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Redefining William Gibson
An interview with Donna McMahon
January 2003

© Karen Moskowitz
William Gibson
William Gibson
William Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina, spent his childhood in southwestern Virginia, and left the United States for Canada when he was 19. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife and their two children. His first novel, Neuromancer, won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 1984. He is also the author of Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Burning Chrome, and Virtual Light.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Idoru
SF Site Review: All Tomorrow's Parties
SF Site Review: The Difference Engine
SF Site Review: Idoru
alt.cyberpunk FAQ
Blue Shift on Cyberpunk
An Interview with William Gibson

Pattern Recognition
All Tomorrow's Parties
The Difference Engine

To an international audience of literary critics, philosophers and geeks who read Wired magazine, William Gibson is the revered pundit of post-industrialism.

To his Kitsilano neighbours, he's a really nice family guy (they tell you this anxiously, to reassure you he's not some kind of crazed cyberpunk weirdo).

To the science fiction fans he used to hang out with at the University of B.C., he's a great cartoonist, someone absolutely worth inviting to a party and the only guy as skinny as Spider Robinson.

Born in 1949, Gibson grew up in South Carolina. Until recently he's been very reticent to discuss childhood, but a biography he posted in November (at shares some unexpectedly personal details:

"Gene Wolfe once said that being an only child whose parents are dead is like being the sole survivor of drowned Atlantis. There was a whole civilization there, an entire continent, but it's gone. And you alone remember. That's my story too, my father having died when I was six, my mother when I was 18."

A childhood spent moving frequently from one "red brick Levittown-style" suburb to another, and then a sudden relocation after his father's accidental death to a conservative small town, left Gibson an "introverted, hyper-bookish" adolescent who dreamed of becoming a science fiction writer. His direction shifted abruptly in his teens when his mother sent him to private school, and he discovered Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg, and the rest of the counterculture. When his mother died, he dropped out and turned on, and moved north.

"Having ridden out the crest of the 60s in Toronto, aside from a brief, riot-torn spell in the District of Columbia, I met a girl from Vancouver, went off to Europe with her (concentrating on countries with fascist regimes and highly favorable rates of exchange) got married, and moved to British Columbia, where I watched the hot fat of the 60s congeal as I earned a desultory bachelor's degree in English at UBC."

"In 1977, facing first-time parenthood and an absolute lack of enthusiasm for anything like 'career,' I found myself dusting off my 12-year-old's interest in science fiction."

And science fiction has never been the same. In 1984, Gibson's first novel Neuromancer burst on to the scene, coining the term "cyberspace" and spawning an entire "cyberpunk" sub-genre. He won all the SF awards to be had and then went where few science fiction writers had gone before -- his stylish prose and sharp insights into technology and urban humanity gained him worldwide literary acclaim.

Six more novels and a collection of short stories followed, along with TV and movie screenplays and films made from his story "Johnny Mnemonic" and "New Rose Hotel."

Articulate, poised and always ready with pithy post-modern commentary, Gibson became an international celebrity, even having a 90-minute documentary made about him (No Maps for These Territories, 2001).

Although journalists have described Gibson as "reclusive" (possibly because he doesn't live in New York), he's a familiar figure around Vancouver -- friendly, unpretentious and well known for his quiet kindness to friends. Although he recently started writing a blog (a personal journal posted to the internet), Gibson has always been very protective of his family's privacy and stays away from media glare when at home.

I met with the multi-faceted writer -- freshly jet-lagged from a publicity tour in Copenhagen but always eloquent -- at a Vancouver coffeehouse. We talked about his new book, Pattern Recognition, which marks a new departure in Gibson's career -- a novel that is NOT science fiction. Its present-day storyline follows Cayce Pollard, a New York fashion-industry consultant, whose fascination with enigmatic pieces of film footage discovered on the internet draws her into globe-spanning intrigue.

If Pattern Recognition had been science fiction, would it have made the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books?

I don't know, it might not have. Science fiction as a genre is still marginalized in some ways, but in some other way I never bought the boundaries. I've been saying that since before I actually wrote fiction, so it's not a new attitude.

