near Roanoke, a small town where the military draft board could be found just upstairs from the gun store. "I had an unspeakably ghastly Southern gothic childhood," he says. "Memories of it are like memories of the 1930s. It was so backward. I grew up under apartheid. Black people couldn't drink from the same water fountain. It was a world where the people who cleaned people's houses were the descendents of people who cleaned their great-grandparents' houses."
An only child, Gibson lost his father when he was 6 and his mother when he was 18. His father, William Gibson Jr., was a relatively affluent, white-collar employee in the construction industry. "His company made their nut installing all the toilets for the Oak Ridge atomic bomb project," recalls the author, adding that his father choked to death on a piece of steak in a restaurant while travelling on business. His mother, Elizabeth Otey Gibson, was a housewife and an volunteer librarian - the town had no library, but she helped set one up in a storefront. William shared her passion for books and, as a teenager, became obsessed with science fiction.
At 16, Gibson went away to boarding school in Arizona at his own request. Two years later, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was called in for a preinduction examination in Roanoke and was temporarily branded unfit for military service. "I was such an odd duck," he explains. "I'd been in Arizona and California, and I had inhaled, and it showed." Eager to put a little more distance between himself and the draft, Gibson decided to check out Toronto. Gradually, he ended up living there and discovered the counterculture in the boom-town bohemias of Yorkville and Rochdale College.
Marrying his Vancouver-born wife in 1971, he moved with her back to her home town, where they both completed bachelor degrees at the University of British Columbia. Gibson began his writing career shyly, with a series of short stories published in magazines. The first, Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977), is just seven pages. But its fiercely poetic, elliptical narrative is like a strand of DNA that predicts all the basic traits of his future work: coded memories, virtual leisure, shantytown outlaws, revolution, surveillance, dreams, sex, drugs and switchblades. With his next few stories, notably Johnny Mnemonic and Burning Chrome, he introduced cyberspace scenarios and characters that resurfaced again and again in the trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Shifting gears in 1990, he co-wrote a backward time-travel novel called The Difference Engine with a former mentor, Texan writer Bruce Sterling. "Bill has enormous natural gifts," says Sterling. "He has good taste yet he's not restrained, which is an odd combination. And he personifies his generation - he really put his thumb on something."
Cyberculture could be seen as a '90s upgrade of '60s psychedelia - mind expansion by other means. "It's historically safe," Gibson acknowledges, "to say that personal computers were invented by acidheads - acid-eating, garage-living hippies in California. I'm sorry, but it's true."
Just as the drug culture was colonized, commercialized - and diverted to dangerous new tastes such as crack cocaine - cyberspace is rapidly losing its innocence. "The thing I've always admired about the Internet is that it is not a corporate entity," says Gibson. "But corporations are free to come and go in there as well as individuals." As advertising invades the Net, his own movie is right in there with the Johnny Mnemonic Scavenger Hunt, a contest sponsored by Tri-Star's parent, Sony, on the World Wide Web. Net advertisers are "inventing the equivalent of the sandwich board," Gibson adds, "but it's going to get much more intense. I got tired of all that talk about the information highway. It reminds me of a shopping mall, and malls have something to do with privatization of public space."
Gibson says he coined "cyberspace" after watching teenagers play primitive video games in a Vancouver arcade. "Their posture seemed to indicate that they really, sincerely believed there was something behind the screen," he recalls. "I took that home and tried to come up with a name for it. I literally did sit down at a typewriter one night and go, 'Dataspace? Noooo. Infospace? Boring. Cyberspace? Hmmm. It's got sibilance. It sounds interesting.' What did it mean? I had no clue. It was like an empty chocolate cup awaiting the whipped cream."
Now, the cup runneth over. On his current publicity tour, Gibson had the sobering experience of being called the grandfather of cyber-punk by a radio host. And he was interviewed by a Wall Street Journal writer who had "cyberspace correspondent" on his business card. "I know now that the word is in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary," he sighs. "And it kind of horrifies me that that's what I'll be remembered for, the thing that lasts the longest, because actually I wanted to be a novelist."
Gibson modestly maintains that, in fact, he has had no influence on the architecture of cyberspace, only on its marketing. But for all his complaints of being typecast, he has done little to avoid it. His fiction continues to rework the same themes that made him famous. And, while his early writing was dense and incandescent, beautifully cryptic, his last novel, Virtual Light - and his Johnny Mnemonic script - marshals his ideas into more conventional, linear narrative.
All Gibson's fiction keeps coming back to the idea that media images are just shards and constructs, pixel personas refracted through the media. His new novel, Idoru, is about a Japanese pop star who does not really exist. The idea was inspired by the true story of a Tokyo teen idol who was a virtual construct, composite of a singer's voice, a lip-synching performer, and a model whose face appeared on magazine covers. "We are being shoved up against futurity with such violence," says Gibson, "that science fiction may become a historical term." His ultimate challenge, he adds, would be to write a novel set in the real world that would have all the weirdness of his science fiction.
Meanwhile, he has published one intimate, autobiographical work, a poem called Agrippa (Book of the Dead). It was sold as a high-priced art object, with the text on a disk programmed to erase itself after one reading. Hackers, however, managed to download Agrippa onto the Internet, where it is now freely available. The poem, an evocative account of his Virginian youth - playing with a gun "so worn you hardly had to pull trigger" - and of finding haven in Toronto, "mazed in Victorian brick/amid sweet tea with milk/and smoke from a cigarette called a Black/Cat."
The city has changed since then. At the CN Tower, Gibson poses for photographs with the virtual-reality games in the basement. He examines them with weary dismay, saying he tested one when it was just a prototype. Reluctantly, Gibson dons a Day-Glo harness and a gun to pose with a laser-tag game called Q-ZAR. The space-cadet image is all wrong, he says. "Run this photo," he laughs, "and it will undermine everything I've tried to do for 10 years." But before leaving, he plays a round of the game like an eager kid.
After dinner, Gibson steps outside for a smoke on the observation deck. It is a clear night, and there is a stiff wind. Far below, the city's circuitry is spread out as flat as a prairie, a shimmering sprawl of light that seems suspended in space, cross-hatched by the mesh of the deck's safety net. Gibson remembers picturing cyberspace in "the first micro-photographs of computer chips - which looked a lot like aerial photographs of cities." He says: "One insight I've had recently is that the Internet may be important because we are seeing something akin to what we did when we invented cities." Gibson glances to the horizon, at Victoria Day fireworks making zinnia blooms in the distance. "We invented this, as a species! Amazing really," he says, looking out at the city - like someone staring up at the stars and glimpsing infinity.
Maclean's June 5, 1995