William Gibson Writes the Future
He coined the term cyberspace before we even knew cyberspace existed. He imagined reality TV years before it was everywhere. He's made the leap from cult novelist to mega-selling oracle by writing intensely enjoyable techno-thrillers about viral-ad agencies and shadowy clothing designers and Cuban-Chinese data traffickers. And while William Gibson insists that he's the last guy to know what's coming next, predictions he made decades ago keep coming true. Which is a little alarming, actually. Because his new novel,The Peripheral, is his most dire yet
William Gibson lives in an overwhelmingly green suburb with old-money roots south of Vancouver's downtown, and it is in this suburb that I am currently wandering, looking for William Gibson. Yesterday, over lunch, he'd given me an address that seems not to actually exist, and just a minute ago, over the phone, he gave me a real address that wasn't his. I know this because I'm standing in front of a massive gated house, the kind of house in which a reclusive beverage magnate might live, marveling at the elaborate hedges, when Gibson appears behind me. He's laughing.
"I'm not that rich," he says, apologizing for the confusion. He's wearing wire-framed glasses and has a kind of severe oracular thinness that complements his severe six-foot-four-inch height. At 66 he is permanently bent over, breaking-wave-shaped, the result of a lifetime of leaning down to listen. He points across the street at a more modest but still quite stately home where he actually lives.
Inside it's Arts and Crafts-y, wood floored, quiet. We sit in the living room, and without ceremony he picks up where we left off the day before.
"I figured out the two things where I was most dumbstruck," Gibson says. "The two questions were: Was I thinking about retiring? Which I still haven't got my head around. But the other one, which I think is gonna be the big one when I tour with this book"—The Peripheral, his tenth and most recent novel—"is: Have I been too terribly bleak, or do I think the world is absolutely fucked?"
And do you?
"I don't have an answer for that yet," Gibson says, the light slanting through his windows. "In retrospect, I think I wrote the book to try to find out."
We all should probably hope William Gibson doesn't think the world is fucked. In the thirty years since the publication of his first novel, Neuromancer, he's gotten plenty wrong about the future but also an unsettling amount of it right. We have Neuromancer to thank for making ubiquitous the word cyberspace, which Gibson described as "a consensual hallucination"—still maybe the best description of whatever it is we now spend most of our days doing. Since then, in books like Virtual Light (1993) and Idoru (1996), he's imagined a pretty convincing facsimile of modern reality television, long before the advent of anything that actually resembled modern reality television; a cure for AIDS that increasingly seems like a way we will in fact finally cure AIDS (Virtual Light again); and a whole host of other now familiar ideas about nanotechnology and viral marketing and drones shaped like silvery penguins that swim through the air (2010's Zero History; yes, they do exist).
His hard-boiled books—cool but not cold, deceptively well written—go by in tangles of sleek sentences. Uncannily prescient ones. "I was never able to predict," Gibson says. "But I could sort of curate what had already happened."
The Peripheral is an emphatic return to the science fiction he ceased to write after the turn of this century, set in not one but two futures. The first, not far off from our own present day, takes place in a Winter's Bone-ish world where the only industries still surviving are lightly evolved versions of Walmart and the meth trade. The second future is set further along in time, after a series of not-quite-cataclysmic events that have killed most of the world's population, leaving behind a monarchic class of gangsters, performance artists, and publicists in an otherwise deserted London. Like many Gibson books, The Peripheral is basically a noirish murder mystery wearing a cyberpunk leather jacket and, after an uncharacteristically dense first one hundred pages, a super enjoyable read—though perhaps less so when you consider just how accurate Gibson can be when he's thinking about what might come next.
Because according to The Peripheral, what is coming next is, to borrow Gibson's phrase again, well…fucked....MORE