For the November, 1987 issue of High Times, former Heavy Metal editor Lou Stathis interviewed William Gibson about his emerging science fiction career. In honor of Gibson’s 72nd birthday on March 17, we’re republishing the interview below.
William Gibson is the cyberpunk Manute Bol. Ludicrously tall (maybe six and a half feet), impossibly skinny, and with a spine curved by the brutal ravages of Terran gravity, he cuts not so much a dashing figure as a question mark. Though a lingering drawl betrays his rural Virginia upbringing, he parks himself these days in moist Vancouver, British Columbia, with his almost-as-skinny wife and a couple of papooses. Novel-wise his books include NEUROMANCER, the CITIZEN KANE of cyberpunk, and its sequel, COUNT ZERO, the, uh, MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS of cyberpunk. His handful of short stories have been collected in BURNING CHROME. Most recently he’s completed a screenplay for ALIEN III, about which he’s been sworn to secrecy by producers David Giler and Walter Hill. “There’s an implied world in the art direction of the first two movies,” he says. “You can deduce a lot about what’s happening back home. And in the third one, it turns out that it’s more complex than one would have thought.” Original director Ridley Scott and designer H.R. Giger are reportedly being sought, but nothing is yet confirmed. Gibson is now completing his third novel, THE MONA LISA OVERDRIVE, which Bantam Books hopes to have out some time next year.
HIGH TIMES: There’s a lot of drug use in your books. Was this wishful thinking on your part, or just a part of the world as you saw it?
GIBSON: Well, I don’t know. When I first started writing this stuff—1981, I just thought it was part of the world. Looking back on it, it does look like wishful thinking. But for that matter, people having casual sex now looks like wishful thinking. I mean, sometimes the set changes faster than one can extrapolate.
What with all the anti-drug hysteria have you gotten much flak about it?
Not really. Mainstream science-fiction writers have put it down for being sort of a downer.They say, ‘How can you be so negative about the future?’ And I don’t think I’m being negative at all—I think I’m wildly optimistic.
Well, your stuff is just basically ambiguous, the way the world is. It’s a bogus issue, like whether you’re anti-technology or pro-technology. I mean, technology is a fact of our lives, and it’s transmuting us physically and mentally.
Yeah, it’s like somebody coming up to you and asking, ‘Are you pro-breathing or anti-breathing?’
Why do you bother writing science fiction, anyway? So much of it is such bogus garbage these days.
Well, I don’t think there’s any area of pop culture that’s innately bogus. This so-called cyberpunk thing is kind of a roots movement. All these guys, who have nothing else in common, take this science fiction stuff quite seriously—more seriously than I do. But I think there’s some part of myself that I seldom access consciously that really loves this stuff. Maybe I don’t like the way it’s usually played. I did come in from an angle of attack that was kinda like, ‘Let’s get this thing back on track.’
Did you go about it with a conscious game plan?
Pretty much. I set out to do certain things backwards. I had a sense of what the expectations of the SF industry were in terms of product, and I reversed them. I hated what was going on so much, that I just turned it around.
Like, instead of male lead characters who were macho competent men, you gave us Case in NEUROMANCER, who’s something of a pathetic loser? You said in another interview that when you were writing NEUROMANCER, you were conscious of accessing the fucked-up adolescent in you—was that Case?
Well, yeah, that was quite conscious—that’s my teenage book. It’s not autobiographical in any sense, but the characters are drawn out of my sense of what people like that are like. It’s about this huge unfocused angst, combined with a kind of lack of affect about the real horrible shit that’s happening around you. Something I’ve seen in a lot of people.
And what about Molly, the tough little hit-dame who saves Case’s butt? She also a reversal?
Well, actually she’s more a cop from Howard Hawks (acclaimed director of such films as BRINGING UP BABY). And she’s, as far as I can tell, the real popular thing about the book—she’s the one people dress up like at science-fiction conventions.
Really? That must be spooky, like seeing your bad dreams come to life…NIGHTMARE ON GIBSON STREET…
Well, that’s one of the scary things about writing. When I do this stuff, I feel like I’m dangerously close to inventing reality; because often if you write about something, you do run into it later. It’s enough to make you careful about what you’re creating.
Any other SF expectation you were playing with?
Well, I wanted it to be really impossible, in terms of textual evidence, for anybody to determine that the United States still existed as a political entity. It’s not even that you can’t tell who’s running the country—you can’t even tell if it’s a country.
