The Rumpus Interview with William Gibson
A frequent claim about the function of science fiction is that it tells the future. It predicts what’s coming towards us, whether we like it or not. By that token, many consider William Gibson to be the greatest science fiction soothsayer of the past four decades, ever since the publication of his short work in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and especially since the explosive impact of his debut novel Neuromancer in 1984. Without his books, we wouldn’t have the concept of cyberspace; his vocabulary for describing this strange space and the people who use it has influenced our own ways of talking about the sociology and function of the Internet. The ways Gibson described the future alone have come to influence the way people design it. Gibson, however, has thought of himself as a prophet, nor has he really tried to be one; he is much more concerned with drawing from our present moment, to the extent that such a thing exists. As he expressed in a recent profile, “The thing to keep in mind… is that I’m not actually predicting the future. I’m generating scenarios.”
With his latest novel, The Peripheral, released last year in hardcover and just released in paperback from Berkley Books, Gibson is pulling double-time. It’s a novel about two possible futures, one much further along in the future than the other, one in a semi-hi-tech but still poverty-stricken rural America and the other in a nanotech-shaped London populated by survivors of “the Jackpot,” a mysterious cataclysm. These two worlds can only communicate with each other via improvised information transfer—aided by the use of a quantum computer somewhere in far-future China—but it’s amazing what change can be effected with just a little data going back and forth.
The Rumpus: In the acknowledgments for The Peripheral and in other interviews, you’ve given credit for the science fiction concept of exploitation of the past by the future to Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s story “Mozart in Mirrorshades.” I definitely feel the influence of that story in this novel, except the past in this case is just a closer, more rural version of our (maybe) future. And this is one of those novels where the ideas you touch upon from gaming, drones, surveillance, nanotechnology, quantum computing, environmental restructuring and repurposing, and so many other things are tied together so intricately in the narrative that I feel like the best way to ask what I want to know, to start with, is what prompted you to go from “Mozart in Mirrorshades” to The Peripheral—where you started with this, basically.
William Gibson: I didn’t go from “Mozart in Mirrorshades” to The Peripheral. Rather, I arrived in Flynne’s brother’s trailer initially assuming that the existential threat was from, say, Atlanta, or Miami, where I imagined more of this near future had been distributed. Eventually I found that what seemed to be breaking through from “outside” was another, later future. But that meant all that yucky paradoxical time travel fiction stuff, which was a non-starter for me. And then I remembered “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” in which the time travel is physical, as the future is strip-mining the past’s ass for natural resources. But The Peripheral was already set up to be a tale of virtualities, of cross-time information, and those are quite rare beasts in the genre.
Rumpus: Agreed! I’ve never seen such an emphasis on transmission, namely the transmission of information, as the spine of a science fiction story. What inspired you to focus so much on exploring these dual virtualities and their push-and-pull of information and data?
Gibson: It was more a matter of going where the action was, than of inspiration. I don’t trust inspiration, or rather I don’t trust our cultural models of it. I look for whatever elements cause the characters to seem to do and say the things I find most interesting. In this case I suspect that it was that most of us, today, live to some extent in dual realities, partial virtualities, different time zones, and that that allowed what’s going on in this narrative to be variously resonant, to I steered toward whatever seemed to optimize that.
Rumpus: What was the process of writing this novel like, for you? Especially compared to prior science fiction novels like Neuromancer, Virtual Light, and others. What did you find particularly challenging or relatively easy with The Peripheral, coming back to more explicitly science fictional work after writing more near future “science fiction is the present” novels for the past decade or so?
Gibson: I had actually forgotten how much extra work it is to build “future.” Flynne’s world was delightfully easy to write, as it felt like channeling Winter’s Bone and Justified, and stirring in bits of slightly advanced tech. The 22nd century, though, was so much harder. I wanted it to be creepy and banal and squirmingly weird and a bit boring, all at once. But eventually it was as if they’d fired up the shops at the far end of the factory, where that stuff comes from, and it was arriving steadily and on time.
Rumpus: Did you find yourself responding to a lot of Singularity/post-Singularity-based science fiction while creating that far future world? It definitely seemed to touch upon a lot of the tropes that readers often associate with those kinds of sci-fi, especially the nanotech and post-/trans-humanism.
Gibson: I allowed myself to forget as much of all of that as I could. If that was going to be the compost, I thought, the ultimate crop wasn’t going to be very fresh! I think I went very far back into my early experience of science fiction and fantasy, for the Wilf thread. I recollected, but deliberately didn’t reread, Titus Groan, Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, some utterly mad M. John Harrison from the New Worlds era.
Rumpus: What kinds of research and resources did you find yourself relying on as you created the dual future worlds of The Peripheral? The notion of the Jackpot and the multi-causal, gradual apocalypse caused by the byproducts of human behavior and invention reminds me a lot of recent articles and debates about the “slow apocalypse.”
Gibson: I was (indeed, am) only vaguely aware of any background of Slow Apocalypse theory. It emerged for me via Wilf and Ash, mainly, and when it was fully there, I discovered that I was frightening myself in a way I hadn’t before. I waited with actual dread for Wilf to spring it on Flynne, and that was very hard to write. Not slow, but harrowing for me.
