I’d like to take you back to February the 3rd, 2020, a far simpler time when I was lucky enough to attend William Gibson’s brief UK book tour and hear him discuss futurism for the Bristol Festival Of Ideas. His chosen topic? Agency : What Does The Future Hold? This topic is more pertinent today than it ever was, and finally documenting this discussion has forced me to re-evaluate the past, present, and the future. Sure, everyone has a different experience of a global lockdown, but by looking back we can begin to look forward, and start to think about where we go from here.
So who better to tackle that subject than that most presient of living science fiction writers, William Gibson.
Bristol Festival Of Ideas, WE aRE tHE cURIOuS, February 3rd, 2020
Agency, What Does The Future Hold?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never attended an auditorium packed with over 200 like-minded science fiction fans before. A part of me had always wondered what other science fiction readers looked like – a bit like me, I suppose. Ordinary, bookish, middle aged, well dressed and slightly askew with reality. Outsiders willing to consider the possibilities and ambiguities of our own strange lives on a strange planet. People willing to look beyond the temporal present and witness exciting and dangerous futures that may never come to pass, or just as easily disrupt our reality with a pandemic in a few months.
In short, William Gibson fans.
Once William Gibson took to the stage he prefaced his discussion by reading an excerpt from Agency, his latest book set in a world where Brexit never happened, and Trump was never elected. An alternate reality that offers some comfort to those confounded by these strange post truth turn of events; which were rapidly surpassed by Covid-19 soon after. After settling down to be interviewed by the host, Andrew Kelly, the Director of The Bristol Festival Of Ideas, the author was asked about his favourite topic – what Gibson likes to call his F.Q. What does it stand for, asked Kelly? “Something I crucially need to take the measure of before I start writing is the Fuckedness Quotient of the world around me, or the day in which I’m writing. Because I need that to make adjustments to the Fuckedness Quotient in my book. To be too far off yields less optimal satisfaction. It’s been steadily cranking itself up all through the composition of this book and long wait for publication,” explained Gibson.
Given the present state of a world experiencing a pandemic, I’d have to agree with him.
A Future History Of The World
“Everything is the result of human technology. We simply didn’t bother to anticipate these consequences.”– William Gibson
William Gibson has a reputation for being presient, and with good reason. In the 1980’s his early short story Burning Chrome coined the term cyberspace. This was soon followed by his trailblazing debut novel, Neuromancer, which ventured into the possibilities of virtual technology, and preempted the world we live in now. Today we spend most of our personal and working lives staring into screens, living in a separate bubbles of LED realities with the eternal feedback loops of social media. This has reached a point where we take internet connectivity for granted and ignore our physical bodies to the detriment of real life relationships, making us feel disconnected from ourselves; until our next dopamine hit of social media.
We are all living in William Gibson’s cyberspace.
It may not be as glamorous or as exciting as the film, The Matrix, which stole his work wholesale and repackaged it as a Hollywood action film, but there’s no doubting it. We are all living in his visionary future. Did William Gibson see this coming? Only he can truly answer that, but labelling science fiction authors as presient beings is nothing new. George Orwell’s classic 1984 is credited with preempting an age of mass surveillance, totalitarianism and media distortion, while Arthur C Clarke famously conceived the satellite, and lived to see it manufactured within his lifetime. It is often an honour and a curse, something William Gibson is quick to dismiss in his early works. “I was hitting 30, or not quite, but I was very immature. In Neuromancer the characters not only don’t have babies, they also don’t have parents! None of that emotional wiring is visible at all. It’s an adolescent male universe, except the female protagonist could kill the male protagonist just by looking at him.”
But is there more to Gibson’s seer-like abilities or is it an unconscious comprehension? When discussing his previous book in his new series, The Peripheral, Gibson reminded us an oblique reference to the apocalypse, something he likes to call The Jackpot. An event at the fringes of his text which is never explained. “The Jackpot is a multi-causal apocalypse that takes a couple of hundred years to happen. We’ve never had a multi-causal apocalypse as part of our culture, as far as we know.” Perhaps Gibson isn’t so far off. Are we are approaching a tipping point? Today we live under the global threat of nuclear war, climate change, overpopulation, social and racial inequality, and Covid-19. With one more spin of the wheel of fortune, perhaps we’ll hit the mother lode. “All the things The Jackpot comprises are stressors we’re under right now. I would imagine in the world of the book there are quite a few others we haven’t discovered but are the result of our own unanticipated technological consequences, which are neither good or bad. Everything is the result of human technology. We simply didn’t bother to anticipate these consequences. We didn’t have a culture capable of mounting the necessary global response to those things. Unfortunately, it’s beginning to look extraordinarily unlikely we should manage to do it before it will be of any use.’
Denial Is Not A Coping Mechanism
“I wasn’t advocating that as a response, I think it’s a poor response – what a bummer, what can you do – I don’t want to encourage people to do that, I don’t want to depress people.”– William Gibson
Later on in the discussion, Kelly probed Gibson’s thoughts about contemporary issues of our time, including Trump, Brexit, and Climate Change. When considering these topics, Gibson remarked that like everyone else, he had previously used denial as a coping mechanism. “We’ve known about climate change for a long time. I remember the first time anyone took the time to explain climate change to me, the two of us were looking out our fourth storey window in Ladbrook Grove, smoking cigarettes, and he was letting me know how this worked. This was absolutely going to happen and this was in 1987. And I was like – whoah, this was some depressing shit – and then he said to me, you know, being aware of this is like being clinically depressed. A little voice in my head said ‘and that’s why we’re not going to do it.’ And I didn’t think about it for a long time, then it came back, and it’s not going away.”
