Distrust That Particular Flavor
By William Gibson
William Gibson is the first-generation cyberpunk fictionist (Neuromancer, “Johnny Mnemonic”) who coined the term “cyberspace” in a short story, first used “the matrix” to describe the web, and is credited with inventing the concept of virtual sex, all before any of this was realizable, and a decade or so before he even had a computer or an email address.
This is a collection of nonfiction pieces: short articles for big and little magazines, book prefaces and talks. At least one article (his 1993 portrait of Singapore for Wired Magazine titled “Disneyland With the Death Penalty”) is pretty famous, but since the newest piece is from 2008 (though there are brief contemporary notes added), they say more about their time than the future. But Gibson doesn’t believe in the future. “The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive postnuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely...more stuff.”
Gibson is an American baby boomer who has lived in Canada since the 60s. That’s my generation, and we’re used to finding the Future in science fiction (even though, as Gibson rightly says, sci-fi is mostly about the present, unless it’s about the past.) Gibson is undoubtedly perceptive and provocative on many subjects, including the relationship of technology to culture, from the most powerful interests to ordinary life. But the technological web requires a stable infrastructure and lots of electricity. The now inevitable Climate Crisis future calls those preconditions into question. Ahead of us there may be more than merely...less stuff.
Gibson makes a lot of sense about one aspect of the future, though: the prospects for humans becoming machines. On the one hand, he sensibly asserts that “our hardware is likely to turn into something like us a lot faster than we are likely to turn into something like our hardware.” On the other hand, he suggests that we are already the Borg, and have been since at least the advent of television. He also has a fascinating take on why Japan is still the future (“more stuff.”)
Cumulatively, these pieces add vivid historical context (from the 19th century through the TV age) to our sudden Internet/Iphone revolution. They also testify to the perceptive powers of the imagination, inherent in storytelling. Otherwise, this is an entertaining and enlightening book in the ways that the best collections of its kind are: it provides texture to the writer’s worlds on the page (and screen), it takes us places we’ll never get to, and shows us features of familiar places we missed. It suggests stuff we might want to check out, like Greg Girard’s photos, or a 1940 film serial called The Mysterious Dr. Satan. Best of all, we get his voice. That and the subject matter make it fun to read.