A chat with William Gibson, sci-fi hero and future noir architect

November 10, 2014

from The News & Observer

Thirty years ago this summer, author William Gibson released his debut novel, “Neuromancer,” and pretty much single-handedly changed the trajectory of science fiction. Gibson’s story – of virtual realities and insane artificial intelligences – pioneered the genre of cyberpunk and folded in dozens of details that would prove remarkably prescient.

Gibson’s work over the years has gradually crept from far-future speculation toward contemporary observation. His most recent books – concluding with 2010’s “Zero History” – are set about five minutes into the future and examine a world changing so rapidly that science fiction is becoming indistinguishable from everyday reality.

Gibson’s much-anticipated new novel, “The Peripheral,” splits the difference. By way of an alternating-chapter structure – and an exceedingly cool time-travel premise – “The Peripheral” toggles between near-future and far-future settings. Using high-tech “peripheral” technology, characters are able to project their consciousness into machines and effectively move through time.

“The Peripheral” is a murder mystery wrapped in cyberpunk noir, with some spooky conjecture on our weirder modern technologies – including drones, 3-D printing and virtual reality gaming. Calling from his home in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Gibson recently spoke to The N&O about time travel, apocalypse and hope for the future.

Q: Time-travel stories are notoriously difficult to pull off, because of the causal paradoxes, but you find an interesting solution in the book: The characters project their consciousness into machines that exist in alternate timelines. Can you talk about how you arrived at that?

A: Well, in part it’s an appropriation, because my favorite story from the cyberpunk era is a story called “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. The rules of time travel in that story are as they are in “The Peripheral.” The idea is, as soon as you make contact with your own past, it’s no longer your own past. It splits off and is headed in its own direction.

So I happily appropriated that, then added the rule that physical time travel is utterly impossible. Thirty years ago that would have left you with no room to have a story. But in a world in which a pilot can sit in a warehouse outside of Las Vegas and kill people in Afghanistan in a flying robot – which is our world – then you can have a total story. The mechanics of that called the whole peripheral thing into existence.

Q: The two timelines are separated by an apocalypse called The Jackpot, which turns out to be more of a gradual deterioration than an event. What was your thinking behind that?

A: I realized how the mythology of science fiction Armageddon tends to be uni-causal. It was the one thing – the triffids, the Russians, whatever. It’s this one bad thing that happens one day. I realized how much that’s changed. The apocalyptic events that loom for us now are kind of hard to get a handle on, because they’re not like that. They’re political and ecological and have been going on for hundreds of years.

Q: The characters in the story are regularly off-loading themselves into machines, essentially. It made me think about how we delegate parts of our thinking and memory these days to our phones and devices.

A: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And I think that’s something that’s in my work back to the beginning. The first short story I ever wrote is a about a kind of memory peripheral. It was called “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” It probably doesn’t even have the word digital in it, but it’s really about digital prosthetic memory. It’s such a profoundly different mode of memory that we all live with now.

Q: Our heroine in the story, Flynne, seems similar to young people today in that she accepts radical technological change easily; she rolls with things. She’s not passive, though – she’s heroic and lovable. She just doesn’t fret much.

A: Well, that’s heartening to hear. She must be based in some osmotic way in my sense, today, of people her age. Some of them anyway. I’m not consciously trying to do that when I’m writing. But I’m getting it from somewhere. A good character for me, when I’m writing, is a character who will surprise me and occasionally dumbfound me. In that I’ll be sitting there going, “Why did she do that?” I mostly have to let them, if the book is going to work itself out.

Q: Your books all deal in some degree with near-future or far-future fictional scenarios. Are you hopeful for our actual future?

A: The uncomfortable thing about this book, I realized as I finished it, is that it seems to say: It’ll all be fine – so long as you’ve got a really powerful fairy godmother in an alternate timeline … Otherwise, you’re going to have to figure out something else.

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