An Interview with
(This interview first appeared, in different
form, in the now out-of-print Blip Magazine ArchiveVol 16,
Numbers 2 & 3.)
In 1984 William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, burst
onto the scene of contemporary science fiction like a supernova.
The energy, heat, and shock waves from that explosion predictably
had its most immediate impact on the relatively insular SF field.
Neuromancer became the first novel to win SF's triple crown
of awards (The Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards) and, in
the process, it virtually single-handedly launched the "cyberpunk"
movement. Neuromancer, with its stunning techno-poetical
prose surface and its super-specified evocation of life in a sleazed-out
global village of the near future, has rapidly gained an unprecedented
critical and popular attention from outside SF's ghetto.
Prior to the publication of Neuromancer, Gibson had published
only a half-dozen stories (since collected in Burning Chrome
). Although several of these stories display flashes of
Gibson's abilities (two of them, "Johnny Mnemonic" and
"Burning Chrome," introduced motifs and elements elaborated
upon in the later novels), clearly Neuromancer was a major
imaginative leap forward for Gibson, who had never even attempted
to write a novel previously. From the very opening words of the
novel--"The sky above the port was the color of television,
tuned to a dead channel"--the sources of all this white light
and white heat being generated by this new kid on the block were
immediately apparent. Dense, kaleidoscopic, fast-paced, and full
of punked-out, high-tech weirdo's, Neuromancer depicted
with hallucinatory vividness the desperate, exhilarating feel
of life in our new urban landscapes. A number of critics pointed
out Gibson's affinities with certain earlier innovative SF authors:
comparisons were made with Alfred Bester's early novels, Philip
Dick's mid-period fiction, and Delany's Nova; his reliance
on the cut-up methods and use of quick-fire stream of dissociated
images that one associates with William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard
were noted. But equally significant were the influences from sources
either wholly outside of SF (the hard-boiled writings of Hammett,
the 1940's film noir, the novels of Robert Stone) or from
sources only nominally connected with the field: the garishly
intense, nightmarish urban scenes and pacings found in the work
of rock musicians like Lou Reed; or the sophisticated blend of
science, history, pop culture, hip lingoes, and dark humor found
in Thomas Pynchon.
What made Neuromancer such an auspicious debut, however,
was not its debts to earlier authors but the originality of its
vision, especially the fresh, rush-of-oxygen high of Gibson's
prose, with its startling similes and metaphors drawn from computers
and other technologies, and its ability to create a powerfully
resonant metaphor--the "cyberspace" of the computer
"matrix"--where data dances with human consciousness,
where human memory is literalized and mechanized, where multi-national
information systems mutate and breed into startling new structures
whose beauty and complexity are unimaginable, mystical, and (above
all) non-human. Probably as much as any first novel since
Pynchon's V., then, Neuromancer seemed to create
a significant synthesis of poetics, pop culture, and technology.
And although often overlooked by critics and reviewers, Neuromancer
is a work which, for all its fascination with the glitter and
allure of technology's gadgets, is rooted deeply in human realities.
Gibson's presentation of the surface textures of our electronic
age recreates the sense of shock and sensory overload that define
our experience of contemporary life--an experience of people who
have grown up with VCRs, CDs, terrorists broadcasting messages
on our 50-channeled video monitors, versatellers, designer drugs,
David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, video games, computers--is disturbing
and playful, but he also explores much deeper questions about
the enormous impact that technology has made on the definition
of what it means to be human. Reading Neuromancer for the
first time, I had a sense I knew I was sharing with other readers:
I had seen the future of SF (and maybe of literature in general),
and its name was William Gibson.
While Gibson's second novel, Count Zero (1986), is set
in the same world, and retains to a degree some of the same focus
on the underbelly world of computer cowboys (some of whom are
also practicing voodoo), black market drugs and software, the
pace is slowed (somewhat) to allow Gibson more time to develop
his characters. As with Neuromancer, the characters in
Count Zero are a mixture of eccentric low-lifes and nonconformists
who find themselves confronting representatives of vast egomaniacal
individuals whose wealth and power result directly from their
ability to control information. Tauter, more tightly controlled
and easier to follow than Neuromancer, Count Zero
is nevertheless once again extraordinarily rich in suggestive
neologisms and other verbal pyrotechnics; it's also a fascinating
evocation of a world in which humanity seems to be constantly
outshone by the flash and appeal of the images and machines that
increasingly seem to be pushing mere people aside in their abstract
dance towards progress and efficiency.
Larry McCaffery: There are so many references to rock music and
television in your works that it sometimes seems your writing
is as influenced by MTV as by literary influences. How much impact
have other media had on your sensibility?
