The Visionary Sci-Fi Novelist Casts His Gaze into the Unfolding Century
To inaugurate the New Year, celebrated cyberpunk author William Gibson offers his insights into what the future holds for us. Famously coining the word “cyberspace” more than 30 years ago in his debut novel Neuromancer, Gibson portrayed the digital age through eight hugely influential works depicting sinister marketing companies, corporate espionage and paranoid junkies. His latest novel Zero History is set in a post-financial-crash London steeped in 21st-century techno fetishes. “I don't think fiction can predict the future,” he says, “but I do think fiction that pretends to do that has some unique opportunities to describe the present.” From his earliest short stories, Gibson has written from the technological and cultural frontiers of the internet revolution (predicting the rise of reality TV among other phenomenons), but he rejects his prophet status: "We have a very short present and don't have the luxury of constructing elaborate long-range futures because we know we haven't a clue. Wake up one day to proof of cold fusion, or news of pandemic superflu and literally all futurist bets are off.” Currently at work on a new novel (“something to do with ubiquitous private video-drone technology”), the 63-year-old discusses the internet, sub-cultures and unexpected optimism.
What is the future to you?
Tomorrow. Literally. The present is a very short interval, today. I don't feel we live in an era. An era's supposed to be a long period of the same sort of thing. I don't think we're having that, unless you want to crank the perspective way back and say, "Okay, this is what happened to us because we invented the internal combustion engine."
What one thing would you love to know about the future?
What they think of us. How they see us. The Victorians' self-image was nothing at all like the way we now see them. How we see them now would have absolutely mortified them, I imagine. I think it may be rather the same when the future looks at us.
Is it still possible to find genuine novelty out there?
As our brief present gets ever more widely distributed, it gets harder to find uncurated novelty. A great deal of what happens on the internet can be described as curation of novelty. Bohemias were, famously, backwaters. Wherein grew the cutting edge. It is very hard to have a backwater these days. Yesterday I was looking at photos of "Cholombians"––a Mexican-style subculture, whose members are half emo, half hair sculpture, and like to mix plaids. I had never seen or heard of them before, and that's so rare now. Perhaps the new bohemias are largely conceptual. Easier to keep the secret.
Are you optimistic about what lies ahead?
I'm not nearly as ragingly pessimistic as I sometimes think various situations would seem to call for. Every generation seems to hit the "after us, the deluge" phase, and you can read about the Greeks doing it thousands of years ago. That alone is enough to cause me to suspect these are not really the end times.