William Gibson — Fragments From A Gloomy Night

So I went to see William Gibson at a book signing at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, off of E. Colfax.

In one word: Awesome.

If you haven’t heard, Mr. Gibson has just published a new Science Fiction novel, the first of his in 4 years, titled The Peripheral.

I haven’t read it yet, but I have read several of his novels and needless to say I greatly admire the man as a writer and conjurer of believable imaginary worlds. He’s been an inspiration for me as I write my own Sci-Fi novel, though my admiration goes beyond just the imaginary worlds he writes about. In short, the man is an intellectual. I found that out at the book signing.

The weather in metro-Denver was gray, overcast and threatening to rain as I snaked my way through snarling rush hour traffic, navigating streets while hordes of workers returned home for the day.

After arriving at Tattered Cover (I had arrived early as I didn’t want to miss a good seat) I began noticing a steady trickle of patrons meandering their way downstairs to where the event was to happen. Curious, I went down too and saw that some people were taking up seats a full hour before Mr. Gibson was to take the stage. Quite a fan base!

By the time he did take the stage, the room was packed with around 50 people, mostly 30-50 year old males, and a smattering of twentyish females here and there. It seemed like a pretty good turnout for this area at 7pm at night on a cold wet evening.

Mr. Gibson ambled to the stage with a stork-like gait and a critical eye, tall, skinny, soft-spoken. Thanked the crowd and proceeded to read two chapters from The Peripheral, the content of which didn’t seem to make much sense to me since it was all out of context, not to mention I do find his writing style very dense with information so that sometimes one has to read a passage a couple of times to get the full meaning and effect. The chapter reading made me want to start this book right away, however. This was interesting and all, but it was when he opened himself up for questions, after giving a warning about how jet-lagged he was, that his sharp observation skills and critical thinking were on display.

First question was about how, since his novels are perceived as being cool, does he worry or focus on making them cool? Answer came back as being No (Of course). He expounded on how he writes what comes to him and most times he has no idea what the contents are going to be or the meaning of it all until he’s finished, and then he mostly finds out what he’s written from his editors and book marketers as they summarize the meaning of the story back to him (!). He also commented on how he knows his novels are very compact and without much explanation, that the reader is just thrown in and its up to the reader to keep up. “I could make it easier, I guess,” said Mr. Gibson, “but I don’t like those kinds of books, you know, the ‘Well, Bob, this law was passed in 2086’ exposition. I call it the “Well, Bob” way of explaining the story. I don’t like books like that and so I don’t write my books like that.”  Duly noted.

Another question came from someone who apparently had seen Mr. Gibson at another book signing 10 years ago, and said that when asked what he saw happening in the near future, Mr. Gibson had stated that lots of tech will merge into one. Ten years later, we have smartphones. What could he see happening in the next 10 years?

Mr. Gibson became a bit contemplative at this, sighed heavily. Said he did not see so much as smart phones and new technology making such radical changes in the near-future as much as technology that had been developed 70 and 100 years ago, such as the internal combustion engine. So the future won’t be defined by just new tech as much as older tech. He went on to say that as he looked around and saw our current cultural fascination with the apocalypse in film, TV, books, etc., that there seemed to be a general angst about the future. But The End, as conceived in art and current culture, was always portrayed as being “uni-causal”: A massive flu epidemic wipes everyone out; the Americans and Soviets nuke everyone into oblivion, etc. But that’s not how it seems to happen, he said, at least in most cases. If the apocalypse happens, when societies collapse, like Rome, the Mayans–who knows, even ours?–it’s always due to multiple causes, myriad problems which become so systemic that they become habit, and when the problems finally come to a head, when they finally are observed, it’s usually too late because no one is around anymore from the time when those problems first started so that no one remembers how they became systemic.Thus, at that point, changing the systems of bad behaviors is virtually impossible. He summarized with, “This book has some of that kind of gloomy shit in it.”

Well, gloomy or not, you can tell that Mr. Gibson has put a lot of thought into our current age, and of ages to come. He sees patterns, observes behavior, and he did not sound so wonderfully optimistic that wet gloomy night in Denver at Tattered Cover. That being said, the man was very polite and courteous when I approached him with my own copy of The Peripheral for him to sign. I told him he’s been an inspiration as I trek through revision after revision of my own Sci-Fi novel. He smiled, rather nostalgically, and said, “Keep at it. As Updike said, ‘Writing and rewriting is the constant search for what it is you’re saying.'”

There was one more question bugging me. “With technology and the sciences changing so fast, do you think Sci-Fi as a literary tradition can keep up?”

With this, his eyes narrowed and he looked at me a little more meaningfully. “Of course. Science Fiction is necessarily about the Present.”

I thanked him and moved on, pondering his answer: Sci-Fi is about the Present.

Yes it is, for how can one know the future? Every Sci-Fi story is written In The Present. No matter the story’s intent, no matter how far into the future it takes place and no matter what its message is, it is written during a certain time and place. Much like a photograph, it encapsulates a mood, a fragment in time-space which shows future generations not so much how they will live in the future, but shows them more of how it was to live in our time.

On the drive home I thought about this. It made perfect sense. Science Fiction is NOW.

-Charles Moritz

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