William Gibson: Probably more than fiction. The trouble I have
with "influence" questions is that they're usually framed
so that you're encouraged to talk about your writing as if you
grew up in a world circumscribed by books. I've been influenced
by Lou Reed, for instance, as much as I've been influenced by
any "fiction" writer. I was going to use a quote from
an old Velvet Underground song--"Watch out for worlds behind
you" (from "Sunday Morning")--as an epigraph for
LM: The breakdown of all sorts of distinctions--between pop culture
and "serious" culture, different genres, different art
forms, and so forth--seems to have had a liberating affect on
writers of your generation.
WG: Yes, the idea that all this stuff out there is potentially
grist for your mill has been very liberating. This process of
cultural mongrelization seems to be what postmodernism is all
about. The result is a generation of people (some of whom are
artists) whose tastes are wildly eclectic--the kind of people
who are hip to punk music and Mozart, who seem to rent these terrible
horror and SF movies from the 7-Eleven most nights but who will
occasionally call you up to go see mud wrestling or a poetry reading.
If you're a writer, the trick is to keep your eyes and ears open
enough to let all this in, but also somehow to intuitively recognize
what you should let emerge in your work, how effective something
might be in a specific context. I know I don't have a sense of
writing being divided up into different compartments, and
I don't separate literature from the other arts. Fiction, television,
music, film all provide material in the form of images and phrases
and codes that creep into my writing in ways both deliberate and
LM: Our culture today is obviously being profoundly transformed
by technology in ways most people are only dimly starting to realize.
Maybe that's why the American public is so fascinated with SF
imagery and vocabulary--even people who don't even know what "SF"
stands for are responding to this stuff subliminally in ads and
that sort of thing.
WG: Yeah, like Escape from New York never made it
big, but it's been re-done a billion times as a rock video. I
saw that movie, by the way, when I was starting "Burning
Chrome" and it had a real influence on Neuromancer.
I was intrigued by that exchange in one of the opening scenes
where the Warden says something to Snake: "You flew the wing-fire
over Leningrad, didn't you?" It turns out to be a throw-away
line in context, but for that moment the film worked like the
best SF, where a casual reference can imply a lot.
LM: How conscious are you about systematically developing an image
or a metaphor when you're writing? Take something like the "meat
puppet" image in Neuromancer--it seems like the perfect
metaphor to suggest how the soft machines of our living bodies
are manipulated by outside forces, but I assume you arrived at
that metaphor from listening to the rock band of that name.
WG: No, I got it from seeing the name in print. I like accidents.
An offhand line, like the one that struck me from Escape
from New York, will go by, and I'll think to myself,
"Yes, that will do." So you put it in your text and
start working with it, seeing how it relates to other things you've
got going. Eventually, it begins to evolve, branch off in ways
you hadn't anticipated. Part of the process is conscious, in the
sense that I'm aware of working this way, but how these things
come to be embedded in the text is intuitive. I don't see how
people write in any other way. I suppose some writers do this
without realizing it, but I'm conscious of waiting for these things
and seeing where they lead, how they might mutate.
LM: Sounds like a virus.
WG: It is like a virus. But only a certain kind of host
is going to be able to allow the thing to keep expanding in an
optimal way. As you can imagine, the structure of a book like
Neuromancer became very complicated at a certain point.
It wasn't complicated in the "admirably complex" way,
but simply because all these odds and ends started to affect and
infect one another.
LM: Maybe we could talk a bit about how Neuromancer evolved.
Clearly in those two stories in Burning Chrome--"Johnny
Mnemonic" and "Burning Chrome"--you were laying
some of the foundations of what you were to do later on in the
WG: Yes, although I didn't think in those terms when I wrote those
stories. Actually, "Johnny Mnemonic" was only the third
piece of fiction I wrote. The only basis I had for whether or
not it was successful was that it sold. "Burning Chrome"
was written later on, and it got more attention than anything
I'd done before, but I still felt I was four or five years away
from doing a novel. Then Terry Carr recruited me to write a book--which
turned out to be Neuromancer. Carr was looking for people
he thought had some promise, and I said "Yes" almost
without thinking, but then I was stuck with a project I wasn't
sure I was ready for. In fact, I was terrified once I actually
sat down and started to think about what this meant. It had been
taking me something like three months to write a short story,
so starting something like this was really a major leap.
LM: What specifically got you going with the book?
WG: Panic. Blind animal panic. And I think this desperate quality
comes through in the book pretty clearly. Neuromancer is
fueled by a terrible fear I had of losing the reader's attention.
That's why it tries to be a roller-coaster ride, to have a hook
on every page. Once it hit me that I had to come up with something,
I looked at the stories I'd written up to that point and tried
to figure out what had worked for me before. I had Molly (in "Johnny
Mnemonic"); she worked; I had an environment in "Burning
Chrome" that seemed to work. I decided I'd try to put these
things together. During the writing of the book I had the conviction
that I was going to be permanently shamed when it appeared. Even
when I finished it I had no perspective on what I'd done. (I still
don't, for that matter.)
