Interview with William Gibson

February 3, 2011

William Gibson is famous for a lot of reasons. His debut novel, “Neuromancer,” was the first book to the “triple crown” of science fiction awards – the Nebula, the Hugo, and Philip K. Dick Award. He arguably launched two entire genres of sci fi – cyberpunk and steampunk. And he coined the term cyberspace – about a decade before it actually existed.

Author William Gibson (photo: Michael O'Shea)

In fact, many now believe that Gibson’s sci-fi work in the 1980s actually determined the eventual trajectory of the World Wide Web. All those engineers and designers in the 1990s, after all, had grown up with Gibson’s books. When it came time to actually invent cyberspace, Gibson had already provided the conceptual blueprints.

But for science fiction fans of a certain intensity, Gibson is probably most famous for his utterly distinctive prose style. Dense, multivalent and hyper-specific, Gibson’s writing requires a lot of attention from the reader. His books have the effect of slowing the reader down, even as they depict a world where everything is moving impossibly fast.

This Tuesday at 7 pm, Gibson will be reading from his latest novel, “Zero History,” at the Reynolds Theater in the Bryan University Center at Duke. Gibson will also be signing books afterward, and the event is free and open to the public.

The third book to take place in Gibson’s contemporary setting, “Zero History” follows the fates of three characters – morally ambiguous marketing mogul Hubertus Bigend, musician and journalist Hollis Henry, and the chameleon-like recovering addict known as Milgrim – as they work to uncover a government conspiracy.

The new book shares many of the same characters and concerns as Gibson’s previous two novels, “Pattern Recognition” and “Spook Country. The setting? “About five minutes into the future.”

Speaking in his friendly, laconic drawl from a hotel room in Denver, the previous stop on his 20-city book store, Gibson spoke about 9/11 attacks, optimism for the future and the power of Googling.

Q: Is this book intended to be the last of a trilogy, as with your earlier series?

A: I really never know, because as weird as it seems, I never planned to write any three-book set. I don’t really think of them as trilogies. Because when I started out, science fiction trilogies were actually just very large novels published in three volumes, and my books are designed to stand alone.

But, you know, I’ve done it in threes before. So probably that means I’ve done it again here (laughs). It’s probably time to start something new.

Q: “Zero History” brings some characters back from previous books. Had you always planned to return to the story of Bigend and Hollis?

No, not at all. It feels to me like, in order to get the characters I need, I have to make a deal with them that I’m not going to write them into the ground. I’m always a bit embarrassed when I go to wrote a novel, and some of the people from the last novel are still at the door. But so far, they’ve always managed to convince me that they’ve changed, that they’re different now.

Q: The titles of your books are always so evocative. For instance, “Spook Country” works on about 17 levels. What’s the meaning, for you, of “Zero History”?

A: Well, you got close to it there on how it works on about 17 levels. I’ll often come down on the side of ambiguity in a title. Because I’m attracted, myself, to titles with multiple meanings. When I was starting this, my working title was “The Gabriel Hounds.” But when I got around to Googling it, I discovered Mary Stewart has already written a book with that title.

I was quote surprised that there hadn’t been at least one mystery novel called “Zero History” because it’s a police procedural term. It’s a line I’ve heard a million times on TV. So it was surprising that it wasn’t used.

Q: You were one of the first authors to incorporate the 9/11 attacks into your fiction, in “Pattern Recognition,” and it seems all your books since them have this kind of persistent, ambient dread. How did the 9/11 attacks effect you?

I was working on “Pattern Recognition” for about three months and not really getting anywhere with it. I had Hollis in this apartment in London, feeling really upset. Then 9/11 came, and I pretty much forgot about writing novels for a while. When I came back, I thought: Well, I have to scrap all this. Hollis is from New York. Her back story just changed.

I shared that with another friend, a writer in New York, actually, and he said – well, there’s your job. That why she’s upset. Her back story just changed, and now why does she feel this way? I tell you, I didn’t jump for joy at that notion, but he was right.

Q: Do you feel like things have changed as much you initially feared, since 9/11?

A: I think a lot of things have changed. and not for the good. My assumption, really, on the day this thing happened, I felt that the the response to those attacks wasn’t going to damage the attackers as much as it was going to damage the U.S.

That’s how asymmetric warfare works. The little guy’s only possibility of winning is to induce the big guy to hurt himself – to ruin his reputation and degrade the daily functioning of his society. And it works, if the big guy goes for it.

Q: Are you optimistic for the future?

I’d be more optimistic if there were more anthropologists working on the big guy’s side. You need people who understand how it works. As long as the people in power don’t understand the paradigm of war that is being deployed against them, the nation is vulnerable.



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