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NON-FICTION: From the prophet of ‘future’

July 08, 2012

“I have never felt entirely comfortable with the pieces collected here,” says William Gibson in the introduction to his first collection of non-fiction essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor. It’s not that he isn’t comfortable with these articles, lectures and travel pieces in print — they’ve all been in the public domain previously — but that he still isn’t comfortable with the idea of being a non-fiction writer. As he explains, he started of by only ever allowing himself to write fiction, but editors began to ask non-fiction of him — travel writing, presentations, lectures, observations. Gibson gave in when the requests came alongside an airplane ticket and “opportunities to visit new places, to meet interesting people. A certain permission to ask questions.” Of course, his true motive was always to collect fuel for his fiction: “These things can prove extraordinarily valuable to a new writer of fiction.”

Distrust That Particular Flavor includes pieces dated as far back as 1989 and as recent as last year. Gibson may be known as a prophet of the “future” and is definitely the godfather of cyberpunk, but he is also ultimately an extremely good, astute observer and writer. The pieces in this collection are about diverse subjects, a wide array of Gibson’s own personal interests and, of course, comments on “futurity” — the latter of which includes an essay for Time in 2000 that answers the classic question asked of him repeatedly, “Will We Have Computer Chips in Our Heads?”. Gibson’s answer is “Maybe. But only once or twice, and probably not for very long.”

Those closely familiar with Gibson’s fiction will easily be able to see where some of his non-fiction essays have stemmed into fiction. He never quite clearly labels these pieces as straight up non-fiction though, saying “They aren’t fiction. Worse, they aren’t non-fiction either, it feels to me, because they were written from the fiction-writing place, the only writing place I had, with fiction writing tools, the only tools I had.” In a piece for Wired magazine in 2001 called “My Own Private Tokyo”, Gibson writes about returning to the city to “resharpen the handy Japanese edge”. The essay is a diamond sharp snapshot into certain moments experienced in Tokyo, and yet a reader familiar with Pattern Recognition may recognise elements of that Tokyo in the essay. But Gibson freely admits this, writing in his afterward that he “siphoned off” most of the “good stuff” into his novel.

It is when he writes about what he finds truly fascinating that Gibson’s prose really soars. Japan and its culture are incredibly important to him as a writer, and in the essays it is near impossible to not find yourself transported entirely into Gibson’s head — not just to Japan, but specifically to William Gibson’s understanding of Japan. In “Shiny Balls of Mud”, written for the Tate in 2002, Gibson talks about isolation in Tokyo, about living between the lives of others, remaining unseen. He may do this directly when he tells his readers that as many as one million Japanese have retreated to their rooms, some for six months, some for ten years, only coming out when they are certain of their parents’ absence. He also does this subtly by talking about “Vending machines in Tokyo [that] constitute a secret city of solitude. Limiting oneself to purchases from vending machines, it’s possible to spend entire days in Tokyo without having to make eye contact with another sentient being.” Gibson admits to having been asked “Why Japan?” and in possibly the best piece in the book “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls”, Gibson explains why Japan has fascinated him for as long as it has: “Because Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future.”

It’s interesting to read what Gibson thought of modern technology when it was still new. He may have been the person to come up with the idea of cyberspace (as well as the word itself), but for a long time he was strangely (and charmingly) not interested in actually using modern technology. He writes of how he would have to ask his children for web access in order to check on his own website, or how he didn’t have an email address for years. Of course, the lure of cyberspace can hardly be avoided by the writer credited with ‘predicting’ the internet, and in an essay called “My Obsession”, Gibson tells the story of his fascination with mechanical watches sold on eBay. While all this is a great insight into Gibson’s personal life and personality, these pieces do sometimes feel a little dated and it is, in fact, in the little notes written as afterwards for each piece that Gibson’s current opinions really make themselves clear.

If there is one thing that stands out negatively from this collection it is Gibson’s own constant apologies for work that really requires none. While there’s nothing wrong with humility, Gibson tends to be a bit too self-deprecating about much of his work, explaining why it may feel dated, how certain pieces may need “a haircut”, or how he wishes he’d “thought of something better” than a “lazy title”. It’s generally very sweet but totally unnecessary. He even explains why there is a Zero History pitch in a talk for the Book Expo in New York in 2010: “I had my marching orders”. Over all, it makes a reader want to remind him who he is: William Gibson, the man who would be forgiven pretty much anything, including “mining” essays for talks and also “less consciously but more constantly for fiction”.

“Time moves in one direction, memory in another,” Gibson writes in “Dead Man Sings,” written in 1998 for Forbes. The article is short, yet each thought is perfect enough to act as an essay itself. Gibson writes of “our ‘now’ [that] has become at once more unforgivingly brief and unprecedentedly elastic”. From a writer whose work often explores the limits (or rather, cyber-unlimits) of space and time, this essay is not at all journalistic, and yet not fiction either. It’s a perfect mix of what anyone would want from Gibson. Gibson explains, “It was entirely a matter of taking dictation from some part of my unconscious that rarely checks in that directly.”

In a recent interview with Salon as part of the promotion for Distrust That Particular Flavor, Gibson said “I want the reader to be experiencing something akin to culture shock constantly and be slightly off-balance in an enjoyable way, but never fully lost.” And of course, no one else could have described his work better than that.

Distrust That Particular Flavor By William Gibson Berkley Books, US ISBN 042525299X 272pp. $16