You know those incredible dragons you see snaking through the
crowds in Chinatown? I always feel like one of the guys inside
the dragon. He doesn't see anything remarkable. Sure it's all
very brightly colored, but he knows the whole thing is pretty
flimsy--all he can see is a bunch of old newspapers and papier
mache and balsa wood struts.
LM: The world you evoke in Neuromancer struck me as being
a lot like the underworld you find in Chandler and Hammett--sleazy,
intensely vivid, full of colorful details and exotic lingoes that
have somehow seemed both realistic and totally artificial.
WG: It's probably been fifteen years since I read Hammett, but
I remember being very excited about how he was able to somehow
push all this ordinary stuff until it was different--it
was like American naturalism, but some kind of knob had been cranked
up, high, very intense. You can see this in the beginning
of The Maltese Falcon, where Hammett describes
all the things in Spade's office; there's something unnaturally
vivid and weird about it all. Hammett may have been the guy who
turned me on to the idea of super-specificity, which is
something largely lacking in most SF description. SF authors tend
to use generics, so you'll often get something like, "Then
he got into his space suit." That sort of refusal to specify
is almost an unspoken tradition in SF; writers know they can get
away with having a character arrive on some unimaginably strange
and distant planet and say, "I looked out the window and
saw the air plant." It doesn't seem to matter that the reader
doesn't know what the hell the plant looks like,
or even what it is. Hammett may have given me the idea that you
didn't have to write like that, even in a popular form. But I
never really have read much Chandler, never really enjoyed
what I did read because I always got this creepy Puritanical
feeling from his books. Although his surface gloss is very brilliant,
his underlying meaning is off-putting to me.
LM: The other reason I thought of Hammett has to do with your
presentation of such a rich, poetic vocabulary--the futuristic
slang, street-talk, the technical and professional jargon this
culture has produced.
WG: I suppose I'm striving for real-seeming argot. But
I didn't invent most of what seems exotic or strange in the dialogue.
That's just more collage. There are so many cultures and subcultures
around today that if you're willing to listen, you start picking
up different phrases, inflections, metaphors everywhere you go.
A lot of the stuff in Neuromancer and Count Zero
that people think is so futuristic is probably just 1969 Toronto
dope-dealers' slang, or bikers' talk. I borrow a lot.
LM: Some of the phrases you use in Neuromancer--say, "flatlining"
or "virus program--have a feel of poetry to them."
WG: But they are poetry! "Flatlining" is ambulance-driver
slang for death. I heard it in a bar maybe twenty years ago, and
it stuck with me. A drunken, crying ambulance driver saying, "She
flatlined." I use a lot of phrases that seem exotic to everyone
but the people who use them. Oddly enough, I almost never
get new buzzwords from other SF writers. I heard about the "virus
program" from an ex-WAC computer operator who had worked
in the Pentagon. I heard her talking one night with her girlfriend
about guys who come in every day and wipe the boards of all the
video-games people have built into their systems. People who worked
there were building these little glitch-things that would run
around trying to evade the official wipers--things that would
hide and then pop out and say, "Screw you!" before vanishing
back into the framework of logic (Listening to me trying to explain
this, it immediately becomes apparent that I have no grasp of
how computers really work--it's been a contact high for
me.) Anyway, I remember the one WAC saying that what they were
really worried about was "virus programs." Somehow through
the haze of beer, a bell went off, and I said, "What's a
virus program, anyway?" and so she gave me
a rundown. But it wasn't until after the book came out that I
actually met people who really knew what that was.
LM: So your use of computers and science results more from their
metaphoric value or from the way they sound than from any familiarity
with how they actually operate.
WG: I'm looking for images that supply a certain atmosphere. Right
now science and technology seem to be very useful sources for
these things. But I'm more interested in the language of,
say, computers than I am in the technicalities of how they really
operate. On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply
a metaphor for human memory. I'm interested in the how's and why's
of memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in
how easily it's subject to revision. When I was writing Neuromancer,
it was wonderful to be able to tie a lot of these interests into
the computer-metaphor, but the computer memory there is much more
like human memory than it's ever likely to be. When I wrote Neuromancer,
I didn't know that computers had disc drives. Until last Christmas,
I'd never had a computer; I couldn't afford one. When people started
talking about them, I'd go to sleep. Then I went out and bought
an Apple II on sale, took it home, set it up, and it started making
this horrible sound like a farting toaster every time the drive
would go on. When I called the store up and asked what was making
this noise, they said, "Oh, that's just the drive mechanism--there's
this little thing that's spinning around in there." Here
I'd been expecting some exotic crystaline thing, a cyberspace
deck or something, and what I'd gotten was something with this
tiny piece of a Victorian engine in it, like an old record player
(and a scratchy record player at that!). That noise took
away some of the mystique for me, made it less sexy for
me. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize it.