Rumpus: What in particular frightened you about it, then? Because it definitely unsettled me. How did you decide upon writing Wilf’s explanation of the Jackpot in the way that he did, when he did?
Gibson: In real life, happy endings are about when you roll the credits. Leave the cameras on long enough, you’ll get your tragedy. Flynne is living, at the end of the story, as is everyone else in her world, in a literal conspiracy theory. An entity outside of time (Lowbeer) is scripting history. And the ingredients of Flynne’s town, however fond we’ve grown of her and her friends and family, are, in any real world, redolent of fascism. Lowbeer’s “human, all to human” suggests that as well. And Wilf, meanwhile, seems really quite terrifyingly happy. What exactly have they done to him, in Putney?
Rumpus: I loved the emphasis on improvised technology to match parallel concepts of function, between the two worlds, that overall attempt to try and find some kind of equivalency. The iPad-on-a-Segway-ish Wheelie Boy, for instance, functions in the closest way to how the peripheral works in the far future as a walking, talking avatar of a long-distance user. It made me wonder whether there was kind of a Platonic Forms thing going on with the various matching/replicated devices and their functions, like the ideas behind technological inventions sort of remain the same even as devices gain more sophisticated and immersive functions. Was that something that lurked in the back of your head or thereabouts while working on the novel?
Gibson: Not as such, no, but something like that is always there, I think, with imaginary technology. Whatever vehicle the future character may ride in, there’s the author’s car. A mirroring between the imagined future and the moment in which it’s written.
Rumpus: Very true. That makes me think of the peripheral, the actual device in your novel. What did you pull from for reference in creating the peripheral, specifically? Because it feels like a very practical kind of device for the future world you wrote, but it also seems like an amalgamation of things I can recognize, like video game avatars, Skype, and other things.
Gibson: Having determined that it was a tale of communicating eras, I wanted them to be able to visit one another, but how? And there I was, in our real world of telepresent drones, watching Japanese gynoid robots on YouTube. Very much a card that dealt itself, the peripheral.
Rumpus: One of the things that’s so striking about the novel is the characters’ perspectives in regard to environment and landscape. I’m thinking especially of the attitudes of people in post-Jackpot London toward the residents of the makeshift plastic island in the Pacific Ocean, and how they seem to view it as a real territory, much the same as we might see the Virgin Islands or any other internationally recognized territory. Does this represent, to you, a worthwhile adaptation to the situations that are now being created by climate change and pollution? What kinds of other adaptations made by characters in the novel are appealing to you, in that regard?
Gibson: I don’t think of much of this as “appealing,” actually. I take some comfort in some of the characters, in both times, seeming (believably, I hope) quite human in spite of everything. Not perfect, but human. I assumed that the island was of interest mainly because it’s a big hunk of petroleum-based plastic in a world I imagined as being reluctant to further extract fossil fuel.
Rumpus: That’s fair, I think. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of resource acquisition-based thinking, but that makes a lot of sense. What inspired the creation of the patchers themselves, then? I just loved the idea of these attempted primitivist/neo-primitivist people living on a big plastic island, with their own consciously isolated culture.
Gibson: Neo-primitivist bohemias have long been a thing, and quite a colorful one, and often they’ve been intentional communities. I think they fascinate us in part because they are autonomous zones in which an apocalypse has already happened: it’s happened individually, within the head of each member of that community. The old world has ended.
Rumpus: You mentioned in an interview with Tor.com that you felt there’d be no sequel to The Peripheral, around the time it was initially published in hardcover. Does that still feel like the case, roughly a year later? I can’t help but think about the future that Flynne will be encountering, for starters, wondering whether all this financial manipulation via her future associates may actually provoke a scenario where the markets in her world just glitch out entirely. The implications of the ending chapters honestly get more ominous the more I think about them, like what you indicated earlier in this interview.
Gibson: One problem with this “stub” stuff is that I can’t tell whether the novel I’m working on now is set in 2015-16 San Francisco or in a stub. I keep expecting to see President Gonzalez as an up-and-coming young Democrat! Just a glimpse on television and we’d be stubbed! The ending intends to scare you because it seems, on the surface, “happy.” I think it’s the most unsettling ending I’ve written, but I imagine it takes some extra bit of personal life-experience to “get” that. But I do think that any overt sequel would let readers of The Peripheral off the hook somewhat, as far as that ending goes. And something in me may just want to keep them there!
Rumpus: Ha! An Easter egg moment with Gonzalez would be great. I can only imagine the head canon some readers would come up with. What’s the new novel about, then? I would assume there’s some Silicon Valley intrigue going on, per the setting. Anything you can share about the project at this stage in things?
Gibson: I’m still waiting for it to reveal what it’s about. I know what happens, very loosely, and who to, but not what that means. I do notice that when I play the Silicon Valley aspect quite straight, no exaggeration, the effect is a lot like my earlier novels! I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing over not, but it isn’t at all deliberate, on my part.