Which is a given in so much American science fiction.
Yeah, in most American SF, America is the future, and that’s rubbed me the wrong way for a really long time.
Okay, we’ve been spending a lot of time badmouthing science fiction—there must be something good about it.
Well, I know it had a liberating effect on me when I was a teenager. I have never forgotten that SF in the early sixties was the sole source of subversive information that I had. I was isolated—but so are most people to one extent or another—and here are all of these crazy, monstrous souls writing this stuff (or at least half a dozen of them were). It attuned me to all the strange data coming in from outside, and it’s really still enough of an oddball community to keep my interest.
Are there any other SF writers who still excite you?
Well, Bruce Sterling is still my favorite. I mean, he’s got so many ideas per page that, you know, hundreds of other SF writers could subsist in a parasitic relationship with his ideas for a decade. And Greg Bear, who is seriously into science in a way that I’m not. That still has the capacity to chill me. And I really liked a book by Marc Laidlaw called DAD’S NUKE—and he’s actually young; he might even be under thirty. But, I think the favorite stuff that I’ve read lately are two books by a guy named Madison Smartt Bell, THE WASHINGTON SQUARE ENSEMBLE, and WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD—brilliant books. And the guy is really lucky he didn’t get stuck being a science fiction writer, because the books have all the elements of that kind of fiction.
I see these guys basically as the children of (Thomas) Pynchon, I think he was the start of all that—
You mean like RUBICON BEACH by Steve Erickson, EASY TRAVEL TO OTHER PLANETS by Ted Mooney, and FISKADORO by Denis Johnson—this mutant breed of near-SF, crossed with surrealism, realism, and pop culture imagery?
Yeah, I think if you went and met those guys, they all would have turned out to have read GRAVITY’S RAINBOW a couple of times and been very much influenced by it.
Yeah, and maybe they read SF when they were 12, but haven’t touched it in 15 years.
Well, I don’t know—I read an essay by Pynchon in the Sunday Times Book Review a couple of years back, and he said something about the basic wonderfulness of science fiction. I’ll bet he sits around and reads it for pleasure.
You really think so? How embarrassing—that’s like someone going through your underwear drawer…
I don’t know—we all have these weird hungers that culture and subculture lay on us at an early age. These guys probably all read the crappy SF that I can’t stand—that’s, as I see it, the essence of post-modernism. Mongrelization. Hyphenization of culture. And my experience with people that have that particular sort of taste has been that they are bizarrely catholic in terms of what they like. You know, one night they’ll take you to see mud wrestling, and the next night, Billy Graham. It’s all grist for the mill.
Is that the way your mind works—absorbing things like flypaper?
Well, it would if I weren’t so lazy. But yeah, I think that’s a fairly common state for writers. I think the most difficult thing is attaining a sufficiently open mind about, you know, what you let emerge. It’s largely a matter of context how effective it’s going to be. It’s a very intuitive process, this unwinding of memory. That’s what the computer metaphor in my books is about, really, human memory—the how and the why of remembering. I think we are memory in some ways; without it we wouldn’t be ourselves. Yet it is so easily subject to revision.
And therefore reality is subject to revision as well?
Yeah, I think so. That’s been the main undercurrent of psychiatry for the past 50 years or so, this revision of memory and getting back to first causes. I always thought straight Freudian analysis was like a time travel story, you know—if you could work your way back in your memory, and—
—Fuck your mother—
Yeah, fuck your mother, then you’re free, and it then proceeds back up the time stream. At the other end, we are approaching the point of downloading human consciousness into some sort of artificial matrix.
Downloading what? Information, or actual consciousness?
That’s where I get lost…seems to me that information—memory—and consciousness are perhaps the same thing. But it’s kind of like cloning in that we’re talking about making multiple copies of human consciousness, and downloading them into anything—other bodies, robots, or Alfa Romeos, even. It’s things like that that make my head hurt when I sit down and think about them.
Great interview. I’m hoping that his best stuff is not behind him. His latest, “The Agency” is such formulaic drivel that one can only surmise he’s in a success bubble, where everyone tells him he’s great so his work atrophies. The critical feedback loop is impaired because nothing succeeds like success.
Instead of the usual Gibson recipe: Athletic lithe female with weird name works for an elusive high-tech company with shady interests, meets down and out guy with special combat and tech skills and after a few betrayals by incidental characters, reeks havoc and causes a shakedown in a few alphabet combines, I’d would like to see more original material. I know he’s capable of it.