LM: What first strikes many readers about Neuromancer is
all the "cyberpunk" elements--the exotic lingoes, drugs,
cyber-realities, clothes, and so on. But in many ways the plot
here is very traditional: the down-and-out gangster who's been
fucked over and wants to get even by pulling the big heist. Attaching
this punked-out cyber-reality to an established plot framework
must have been a conscious decision.
WG: Sure. When I said earlier that a lot of what went into Neuromancer
was done out of desperation, I wasn't exaggerating. I knew I was
so inexperienced that I was going to need some kind of traditional
plot armature which had proven its potential for narrative traction.
I had these different things I wanted to use, but since I didn't
have a pre-set notion of where I was going with these things,
the plot had to be something I already felt comfortable with,
a familiar structure. Also, since I wrote Neuromancer very
much under the influence of Robert Stone--who's a master of a
certain kind of paranoid fiction--it's not that surprising that
what I wound up with was something like a Howard Hawkes' film.
But it also had a lot to do with that need to feel I was operating
with some kind of safety net. I couldn't think of
anything more appropriate than this film noire underworld
premise to hang all this stuff on.
LM: First novels are often the most autobiographical fiction an
author ever writes. Were you drawing on a lot of things from your
own past in Neuromancer?
WG: Neuromancer isn't autobiographical in any literal sense,
but when I was trying to develop these characters I drew them
from my sense of what people are like. Part of that sense came
from accessing my own screwed-up adolescence, and partly it came
from watching how kids reacted to all the truly horrible shit
happening around them--all that unfocused angst and weird lack
LM: Did the book undergo a lot of significant changes once you
knew the safety net was in place?
WG: The first two-thirds of the book was rewritten a dozen times.
A lot of stylistic changes were made once I had the feel
of the world, but there was also a lot of monkeying around with
the plot to make it seem vaguely plausible. I needed to go back
and cover up some of the shabbier coincidences. I never had a
very clear idea of what was going to happen in the end, except
they had to score big.
LM: Are you looking for specific kinds of effects in your prose
when you're revising?
WG: My revisions mainly involve looking for passages that clunk.
When I was first starting to write, I found that when I would
read anything for pleasure I would be going along and getting
into it, then suddenly become aware that a beat had been
missed, the rhythm was suddenly gone, the baton had been dropped.
It's hard to explain but I know when I'm going over my writing
I'm looking for places where I've missed the
beat. Usually it's a matter of finding a way to condense
my prose, so that individual parts carry more weight, are charged
with more meaning. Almost always the text gets shorter when I'm
revising. I'm aware this condensation process winds up putting
some readers off. I've had "genre" SF readers respond
to Neuromancer and Count Zero as being impossibly
dense, literally impossible to read, but other SF readers who
ordinarily wouldn't have the patience for "serious"
fiction seem to be turned on by what I'm doing.
LM: Was Pynchon a conscious influence in your work?
WG: Pynchon has been a favorite writer and a major influence all
along. In many ways, I see Pynchon as being almost the start of
a certain mutant breed of SF--the cyberpunk thing, SF that mixes
surrealism and pop-cultural imagery with esoteric historical and
scientific information. Pynchon is a kind of mythic hero of mine,
and I suspect if you talked with a lot of recent SF writers you'd
find they've all read Gravity's Rainbow several
times and have been very much influenced by it.
LM: What was the inspiration for the cyberspace idea?
WG: Watching kids in video arcades. I was walking down Granville
Street, Vancouver's version of The Strip. Video games weren't
something I'd done much, and I'd have been embarrassed to actually
go into these arcades because everyone was so much younger than
I was, but when I looked into one, I could see in the physical
intensity of their postures how rapt these kids were. It
was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: you
had this feedback loop, with photons coming off the screen into
the kids' eyes, the neurons moving through their bodies, electrons
moving through the computer. And these kids clearly believed
in the space these games projected. Everyone who works with computers
seems to develop an intuitive faith that there's some kind of
actual space behind the screen--when the words or images
wrap around the screen you naturally wonder, "Where did they
go?" Well, they go around the back to some
place you can't see.
LM: From a purely technical standpoint, the cyberspace premise
must have been great to hit upon simply because it creates a rationale
for so many different narrative "spaces."
