WILLIAM THE SCI-FI CONQUEROR
He coined the word cyberspace and helped spawn a new generation of literati called cyberpunks. David Wilson talks to William Gibson about his latest offering and his problem with plots
OUTSIDE THE London branch of cult bookshop Forbidden Planet, William Gibson's PR frets. The 55-year-old sci-fi legend was around a moment ago but has vanished. 'I think he's gone for a cigarette,' she says. Minutes pass. Suddenly ducking out of a side-street, Gibson approaches: a stooped, slender figure dressed in a cowl-like coat that makes him look all the more like a merry monk. The welcoming grin on his face lingers eerily as he lopes closer.
At a restaurant, after ordering 'anything with caramelised onion', Gibson proves a fluid, droll conversationalist. He is not, however, easy to follow because his slow-mo Vancouver drawl is whisper-soft and he never makes eye contact. Instead, Gibson stares at the wine bottles arranged on a wall, looking not quite with it. He may just be jetlagged from touring the United States, which required him to rise every morning at four: 'One of the more unsavoury elements of the job,' he comments - a pretty dramatic statement by his ironic standards.
If Gigolo Joe - the humanoid fop from Steven Spielberg's AI - pranced into the restaurant with Barry White emanating from a stereo tucked inside his polyester suit, this would perhaps raise a smile and an eyebrow from Gibson, but little else.
Quoted as saying that he experiences the symptoms of 'impostor syndrome' (incredulity at personal celebrity status), Gibson is so unassuming that he could be a software engineer from some cubicle farm.
It takes some believing that he is the seer whose 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer, coined the word 'cyberspace', which he defined as 'a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts ? A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system . . . Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding ?'
Mesmerisingly poetic, Neuromancer also presaged a spectrum of key future phenomena from virtual reality to the WorldWideWeb and The Matrix. What is more, it established a new kind of science-fiction literature, called 'cyberpunk', which pits techy outsiders against repressive traditional institutions. Small wonder that Gibson, a University of British Columbia BA English graduate, has won some prizes. For instance, Neuromancer bagged the particularly prestigious, if geeky-sounding, Philip K Dick Award for distinguished science fiction.
Set in the present, his latest offering, Pattern Recognition (Penguin), centres on Cayce Pollard - an expensive market-research consultant with a touch of Scully-style psychic ability. Assigned to investigate some hypnotic video snippets uploaded onto the Internet, Cayce goes in search of the garage Kubrick responsible and, in the process, meets a cast of footage fanatics and freaks apparently intent on bamboozling her. Mulder-like support for Cayce comes from a shady Chinese-American called Boone Chu. Asked by Cayce what he does, in a typically deadpan yet telling Gibson scene, Chu responds with a single word: 'Systems', waits a beat then sums up his credentials as 'University of Texas, Harvard, then I had a start-up. Which tanked.'
Like most of Gibson's ideas, Boone Chu just came to him from left field, the author says. Gibson adds that he plots 'very, very little - I am a firm believer in E M Forster's dictum that if the novelist is in control of the novel, the novelist isn't doing his or her job'. Putting it another way, Gibson says 'technique is the enemy'. He explains that if he tries to plot his novels methodically, fate just tears the structure apart.
Witness what happened with Pattern Recognition. Before starting it, after endless millennial procrastination, Gibson finally decided on certain 'basic parameters'. By September 10, 2001, he had written 120 pages about a young woman who lived in New York 'and had obviously lived there for a while', he says. Gibson smiles, savouring the memory of this 'comical' personal disaster which made him realise his narrative had been 'orphaned by history'. Gibson's first instinct was 'to declare force majeure, and just bail on the whole thing and abandon it', which would have been a first. His friends persuaded him to amend the story - return to the first sentence and re-imagine the whole story in the light of 9/11: a 'terrifying' prospect at the time. Worse, because for a novelty the novel was based in the present, Gibson could no longer implement strategies that had become second nature.