When asked why his fans are attracted to dystopian fiction in environmentally perilous times, Gibson replied : “I wasn’t advocating that as a response, I think it’s a poor response – what a bummer, what can you do – I don’t want to encourage people to do that, I don’t want to depress people. I’ve always felt since I began writing that people have asked me – what are you trying to tell the reader? But I’m not actually trying to tell the reader much; I like to think that I’m asking the reader to question themselves and the situation, and I think I’m best able to do that – oddly – with humour. Both The Peripheral and Agency are quite comic books, page by page. Not in ways that make the narrative any less serious in the urging further questions.”
So Gibson, like the rest of us, doesn’t have the answer to solving the greatest threat of our age, but he’s damn well going to make sure we no longer try and ignore it.
William Gibson On Writing
“On the periphery of creative consciousness I’ll have vague ideas looming – they’re not in the text yet – with things I’ve seen that might work and introduce them into the narrative.”– William Gibson
As a writer I’m always interested in other people’s creative processes, and William Gibson’s methods are no exception. So what is his approach to writing creative fiction? “When I begin at the beginning, I find some sort of narrative frame. In this book, for instance, Agency, the point of view is a character named Verity is on a BART subway train returning to the Mission district after having taken her first contract in a year or two. So we’ve got this subway ride and she’s remembering what happened at the business meeting with the company she’s been taken on as a contract employee. So I’ve got a little narrative and the reader sees these concerns of her’s and the world she lives in, which looks like our own would have done in 2017. When I have this, I can keep working out from that. On the periphery of creative consciousness I’ll have vague ideas looming – they’re not in the text yet – with things I’ve seen that might work and introduce them into the narrative. The great thing about working this way, as I go along and I’ve gotten more parts of it, is the fractal texture; it’s easier for me to accept or reject some outside conceit or object just on the basis of whether or not it’s part of this thing. I don’t know what the thing is but I can tell whether something is part of it.”
After the discussion ended we were treated to the inevitable audience questions, followed but a book signing, and like most of the packed auditorium, I joined the queue. Once I reached the front, I politely asked Gibson what advice could he offer aspiring writers? In his usual thoughtful manner, he replied saying the key to becoming a good writer is to not take reviews too seriously, and to write a LOT. This may not sound profound to you, but when I look back at Gibson’s 30 year career and his library of fourteen works adorning my shelves, I’m certain he meant every word. This is a man who has written over 13 books over a thirty year career, and despite being in his 70’s, he shows no signs of slowing down. William Gibson writes a LOT.
THE CURSE OF PRESIENCE
“One of the things I took for granted from the start in my work is that dystopian is relative.”– William Gibson
As I journeyed home I thought back to the audience questions, and how William Gibson had answered them. It struck me as unfair that the host and the audience had treated Gibson like an oracle, beckoning him to provide the answers to impossible questions, entreating him to peer into the future and save us all. And for a science fiction author so beloved of technology, virtual and parallel worlds, his answers often surprised us with a downbeat glimpse into an unintentional technological future, where there was still hope for humanity to change. But it would take a seismic shift in global consciousness, something that he thought couldn’t happen fast enough for humans to counter their destruction of the planet, because in William Gibson’s mind some of us are already living in a dystopia. “I’m really uncomfortable with the term dystopian – I’m confused by it. With utopian it can be interpreted to mean the absolute best possible future; we’ve got no problems. That’s always presumed to be an absolute, an abstract, so we use dystopian as an opposite of utopian, but it’s actually not. One of the things I took for granted from the start in my work is that dystopian is relative. When I was writing Neuromancer there were people all over the world who were living full-on balls out dystopian lives. A lot of them still are in the same places – they’re dystopian to what we think of as possible.”
Yet, in a few short months on from this discussion, the world HAS changed overnight. William Gibson’s Fuckedness Quotient is off the scale and our world is almost unrecognisable. Covid-19 has impacted on human behaviour, and caused death on a harrowing scale.
But it has also allowed us a brief pause to contemplate our society.
Human beings are masters of adaptation : During the lockdown we have finally started to reconnect with nature, our planet, and one another. With the BLM movement gaining momentum, we have shone a light on social and racial inequality and realised that we do not have to accept things as they are. Dystopias are real and relative. There is no such thing as normal. Normality is whatever we wish to create. Perhaps we have seen too much, pierced the veil of shallow technologies and institutions, inept and self serving democracies that have failed to keep us safe during this pandemic, and are intent on endangering us further with inaction over a second coronavirus wave, climate change and social injustice.
Certainly, as we begin to return to our altered lives, the vested interests of big business will attempt a rushed return to business as usual, to save economies, not lives. But perhaps now is the time for an end to what William Gibson believes is our innate human denial?
Like the best science fiction literature, another world is possible.
If you would like to listen to the entire audio of this discussion, it can be streamed or downloaded free from the Bristol Ideas Festival website.
Until next time…