WG: When I arrived at the cyperspace concept while I was writing
"Burning Chrome," I could see right away it was resonant
in a lot of different ways. By the time I was into Neuromancer,
I recognized that it allowed for a lot of moves, because
characters can be sucked into apparent realities--which
means you can place them in any sort of setting or against any
backdrop you want. I tried to downplay that aspect because if
I overdid it, I would have an open-ended plot-premise. That kind
of freedom can be dangerous because you don't have to justify
what's happening in terms of the logic of character or plot. In
Count Zero, I wanted to slow things down a bit and
learn how to do characterization. I was aware that Neuromancer
was going to seem like a roller-coaster ride to most readers--you've
got lots of excitement but maybe not much understanding of where
you've been or why you were heading there in the first place.
But I still enjoyed being able to present someone like Virek in
Count Zero, who apparently lives in any number of
"realities." In his daily life, he's experiencing all
these idealized things--he's got the whole city of Barcelona
if he wants and a whole array of other possibilities--even though
he's actually a pile of cells in a vat somewhere.
LM: Philip K. Dick was always writing about people like Virek
who have so many "reality options," so many different
reproductions and illusions, that it starts to get difficult to
know which reality is more real--the one in their heads or the
one that seems to exist outside. That's a powerful notion.
WG: It is powerful, which is why it's such a temptation to keep
pushing it once you've got a concept like cyberspace that creates
an instant rationale. I probably was a little heavy handed about
this in Count Zero, with Bobby's mother, who's hooked
on the soaps and lives in them, but that was hard to resist.
Everybody asks me about Dick being an influence, but I hadn't
read much Dick before I started writing. I'd already gotten my
Dick from Pynchon. I've always imagined an alternate world where
Pynchon sold his early stories to F and SF
and became an alternate Dick.
LM: One of the issues your work raises is the way that information--this
"dance of data" as you refer to it--not only controls
our daily lives, but it maybe the best way for us to understand
the fundamental processes controlling the universe's ongoing transformations.
It seems significant that it's mostly SF writers who seem tuned
WG: Information is the dominant scientific metaphor of our age,
so we need to face it. It's not that technology changed
everything by transforming it into codes. Newtonian people didn't
see things in terms of information exchange. That carries over
into my suspicion that Freud has a lot to do with steam engines--both
seem to be similar metaphors.
LM: Back in the 60s and early 70s, most of the important "New
Wave" SF took a pessimistic stance towards technology and
progress. Although your work has sometimes been described as glorifying
technology, I'd say it offers a more ambivalent view.
WG: My feelings about technology are totally ambivalent.
Ambivalence seems to me to be the only way to relate to what's
happening today. Whose views aren't ambivalent anymore?
You can't be a Luddite and you can't buy technocracy. When I'm
writing about technology, I'm writing about how technology has
already affected our lives. I don't see myself as extrapolating
in the way I was taught an SF writer should. You'll notice that
in Neuromancer there's obviously been a war, but I don't
explain what caused it or even who exactly was fighting it. I've
never had the patience or the desire to work out the details of
who's doing what to whom, or when exactly this is taking place,
or what's become of the U.S. That kind of literalism has always
seemed silly to me; it detracts from the reading pleasure I get
from SF. My aim isn't to provide specific predictions or judgments
so much as to find a suitable fictional context in which to examine
the very mixed blessings of technology.
LM: How consciously do you see yourself operating outside the
mainstream of American SF?
WG: A lot of what I've written so far is a conscious reaction
to what I felt SF--especially American SF--had become by the time
I started writing in the late 1970s. I'm a very desultory reader
of SF (and have been since my big period of reading it when I
was around fifteen), so my stance was instinctual. But back in
the 70s, during the years just before I seriously thought about
writing SF, it seemed like the SF I enjoyed was few and far between.
Just about everything I picked up seemed at once too slick and,
worse, not interesting. So when I was starting out,
I would say I simply tried to go in the opposite direction from
most of the stuff I was reading, which I felt such aesthetic revulsion
towards. In fact, I felt I was writing so far outside the mainstream
of what was happening that my highest career hopes were that I
might become a kind of obscure cult figure, a lesser Ballard or
something of that nature. I assumed I was doing something no one
would like except for a few crazy "art" people, and
maybe some people in England and France.
LM: How would you describe the direction your work took?
WG: When I first started writing, what held me up for a long time
was finding a way to introduce the things that turned me
on. I knew that when I read a text--particularly a fantastic text--it's
the gratuitous moves, those odd, quirky, irrelevant details,
that provide me with a sense of strangeness. So it seemed important
to me to find an approach that would allow for gratuitous moves.
I didn't think what I was writing would ever "fit in"
or be accepted, so what I wanted was to be able to plug in the
things that interested me. When Molly goes through the Tessier-Ashpool's
library she sees that they own Duchamp's Large Glass.