'For instance, if I had plotted myself into a corner, I couldn't suddenly invent some really convenient piece of technology,' Gibson says, raising his hands. He confesses that, whatever the circumstances, he never finds composing a novel a picnic. 'There is invariably a terrible moment where I realise that I am going to have to sit down with a long piece of brown wrapping paper and coloured pens, and do a flow chart of who's doing what to whom, what's already happened and how can I possibly explain it and bring it to closure. And once I have worked through that, which is fairly late in the text - about three quarters of the way through - when I have seen some way to make it all add up, I then put the chart away and try not to look at it and go on from there, improvising.'
Plotting, Gibson wistfully admits, has never been his forte - a criticism echoed by the American literary journal Kirkus Reviews in an article on Virtual Light, Gibson's sublime 1993 look at the year 2005. Kirkus commented that, 'even more so than in previous outings', his plotting was 'flimsy and contrived'.
Off the record, a novelist friend of the author who shall remain anonymous went further, suggesting Gibson's books contain no plot at all. Indeed, he claimed that Gibson aspired to write a novel consisting entirely of nouns and adjectives. 'He was probably close to the truth,' Gibson remarks, as self-effacing as ever. But the old-fashioned part of him dislikes the idea of dispensing with plot altogether since that might alienate his audience. Then again, Gibson adds, never one to make a black-and-white statement, he has always felt 'a simultaneous impatience' with both traditional and avant-garde literature. When he says 'avant-garde', he is for instance thinking of a novel that another mysterious friend, this time an architect, is considering writing. It would take place 'entirely in a toilet', Gibson says, his voice heavily freighted with irony.
Despite its modern, cool-hunter content, Pattern Recognition reads like a fairly conventional thriller except for one thing: Cayce's allergy to certain brands. A display of Tommy Hilfiger garments or a glimpse of Mickey Mouse or the Michelin Man sends her into a fit, which does not seem very believable. Gibson defends this aspect of his novel as 'Swiftian exaggeration'. But Cayce's revulsion conveys the point that most of us feel, as Gibson puts it, 'ambivalent' towards marketing. On the one hand, Gibson himself is not very keen on Tommy Hilfiger - he describes the Hilfiger style as 'copies of copies of copies' and intimates disdain for 'the huge Tommy stress on wearing the logo'. On the other hand, Gibson underlines that, despite attempts by journalists to cast him as such, he is by no means a radical sci-fi version of brand-basher Naomi Klein. 'If I were allergic to branding I couldn't enjoy London as much as I do,' he says, laughing.
Gibson, who has a wife, Deborah, and two children, hides any signs of angst smoothly. Indeed, just about every utterance he makes oozes irony and sophistication. He can seem as elusive as Pattern Recognition's garage Kubrick footage. In the future, does Gibson plan to stick with exploring the present or return to crystal-ball gazing? Rather sidestepping, he says that in previous futuristic books he 'severely underestimated' the weirdness of the 21st century and that he now sees the future as much less amenable to the science fiction art of scenario-building.
The reason Gibson gives is that the world has been changing too dramatically. He does not just mean the attack on the Twin Towers. 'I think the Sars epidemic is, for a science fiction writer, interestingly contrapuntal to September 11 and Iraq - the whole of that. It is completely unrelated, and it is one of these lateral impacts that is just T-boning the global economy when the global economy isn't in very good shape.'
A critic might say that, by his own dizzy standards, Gibson's career is itself in something of a slump. Pattern Recognition has received mixed reviews. ('Gibson's soul, sadly, isn't in it,' was The Guardian newspaper's verdict.)
Gibson, who looks as tender as any author is about their writing, gingerly says he thinks that Pattern Recognition 'works'. Now he must summon the energy to face the sci-fi fiends gathering back among the Manga videos, Marvel comics and Marilyn Manson dolls in the recesses of Forbidden Planet. Often, punters who have never seen his picture expect him to look like he comes from Mars and have 'a foot-tall blue Mohawk'. They sometimes betray disappointment when they encounter his low-key persona, not that the Canadian is bothered greatly - more amused, as usual. Gibson shrugs. 'Just part of the job.'