10 Notes From An Evening With William Gibson

[I’m not going to do a more formal writeup of the event because a video of the whole thing should be going up on the SciFiLondon website in the next week or so.]

1. Audience demographics were pretty much as you’d expect: mostly male, mostly white, and mostly fond of black t-shirts.

2. John Sutherland was not a terribly good interviewer. His questions where peppered with obsequious cliches along the lines of, “I think your books teach us new ways of reading” and “the technologies you include are really about new ways of being human”. My favourite, however, was when Gibson mentioned that he’d revised the paperback of Pattern Recognition to incorporate technical and other fixes pointed out by eagle-eyed readers, and Sutherland opined that this sort of obsessive nitpicking was also something new. I can’t help feeling that Sutherland isn’t terribly familiar with fan culture.

3. The second chapter of Spook Country (Tito) was originally the first; in fact, all he started with was a “floating point of view” that “congealed” into the character of Tito.

4. Gibson is “agnostic” about fanfic.

5. There was one fairly major revision between the proof of Spook Country and the final published edition, which is that Cory Doctorow pointed out that some of the GPS tricks in the book couldn’t be done indoors. And then suggested a fix involving triangulating off the three nearest mobile phones. Or something.

6. The first time Gibson went into Second Life (anonymously and alone) it reminded him of the worst aspects of High School.

7. It was quite noticeable that there was a gap between what most of the audience was reading Gibson for (the tech, the loners, the “cool”) and what Gibson is actually interested in trying to talk about in his books (the ways people experience the modern world, and political implications of that).

8. That said, Gibson talked about his sense that the difference between now and 1984 is that in 1984 offline was the default and online was somewhere you went; now, online is the default and offline is somewhere you go. One of the characters in Spook Country describes this as cyberspace “everting”.

9. This is not really related, but a proof of Rewired arrived here yesterday. That’s a hell of a TOC.

10. Neil Gaiman would “whip” William Gibson in a fight. Apparently.

Posted in Events, SF. 27 Comments »

27 Responses to “10 Notes From An Evening With William Gibson”

  1. Abigail Says:

    I can’t help feeling that Sutherland isn’t terribly familiar with fan culture.

    And coming from John ‘internet reviewing starts and ends with Amazon’ Sutherland, this is a surprise?

    And given this, who brought up the issue of fanfic?

  2. Hoggy Says:

    4. Gibson is “agnostic” about fanfic.

    Wait. Does this mean I shouldn’t start a Gaiman/Gibson hurt/comfort epic?

  3. Martin Says:

    It was quite noticeable that there was a gap between what most of the audience was reading Gibson for and what Gibson is actually interested

    You could have knocked me down with a feather.

  4. Niall Says:

    Abigail: I honestly can’t remember whether that was Sutherland or an audience question. (Liz, Graham, Chance?)

    Andrew: There are many reasons you shouldn’t start a Gaiman/Gibson hurt/comfort epic.

    Martin: yeah, yeah, I’m an optimist.

  5. Liz Says:

    The fanfic question came from Sutherland, so we can’t blame the audience for bringing it up.

  6. Graham Says:

    It was an audience question about fanfic.

    The curious thing for me about the evening was a variant on your point 7: it felt like Gibson (and probably Sutherland) wanted it to be a literary event, and most of the audience didn’t. They seemed almost to be treating him as a guru who could tell them what bets they should place re, eg, Web 2.0; and that they would read a novel like Spook Country not for its “novelistic qualities”, but as an exercise in (Cayce Pollard’s term) coolhunting.

    A false dichotomy, I’m sure, but perhaps a useful one.

  7. Graham Says:

    Heh. Either Liz or I is an unreliable narrator.

  8. Paul Kincaid Says:

    what Gibson is actually interested in trying to talk about in his books (the ways people experience the modern world, and political implications of that)

    I remember Maureen interviewing Gibson about the time of Virtual Light and the interview was all about architecture (how our built environment shapes our lives). A fascinating interview, but for years it was the only critical writing on Gibson that was not about Neuromancer.

    We create the authors we want. I suspect much of the time we don’t actually read them.

  9. Niall Says:

    I thought it came from Sutherland. I guess we’ll have to wait for the video.

  10. Abigail Says:

    They seemed almost to be treating him as a guru who could tell them what bets they should place re, eg, Web 2.0

    That’s not an unheard of phenomenon, though, is it? Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow get similar reactions from their fans.

  11. Graham Says:

    Abigail: no, but unlike Stephenson or Doctorow, Gibson doesn’t (to my knowledge) write on tech matters or claim any special expertise there. It would be very surprising to see the same questions asked of, eg, Neil Gaiman or Michael Chabon.

  12. Liz Says:

    When Gibson mentioned that Doctorow had pointed out the GPS error, you could almost hear the audience perking up at the mention of his name. There did seem to be part of the crowd who was expecting Gibson to be more of the Sterling/Doctorow/Stross school of tech-aware web 2.0 futurists when that’s not what he’s so interested in.

  13. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    Picking up on PaulK’s comments about my Virtual Light interview with Gibson, I recall a) that Gibson was most appreciative of the fact that I’d done the research and read things like Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, and b) the people I told about interviewing Gibson were, every one, completely incredulous that we had talked about architecture, and the privatisation of public space, even though it’s what the book was about, dammit, and I couldn’t really see what else we were supposed to be talking about.

    I am conseqently not remotely surprised by point 7. Disappointed, but not surprised.

  14. chance Says:

    Ooooh I’m a tiebreaker on the fanfic thing and I think it was Sutherland, because he got to mention JK Rowling!