Now that reference to Duchamp doesn't make sense in terms of some
deeper symbolic level; it's really irrelevant, one of those gratuitous
moves. But putting it there seemed just right--here are these
very rich people on this space station with this great piece of
art just gathering dust. In other words, I liked the piece and
wanted to get it into the book somehow.
LM: It's precisely these kinds of personal "signatures"
that create a texture that eventually adds up to what we call
a writer's "vision." You can see this is someone like
Bester, whose books remind me a lot of yours.
WG: Bester was into flash very early. When Neuromancer
came out, a lot of reviewers said that I must have written it
while sitting with a copy of The Demolished Man
propped up next to the typewriter. Actually, it had been a long
time since I had read Bester, but he was one of the SF authors
who had stuck with me, who seemed worthy of imitating, mostly
because you always had a feeling he was having a ball writing.
And I think I know exactly what it was that produced that sense:
he was a New York guy who wasn't depending on writing SF to make
a living, so he really was just letting loose, he
didn't have to give a damn about anything other than having fun,
pleasing himself. If you want to get a sense of how groovy it
could have been to be alive and young and living in New York in
the 50s, read Bester's SF.
LM: Which means that Bester's works are "realistic"
in a way that I would say a lot of cyberpunk novels are--they
recreate the way it really feels to be alive at a certain
place and point in time.
WG: My SF is realistic in that all along I've been writing
about what I see around me. I'm reacting to my impressions of
the world. My fiction amplifies and distorts these impressions--in
certain places I may be squinting a bit, trying to fuzz things
up somehow--but I try to present the way I actually perceive the
world, at least certain glimpses of it. I'll be sitting in the
Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport looking out my window and thinking, "What
is this landscape, anyway?" I have moments where I
notice something that immediately makes me say, "What the
fuck is going on here?" You know you're in a very
strange place, but you're also aware this weirdness is just your
world. One of the liberating effects that SF had on me when I
was a teenager was precisely its ability to tune me in to all
this strange data and make me realize that I wasn't as totally
isolated in my perception of the world as monstrous and crazy.
When I was a kid in the early 60s, SF was the only source of subversive
information available to me.
LM: You said you weren't really reading much SF when you started
out as a writer. What got you started writing it?
WG: A series of coincidences. I was at UBC getting an English
B.A. (I graduated in '76 or '77). I was in school there because
it was easier at the time than finding a job. I could get bursars
and not have to work very hard as an English major (I quickly
realized I could get the grades I needed to keep getting the grants
I needed). During that period, there were a couple of months when
I spent some time thinking very seriously about SF without thinking
I was ever going to write it--at the time I thought I might want
to write about it. Later on I was doing courses with a
guy who was talking about the aesthetic politics of fascism. We
were reading this Orwell essay "Raffles and Miss Blandish"
and this teacher was asking whether or not there were fascist
novels. I remember thinking, "Shit! Reading all these SF
novels has given me a line on this topic--I know where this fascist
literature is!" I even gave some thought to working on an
M.A. on this topic. I doubt my approach would really have been
all that earthshaking, but it did get me thinking seriously about
what SF did, what it was, what traditions shaped it and which
ones it had rejected. Form/content issues.
LM: Were there other literature classes that might have influenced
your thinking about SF?
WG: I remember doing a class on American naturalism and picking
up the idea that there are several different kinds of naturalist
novels. There's the mimetic naturalist novel (the familiar version)
but also this other crazed naturalist novel--something
like Hammett's books or Algren's The Man with the
Golden Arm. Here's Algren trying to do this realistic
description of Chicago in the 40s, but his take on it is weirder
than anything I did with Chiba City in Neuromancer. It's
full of people with neon teeth, characters with pieces of their
faces falling off, stuff out of some bad nightmare. Then there's
that tradition in American literature of the crazy, overt horror/pain
end of naturalism--what you find in Herbert Selby's books. Maybe
related in some way to these twisted offshoots of naturalism are
those books by William Burroughs which affected SF in all kinds
of ways. I'm of the first generation of American SF authors who
had the chance to read Burroughs when they were fourteen or fifteen
years old. I know having had that opportunity made a big difference
in my outlook on what SF--or any literature for that matter--could
be, because I was being exposed to Burroughs at the same time
I was reading SF. What he was doing with plot and language and
the SF motifs I saw in other writers was literally mind-expanding.
I saw this crazy outlaw character who seemed to have picked up
SF and gone after society with it the way some old guy might grab
a rusty beer opener and start waving it at somebody. Once you've
had that experience, you're not quite the same.