I've been threatening to write this kind of book for years now. I think I've always been writing this kind of book, actually, this is just overt.

It struck me when I was reading your book that "pattern recognition" is the essence of what science fiction writers do. Would you agree?
Well, I think it's as close as I've gotten so far to the essence of what I do... I've always thought that I was using the conventions and conceits of science fiction to try and take snapshots of an unthinkable present. That was consciously what I was doing from the beginning.

On a very simple basis, I don't think anyone could write a naturalistic novel in 2003 that wouldn't be dealing with one of at least half a dozen inherently science fictional scenarios -- global warming, the AIDS epidemic, genetic manipulations. All these things 30 years ago would have been perfect science fiction story material.

Like the extinction of bananas ...
Yeah. I think rich people are going to have bananas. There'll be like armoured greenhouses somewhere where they'll never let the rot in. They'll go in there on New Year's and eat a banana....

After reading the novel, which is full of brand names, I was left with this burning question: do you look at people and notice the brands of their clothes? Is that something you normally do?
No, it's something I know about but I think if I was really like that, I'd probably be sufficiently ashamed that I'd never put it in a novel. No, I'm more like Cayce. Cayce has a concern for things that transcend fashion, that remain good for a hundred years and would fit in anywhere just because they're well designed and well made. I believe in design. I don't believe in fashion. There are a lot of places where those two modes overlap but for me they're very separate. There's a company in Scotland that makes lovely jackets -- I have a couple. The company's motto is "never in fashion, never out of style."

I'm convinced that, if a time traveller arrived here from 1945, one of the first things he'd notice would be how shabbily people's clothing is made. If you go and look at vintage cheap off-the-rack Canadian work clothing from 1945, it's better-made that Hugo Boss is today. The seams were straighter, it was hand-done, like each garment was made on one machine by one operator who trained all their life to do that and really cared. It wasn't made in a factory in Malaysia by someone quite naturally thinking about other things....

So if half the world is wearing Nikes, does it matter? Is fashion important?
Well, not particularly to me. It's not so much fashion as branding that I was interested in in this book, and how we buy products because the product tells us a story... what we want to believe about ourselves.

But I'm a participant. When I was in Copenhagen, these people were treating me like I was a Marxist. I kept saying "no, you don't get it. I'm totally complicit in all this; otherwise I wouldn't be able to enjoy myself because I'd be totally offended by life in the cities of the early 21st century." And I'm not. I enjoy myself. But I think everybody is a little bit ambivalent and sometimes it does get in your face but I'm not coming from any kind of puritanical ideological position.

Recently the media declared Vancouver the most multi-ethnic city in the world.
You don't know how multi-ethnic Vancouver is until you find yourself in a monoculture, like Copenhagen or Dublin. Everybody there is either Danish or Irish.

Is this a great place for you -- for cool hunting?
This is a great place to live and look at the world. Part of it is that Vancouver has always had a sense for me of being somewhat out of the way. The stampede of the moment is elsewhere. You can sit here and watch it and you can see a little bit -- there's always a little bit of everything going on here -- but I'm never overwhelmed. And it's not too far away from anything. You might be able to get that same sense in Wellington, New Zealand, but at the same time you'd feel you were terribly far away from the rest of the world.

So is that sense of distance the reason why Vancouver doesn't show up much in the Gibson fictional world?
The reason I don't do Vancouver is that I wouldn't want to have to... transfigure it. It's a very personal thing. I would have to become aware of the psycho-geography of Vancouver in a way that I prefer not to. I have these interior maps of New York and London and Tokyo and Los Angeles that I can keep very stark because I'm not in those places that often. But doing it here would change my relationship with the city. Whatever it is I do when I write fiction involves a kind of cultivated hyper-awareness. I can enjoy it when I'm in New York for a couple of weeks but I wouldn't want to have it where I live. I want to be able to relax and drive carefully and not be having cyberpunk epiphanies at every stoplight....

I heard that you were writing Pattern Recognition when the World Trade Center went down and it changed the whole book.
It's a totally different book. I have no idea now what it would have been if that hadn't happened.