  15. Kev McVeigh (Pigeonhed) Says:

    7. The gap between Gibson and his readers is not new, way back in the late 80s I think it was Geoff Ryman said something like ‘every issue of Interzone is filled with people who have read Gibson but not the people William Gibson has read.’ They have seen the surface and missed the substance, basically.

  16. john sutherland Says:

    I’m sorry coalescent didn’t think I was a terribly good interviewer—Tim Adams, whom I was standing in for at short notice, would have been better. None the less, I thought Gibson gave a good performance (as the commentaries above suggest)

    Personally I was instructed by many of the things Gibson said—which, it seemed to me, went far beyond the boilerplate of his pull-a-string-in-the-back-of-my-neck responses elsewhere on this promotional tour. He felt, I think, a certain stimulus from the audience (it was, incidentally, interesting in socioliterary terms, as a clash between fan culture, and the commercial sponsors, Blackwell and Viking Penguin, whose interests are purely financial).

    In Edinburgh, I suspect (as when I was there last week) the audience would have been a median thirty years older and curious about, rather than steeped in, Gibson.

    The remarks about the node website were to me the most informative part of the evening. And, not to be obsequious, the high level of collective critical awareness in the audience.

    john sutherland [why does no-one use their own names?]

  17. Niall Says:

    Hi John —

    Thanks for dropping by. To take your last point first: I assume you got “coalescent” from this blog’s Technorati page — but as it says in the blog description there, and on the about page here, my actual name is Niall Harrison. Everyone above is posting under their real names as well. (Well, Hoggy is a nickname, but it’s what everyone [except me] calls him in person, too.)

    Second: “Obsequious” is probably a bit strong, so I apologise for that. And I’ve only read three of Gibson’s novels myself, so I can’t claim that I would have done a better job. And I did enjoy the evening, if that wasn’t clear. But … well, I still feel that the interview didn’t really dig as deep as I would have liked. I already knew about Node, for instance, and I suspect most of the rest of the audience did as well — although the Edinburgh audience may not have done. (And Spook Country is not the first book to receive such online annotation.)

    (Also, since you’re here and we were debating it — was it you that asked about fanfic, or did the question come from the audience …?)

  18. john sutherland Says:

    It was me. I’ve written about it, at some length, in the Sunday Telegraph which I imagine is a planet about as far away as Uranus for most admirers of Gibson.

    Thanks for the courteous response.

    js

  19. Liz Says:

    Ha! Graham is the unreliable narrator around these parts.

  20. Graham Says:

    Yes, Liz, but in my own universe I’m Palmer Eldritch. :)

  21. Ralph Says:

    1) Cory Doctorow pointed out the flaw in the way “the street” finds uses for technology, specifically the mobile phone bugaboo, in Spook Country. What’s interesting, however, is that Gibson chose to ignore the finer details in favor of what he deemed “better fiction.”

    2) And for the record my money is also on Neil. Odds are 5-1 in favor of John Shirley as the final winner of Ultimate Fighting SF Championship.

    3) Are William Gibson and Bruce Sterling now post-cyberpunk?

  22. Kev McVeigh (Pigeonhed) Says:

    Re Ultimate Fighting Sf Championship… a conversation involving several notorious SF academics after the Clarke Award came to the unanimous decison that Gwyneth Jones would win any such fight without breaking sweat.

  23. Niall Says:

    Hi Ralph:

    What’s interesting, however, is that Gibson chose to ignore the finer details in favor of what he deemed “better fiction.”

    I’m not sure why this is a surprise — I’m not one who believes that “better fiction” always trumps factual accuracy, if only because I think factual accuracy makes for better fiction as often as handwaving does, but I don’t think anyone’s ever accused Gibson of being particularly hard about his science.

    Are William Gibson and Bruce Sterling now post-cyberpunk?

    According to the editors of Rewired, yes, and on the basis of their recent novels I’d agree.

  24. Martin Says:

    According to the editors of Rewired, yes, and on the basis of their recent novels I’d agree.

    Never mind recent novels, Sterling was post-cyberpunk before Neuromancer was even published.

  25. Ralph Says:

    Is post-cyberpunk a movement (like post-modernism) or is it just the next wave of glitzier, fancier and grown up cyberpunk?

    When is the John Shirley/Gwyneth Jones grudge match, anyway, and can I get it on pay-per-view?

  26. Kev McVeigh (Pigeonhed) Says:

    In many respects Cyberpunk was a rabble-rousing rhetorical device proliferated largely under two pseudonyms. The theorising came from Vincent Omniaveritas (Bruce Sterling) was complemented by the barbed reviewing of Sue Denim (Lewis Shiner) in Cheap Truth mostly. John Kessel then reacted to it with his Humanist Manifesto, and Swanwick postulated two opposing camps in ‘A User’s Guide To The Postmoderns’.
    As is often the case the two camps had more in common than differences, despiet some heated debate. (My first ever convention saw David Brin and Stan Robinson get quite excitable.) A look at the contents list for Mirrorshades for instance, sees the archetypal humanist James Patrick Kelly represented.

    Post-cyberpunk therefore is surely a form of SF which has taken on the concerns voiced in this debate and incorporated them as its own.

    Cyberpunk is as hard to define as SF. Based on an idea of Information Technology as both central motif and defining metaphor one could argue that Gibson was not a Cyberpunk until The Difference Engine, Sterling only in his Mechanist/Shaper stories and Shiner not at all. Instead we would have to look at Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash as the main text.

  27. Linkyland « Torque Control Says:

    […] video of that evening with William Gibson is now online at […]


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