Thursday, 27 November 2014

William Gibson on NEUROMANCER

I went, (along with a whole load of other fortyish guys dressed in black), to hear William Gibson talk about NEUROMANCER. Which was published thirty years ago.

For those of you who don't know it, the book is an amazingly prescient work of tech-noir - a great story that invented the concept of an internet, and the term cyberspace; inspired dozens of imitations, including THE MATRIX; kicked off a whole subculture - 'cyberpunk'; and has been seriously called the most influential book of the 20th century.

Go and read it if you haven't, it stands up well. It's about a junkie hacker living in a dystopian urban mess called the 'sprawl' who is hired by an Artificial Intelligence to put a team together for a mysterious heist. It certainly made a big impression on me when I read at seventeen or so, adding fuel to my desire to get out of suburban Wales and find somewhere a bit more cool and sprawlish.

Gibson himself came across as clear-eyed, affable, a cool academic with - suitably enough - an unplaceable, mid-Atlantic accent.

If he is bored of talking about his oldest book he didn't show it. He said he invented cyberspace - in the story a virtual world rather like that of Second Life - after watching teens playing arcade games: craning over their machines, they seemed so eager to enter the screen - what if they could? He said that as well as an original arena for a story it was a handy way to solve the age old writer's problem of how to efficiently get people in and out of rooms.

In similar self-deprecatory fashion, he said that the prose flights of fancy that the book indulges in, particularly in describing its two Artificial Intelligences, was a way to paper over some wayward plotting.

And he was quick to point out that he wasn't the first to write characters who were constructs inside a computer - apparently that was Alfred Bester, in a story called 'I have no mouth but I must scream'. He referenced one of his book's few blind spots by pointing out that any modern kid who read it would think the plot must hinge around how the AIs managed to uninvent the mobile phone.

Other influences and antecedents he acknowledged included Philip K Dick, Meryvn Peake, and William Burroughs - who he described as like a musician sitting with an electric guitar and an arc of pedals, when all the other writers were still acoustic. He wanted some of that wa-wa.

Asked why nothing he had written had been turned into a decent film, he accepted that the Wachowski's had stolen his best ideas, but lived in hope.

One of the things that made his invented world seem so real was its attention to surface detail - giving 'eyeball kicks', he called it - and branding. But as well as inventing cool names for new things (I still want an Ono Sendai) he felt he needed to keep the story anchored by using familiar tropes: So, for example, Case, the hero, is addicted to the rather archaic amphetamines, rather than some ritzy invented designer drug.

Another striking and prescient story point is the power of corporate 'zaibatsus'. The idea for those super-companies came, he said, from a college anthropology course, where a lecturer pointed out that an alien arriving on earth, looking for the most powerful entity to talk to, would conclude that the the dominant social lifeform was not the nation state but the multi-national corporation. Even during wars, he pointed out, they could split in two and sell to both sides.

So he took a lot of things that were happening, or starting to happen, and extrapolated brilliantly to create a future world, parts of which are now coming to pass.

He wrote the book as a commission, in 18 months, and if he hadn't had to do it he wouldn't have done it at all. Overall he gave the impression that he had written it the way first books are often written -frantically collating sets of disparate influences, solving problems by elision, making up the rules as he went along.

And he ended up with something magnificent. Skilful guy.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to hear his honest appraisals of Its failings. Wish I'd been there. Good write-up. Thanks.