Like most science-fiction writers, William Gibson has spent an awful lot of time thinking about the future. In the process, he came up with some things that would prove to be prescient.
There were ideas about reality TV and virtual sex, not to mention freshly coined terms like “cyberspace,” his word for the ever-more-immersive world that our computer networks were just beginning to create when Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984.
But for much of the past two decades, Gibson’s real subject has been “futurity,” his handy tag for the notion that much of what he and his colleagues traditionally associated with times to come was already infiltrating and modifying every element of our quotidian existence. Essentially, his point is that we’ve been soaking in the future like it’s so much Palmolive.
Alas, that reference may be lost on Gibson’s youngest devotees, TV commercials being another thing that digital kids regard as relics of a bygone age, along with wristwatches and telephone conversations.
Then again, the present has always been filled with the clutter of the past – Gibson’s gift has been to show us how it has become littered with the future too. In a talk that he delivered to attendees of Book Expo America in 2010 – the text of which is included in Distrust That Particular Flavor, the writer’s debut collection of non-fiction – Gibson explained why his most recent trilogy of novels had a contemporary setting.
“I found the material of the actual 21st century richer, stranger, more multiplex, than any imaginary 21st century could ever have been,” he writes. “And it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction. I don’t really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is so utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted.”
Gibson gets plenty of opportunities to use that same toolkit throughout Distrust That Particular Flavor, a smattering of articles for magazines such as Wired, Rolling Stone and Time, as well as introductions for other people’s books and more texts for talks. With the oldest selections here dating to the late 1980s, the book also charts a part of Gibson’s career that he has been somewhat reluctant to acknowledge, having been “uncharacteristically strict” with himself about deviating from his mission as a writer of fiction. As Gibson explains in the introduction, these assignments represented a form of transgression, of “doing something I secretly felt I probably shouldn’t quite be doing.”
Indeed, there’s something furtive about many of the articles. Some pieces seem all too brief, being just long enough to offer a tantalizing idea before abruptly delivering a kicker that was probably more pleasing to his space-conscious editors than it will be to readers now. In others, he has just enough room to express his affection for a dearly cherished inspiration (e.g., Jorge Luis Borges, Steely Dan) and not quite enough to ponder their influence on his own sensibility.
But the most startling pieces here crackle with his excitement at discovering some unexpected aspect of the new. Pieces that might have seemed dated – like a Wired story from 1999 about buying vintage watches on a then-new auction site called eBay – remain timely thanks to his keen understanding of the ways that our desires are shaping technology and being shaped by it in turn.
It’s also fascinating to see how Gibson’s discoveries and obsessions in the real world have bled into his fictional renditions of the near future and – in his most recent novels – the now. That’s true not only of his portraits of life in Tokyo and Singapore but of one of the book’s quirkiest selections: a testament to the keen fashion sense of Skip Spence, a hero of San Francisco’s hippie-era rock scene whom the author met while staying in San Jose with musician pals who would later form the Doobie Brothers.
That the father of cyberpunk once travelled in the same circles as the longhairs responsible for China Grove is a detail as weird as anything in Gibson’s oeuvre. Be they fleeting vignettes about his West Virginia boyhood or his winding route through various epicentres of 1960s counterculture in the United States and Canada (where Gibson first arrived at the age of 19 in hopes of evading the draft), the fragments of autobiography that crop up make one hope that the author will some day overcome the discomfort he feels about self-disclosure and write a full memoir.
Then again, he may very well feel that his present is too overstuffed as it is to allow for any further time-travelling expeditions.
Jason Anderson is a writer and critic in Toronto whose first encounter with the future came with the childhood gift of 2-XL, an eight-track cassette player disguised as a toy robot.