So, you scrapped it and went back to scratch?
Well, I'd been working on it for a long time but I didn't actually have very many pages, to the chagrin of my publisher. The contract was getting very old indeed and that was because when I started, I reset what I thought were a couple of really simple parameters. I determined that the events of the book were going to take place exclusively in the summer of 2002, there would only be one viewpoint character throughout the whole book (which is something I've never done before), and her experience would be recorded more or less in real time.

It turned out to be this huge stretch. It felt like writing a first novel. I was doing these really basic things that I didn't know how to do. For the first time, I understood something that more experienced writers had told me, that technique becomes the enemy. The thing that was keeping me from doing something new was how comfortable I'd gotten doing something I already knew how to do. From the beginning I'd relied on multiple viewpoints and the literary equivalent of really high speed cross-cutting ...

It's kind of kaleidoscopic when you're reading All Tomorrow's Parties...
When I couldn't do that it blew my sense of timing completely. I had to constantly rely on feedback from other people on how this thing was reading because it just seemed to me that nothing was happening, like long, static camera shots. But my friends kept saying no, it's full of movement, you just can't see it because you're used to working in a different way.

About two weeks after 9/11, I was sitting at my desk wondering if I was every going to finish this book and it occurred to me that everything in Cayce's back story had ceased to exist -- not only ceased to exist but could never have happened. I'd been writing about New York of 2002 when 9/11 hadn't happened.

So I went back. It was really scary to do that but it was also exciting because it started fitting together and it gave me somewhere to put what I was feeling about 9/11, for which I'm deeply grateful. And I'm so glad that I'm done with that material. I have this feeling every night when I go to bed: thank you, I'm done with that material because there's thousands of people all over this planet lying there thinking about the book they're going to have to write about it. I did mine.

Having only one viewpoint all the way through, I thought, made you get a lot more up close and personal with your character than maybe you've been in the past.
Definitely, but I don't know if that's directly a result of the single viewpoint. There's been a gradual shift from the beginning of my career. In Neuromancer nobody has parents, let alone issues with them. But I think a lot of people have missed that. They think about Rydell, the hapless cop in those last three books, and they forget that he occasionally feels bad because his Dad died of cancer.

You've been talking for a long time now about the demise of sub-cultures, that they're co-opted by marketing forces before they become established. Can you give me an example?
Well, my model for that has always been how long it took to recommodify whatever it was that was happening in the 60s and sell it back to the people who were actually living it. It took three or four years. It was still relatively clumsy. By 1977, it only took about a year and a half for punk to be recommodified and sold back. And whatever was going on in Seattle with Nirvana -- from its discovery it took about three months before there were models on the catwalks in Paris wearing clothing based on what these kids wore on Sentinel Hill in Seattle.

What that says to me is that the future of that stuff is veal. It never gets to mature because it's too valuable. And I suspect it's because whatever that was was an organic function of industrial civilization. We are now post-industrial and we no longer grow bohemias in the same way. I'm wondering where they are? Where's the new equivalent?

Maybe they're not geographic any more.
Yeah, I think they're probably somewhere on the internet. The new organ may be something like the interlinked rings of blogs that form. In Pattern Recognition, Cayce has this Web site bulletin board where she feels like she lives, no matter where she is.

I was reading your blogs...
Yeah, I'm a blogger right now... and a guy who does interviews and that's what I'll be until the marketing phase is over. And then I'll start writing another book.

I was wondering how you were going to find time to keep up with the blogging.
Actually, I find that it's absolutely what one anarchist philosopher called a "ludic" activity -- it's pure play and there's no performance anxiety involved so it doesn't seem to require any energy. This is very nice and I hope it stays that way. I don't think I could do it while I was writing fiction though. It will probably let off all the steam that I need to write fiction.

No chance of anybody commodifying the Gibson blog any time soon?
[grins] Well, I got copyright....

You've been writing as your career for, what, 20 years?
Yeah, I've never done anything else.

So, is it still fun?
Yeah. In some ways it's more fun than it ever was. I know now that if I keep trying to do new things, it'll be fun.

This interview appeared in The Vancouver Sun. It is reprinted with the permission of the interviewer.

Copyright © 2003 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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