Blip Magazine Archive

 blipmagazine.net

 

Home : Archive : Links


Larry McCaffery

An Interview with
William Gibson

(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 [1986]). 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 Neuromancer.

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 unconscious.

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 novel.

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 of affect.

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 to this.

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 Alfred
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 connections with?

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 resonant?

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 to happen.

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 success?

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 send him.

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 streets?

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.

Copyright 1988, 1996 Blip Magazine Archive

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at www.blipmagazine.net

Copyright 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.