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Q&A with William Gibson


SCIENCE FICTION WRITER William Gibson has a reputation for forecasting the future that dates to his first novel, "Neuromancer" (1984), in which characters used computers to "jack" into a virtual world Gibson dubbed the matrix, a term that seemed ready-made for the Internet explosion soon to envelop us all. "Neuromancer" won science fiction's top prizes -- the Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Hugo awards -- and was followed by "Count Zero" (1986) and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" (1988), to complete Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy. These books continued to explore a futuristic matrix while bringing disparate, even supernatural, elements into play. "Count Zero," for example, invokes the voodoo deity Legba -- the "master of roads and pathways, the loa [god] of communication" -- as a lord of cyberspace.

Legba, and his Afro-Cuban kin, return in "Spook Country", Gibson's new novel, where he again demonstrates a talent for suggestive juxtaposition. The book unfolds in present-day New York City, LA, Havana, and Vancouver, where somebody plans to blast $100 million in cash, diverted from American aid to the Iraqi government, with bullets made of radioactive cesium.

But finding this loot, whether to shoot or steal it, requires help from a practitioner of what Gibson calls locative art, or "geohacking."

Locative art, a melding of global positioning technology to virtual reality, is the new wrinkle in Gibson's matrix. One locative artist, for example, plants a virtual image of F. Scott Fitzgerald dying at the very spot where, in fact, he had his Hollywood heart attack, and does the same for River Phoenix and his fatal overdose. But locative art isn't all funereal. Much is comic: Archie, for example, a giant virtual squid, causes Hollis, a main character hired by a mysterious billionaire to write about all this, to exclaim "gorgeous, ridiculous."

It's locative art that leads spooks and counterspooks directly to the cash.

IDEAS: Is locative art really happening now?

GIBSON: No. There is a locative-art movement, and if you Google it you'll see a lot that's mostly very conceptual, and has to do with mapping. I wanted something more lowbrow. It wouldn't work for me otherwise. I wanted locative art that was almost like graffiti.

IDEAS: How did you first come upon voodoo, and its Afro-Cuban relative, Santeria, which plays a large role in "Spook Country"?

GIBSON: When I was 12, or maybe a little younger, I was building Heath Kits, electronic kits you send away for and solder together. Around that time, I happened to run across a book about voodoo in New Orleans. Reading it, I kept thinking about the ritual symbols for the different gods, and how much they resembled the circuit diagrams that came with my Heath Kit. I used to wonder what would happen if you wired those circuits.

When I was writing "Count Zero," all that stuff came very handily back to me. It somehow seemed organically applicable to the world of "Neuromancer."

IDEAS: It seems you've always been interested in the brain -- in neurological differences or neurological damage. In "Pattern Recognition" (2003), your last novel, someone with severe brain damage creates the videotape that becomes the grail of cyberspace. In "All Tomorrow's Parties" (1999), Silencio, an autistic kid obsessed with clock faces, is key to the plot.

GIBSON: I've been interested in autism since I've known about it, which is more or less since I've been writing. And I was interested for years in mechanical clock faces.

Autistic people tend to have special interests. It worked for me to give Silencio clock faces as a special interest.

IDEAS: You're a visual thinker, aren't you? There's always a lot of detailed description of what your characters actually see.

GIBSON: I can't do fiction unless I visualize what's going on. When I began to write science fiction one of the things I found lacking in it was visual specificity. It seemed there was a lot of lazy imagining, a lot of shorthand. As the reader I felt I was being asked to fill in too much of the picture.

IDEAS: Did you write something before you started writing science fiction?

GIBSON: Nothing at all. When I started, I was writing science fiction. But I was quite self-aware in some ways. I had just gotten a degree in English literature at the University of British Columbia, and absorbed a certain amount of comparative literature and critical methodology.

I knew a lot of science fiction was naive art, some good naive art, some not.

IDEAS: You brought a literary mentality to writing science fiction?

GIBSON: Yeah, but science fiction was absolutely my native literary culture. The only native culture I ever had was science fiction -- and rock 'n' roll.

I read a great deal of science fiction with consummate pleasure between, say, the ages of 12 and 16. Then I got away from it. In my mid- to late 20s I started trying to write it. But, as I said, I was an English major, self-conscious, in a way, making aesthetic and cultural decisions about what I was doing with the stuff.

One of the ways I was self-conscious is that I knew science fiction was never about the future. It uses the conceit of the imaginary future to examine the present, whether the author is aware of that or not. I was very consciously aware of it.

IDEAS: Still, critics never fail to say how prescient "Neuromancer" was.

GIBSON: That's how our culture treats science fiction. I don't think it was prescient. It's more like trend-spotting. And I have been saying that from the start. I'm sure that if I could analyze the content of all the interviews I've done since I started writing, a good 30 percent would consist of denying prescience.

IDEAS: Would you agree that your books are built around juxtapositions?

GIBSON: In either my second or third novel -- I don't know which, I can't stand to go back and read them -- there's an artificial intelligence that endlessly builds collages frequently mistaken for the works of Joseph Cornell.

That was my way of expressing how I work. The level I work at is at the juxtaposition, say, of Prada and Santeria. But it's not about Prada or Santeria. It's not about having ideas about either. It's about seeing what happens when the two are put together.

IDEAS: Sometimes, in your books, it seems you can't stand electronic media. Other times, you seem to love it. What do you really think about it?

GIBSON: From the beginning it seemed very important to me that I be as agnostic about it as possible. I couldn't function if I were a Luddite and I couldn't function if I were a technophile. We all have both Luddite and technophile inside us, so I have to be anthropologically neutral.

When I'm in the characters, writing them, they are experiencing these things, sometimes having a wretched time, sometimes an ecstatic time. That's a reflection of our experience.

IDEAS: Plot is secondary?

GIBSON: Plot [laughs] is possibly last. But I'm a reader myself so I don't want to maroon anyone in a lot of material where there's no plot, because I'd be unlikely to get through it myself.

IDEAS: Why are so many characters in your books artists of one sort or another?

GIBSON: I don't really understand people who aren't. So I do artistic characters.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail hblume@world.std.com.

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