LM: Who are the writers right now that you admire or feel some
WG: Bruce Sterling is certainly a favorite. He produces more ideas-per-page
than anyone else around. Delany has been an obvious influence
on my work and on the work of most other serious SF writers of
my generation. Marc Laidlaw has a book called Dad's Nuke
that I really enjoyed. John Shirley, of course. I admire Greg
Bear's work a lot, even though his approach is much more hard
SF oriented than mine. A guy I came across recently whose books
are only quasi-SF is Madison Smartt Bell--The Washington
Square Ensemble and Waiting for the
End of the World are brilliant.
LM: One of the scenes in Neuromancer that has a peculiar
emotional charge is the one where Case is trying to destroy that
wasp's nest. What would you say makes that image so emotionally
WG: The fear of bugs, for one thing! That scene evolved out of
the experience once of destroying a very large wasp's nest. I
didn't know what was inside a wasp's nest, didn't know they were
"imprinted" that way, so when the thing broke open I
was astounded and scared by all these wasps emerging (it probably
helped that I got stung several times). I felt a little bit of
this when I first saw Alien (some of this carries over
even in the sequel)--I could immediately see that somebody else
had been scared by bugs. Which can be a pretty strong experience.
Incidentally, the flamethrower Case uses there is by Survival
Research Labs of San Francisco. Punk art mechanics who build high-speed
compressed-air Gattling guns that fire used florescent tubes through
sheets of plywood. They do shows where they destroy animal carcasses
with these weapons.
LM: That hive gradually seems to take on all sorts of meanings
and associations. Do you consciously "build" a metaphor
like this one so that it resonates in different ways? Or is the
process so buried in your unconscious you can't describe it?
WG: I do it both ways, but a lot of what I do is more intuitive,
a version of bullshitting to the point where you can convince
yourself and anyone else that you know what you're doing. If I
were ever teaching creative writing what I'd say is, Bullshitting
is the frame of mind you have to be in if you're going to write
something that works for you. Okay, you get this image of the
hive that you've dredged up somehow, and you can see it's a strong
image. But then you've got to be willing to go with
it, you edit and re-write it, try to tie it all back in.
LM: Of course, several different things seem involved here: first,
you've got to have that intuitive ability to recognize a resonant
metaphor when you run across it (it's this crucial ability that
seems to me to separate ordinary artists from truly gifted ones);
then you've got to be able to unravel what this metaphor might
mean, then figure out what to do with it.
WG: Once I've hit an image, a lot of what I do involves a kind
of controlled use of collage that helps me start looking around
for how these things might relate to the rest of the book. This
is one of the things I get from Burroughs' work, and to a lesser
extent, Ballard's. I've never actually done any of that cut-up
stuff except to the extent of folding a few pages out of something
when I'd be stuck or incredibly bored and then checking to see
what came out. But I could see what Burroughs was doing with these
random methods and why, even though the results weren't always
that interesting. I thought, Okay, this is the equivalent of doing
a collage, of snipping things out and slapping them down somewhere.
But what if you snipped them, slapped them down, then sort of
air-brushed them a little so you'd get a composite? So I started
using some of Burroughs' methods while trying to take the edges
off so you can't see the joints.
LM: This approach would seem out of place in a field like SF,
where most readers are looking for these scientific or rational
connections to keep this futuristic fantasy moving forward credibly.
WG: As I said earlier, I'm not interested in being able to produce
the kind of literalism most readers associate with SF. This may
be a suicidal admission, but most of the time I don't know what
I'm talking about when it comes to scientific or logical rationales
that supposedly underpin my books. Part of my skill apparently
lies in my ability to convince people I do know what I'm
talking about. What I'm doing is just convincing lies--but lies
that somehow manage to convey my own impressions of things, distorted
for certain effects. Some of the SF writers who are actually working
scientists do know what they're talking about; but in order to
present a whole world that doesn't exist and make it seem real,
you have to more or less pretend you're a polymath. That's
just the act of all good writing.
LM: The obsession you see today with being able to reproduce a
seemingly endless series of images, data, and information of all
sorts is obviously related to capitalism (and its drive for efficiency)
but it also seems to grow out of our fear of death, our
desire for immortality. The goals of religion and technology,
in other words, may be closer than we think.
WG: I can see that. But this isn't something that originated with
contemporary technology. If you look at any of the ancient temple
buildings, which were the result of people learning to work stone
with the technology available to them, what you'll find are machines
designed to give those people immortality. The pyramids and snake
mounds are time machines. And this kind of application of technology
seems to run throughout human culture.
LM: You didn't start going to college until the mid-70s. So what
were you doing during the late 60s and early 70s?
WG: Virtually nothing. I grew up in a small town in Virginia.
My father was a contractor back in the 40s; he made a bunch of
money installing flush toilets for the Oak Ridge Projects (this
sounds like a very Pynchonesque detail, but it's true). When I
was a child, we had all these official badges around to show how
tight security was. He went on to the little post-War, pre-Sun
Belt building boom in the South, and then he died when I was about
eight. My family had been traveling a lot because he had moved
around with his construction jobs, and my mother decided to come
back to this little town in Virginia where they had both come
from and where I stayed until I was sixteen or seventeen. In many
ways, I had a very typical SF childhood--the bookish, geekish,
can't-hit-the-baseball kind of thing. When I went to boarding
school in Tucson, where I first got exposed to urban kids, and
where I saw the first wave of hippies pouring over the land from
San Francisco. They were older than I was, and I felt they were
really into some cool stuff. Eventually, the boarding school,
which I've learned has since been converted into a tennis club,
kicked me out for smoking pot (I think I was its first pot head).
When I went back to Virginia, my mother had died and I found that
my relatives weren't particularly sympathetic to my style. I spent
some time bumming around, and more or less convinced my draft
board that they didn't want me (they'd never seen a hippie before,
and a couple years later they would have said, Okay, we'll send
you to Vietnam and make a man out of you). Anyway, they didn't
hassle me, so in 1968 I left and went up to Toronto without even
knowing Canada would be such a different country.
LM: Was this pretty much an underground scene in Toronto? I'm
wondering if it contributed to the ambiance we see in your novels
. . .
WG: I'm sure it did, in terms of supplying me with some of the
off-beat language I use in my books if nothing else; but describing
it as an "underground" scene would seem funny to anyone
who knew me and what was going on. It was really pretty tame compared
to what was happening in a lot of places, a soft-core version
of the hippie/underground street scene, nothing heavy. I doubt
I would have survived an equivalent scene in New York or Los Angeles.
I did have the small-town kid's fascination with watching criminal
things. No question, though, that it made a lasting impression
on me. Those were portentous days. Nobody knew what was going
LM: You weren't giving much thought at that point to being a writer?
WG: Only occasionally. I really didn't think much about my future
back then. Like a lot of other people, I felt I was living in
an age in which everything was going to change very radically.
Why make all these career plans when the Revolution was going
to come? I totally accepted the idea that just around the corner
everything was going to be completely different, and in some way
I could only dimly imagine. When it didn't get different, except
to get worse, I retreated. I went to Europe and wandered around
there for a year. I had some income from my parents' estate--not
much but enough to starve comfortably. We came back to Canada
because my wife, Deb, wanted to finished a B.A., and we moved
out here to Vancouver so she could go to U.B.C. When Deb started
getting an M.A. in linguistics, I realized this whole higher education
thing was a good scam. When I look back on it and try to figure
out what to say when people ask me what I did before I started
writing, all I can come up with is, Well, I worked for two weeks
in a French restaurant, I worked in a fiberglass boat factory
for a while, and I was a teaching instructor for a film history
course (passed out the papers). That was about it. Not much of
a resume. If I hadn't wandered into SF, I'd be totally unemployable.
LM: And it was taking that college course you talked about earlier
that got you thinking about writing SF yourself?
WG: Somewhere in the back of my mind I was always aware that SF
was something I might try. But whenever I thought about it seriously,
I'd always think to myself: What a jerky thing to do--you don't
want to go around and when people ask you what you have to say,
"Oh, I'm a science-fiction writer." I shied away from
the whole notion because I felt SF lacked class, I felt as if
I was regressing in some way.
LM: What happened to get you in the right frame of mind--instant
WG: I started having fun. And despite all this creeping nostalgia
that seemed attached to it, I think I recognized some part of
myself I seldom access consciously that has always really loved
SF. Or at least loves the idea of it. Actually, I had started
out writing one story, but then I stopped when nothing seemed
to happen. I published the story in a very obscure place, so I
don't know what the hell I was expecting--a card from the Pulitzer
people? You publish something and you expect something to happen.
But nothing did. Then I met John Shirley at an SF convention,
and he was such a strange character different from any of the
other SF people I'd met--that the SF world seemed to expand instantly.
When he asked me what I did, I found myself saying, "I'm
a writer." And when he said, "Are you writing anything
right now?" I said, "Sure!" This was a lie, but
we starting corresponding after that, and I wrote some stuff to
LM: Are you interested in trying your hand at non-SF soon, maybe
to make a break out of the SF ghetto into the mainstream's mean
WG: I am. I'm scared of being typecast if I make SF my permanent
home, but what seems important right now is finding my way out
of what I'm doing without losing a sense of what it is I'm doing.
I want to find my way into the mainstream of fiction, but I don't
want to go back and start over. I have glimpses of how this might
be done, but this lateral move out of SF into something else has
become increasingly difficult. It's taken as gospel among SF writers
that to get out of SF once you've made a name in it is virtually
impossible. The clout isn't transferable.