Vancouver science-fiction writer William Gibson doesn't visit Japan often, but he is fascinated by its culture and calls Tokyo "one of the capitals of my imagination." So, in the aftermath of the earthquake, he took particular interest in a quickie social-media project whose organizers were collating brief essays into a fundraising book. A devotee of Twitter, Gibson retweeted a link to the Quakebook project and was soon invited to be a collaborator, the first big-name writer to contribute to what is largely a crowd-sourced collection of first-hand observations from both locals and foreigners living in Japan.
His contribution begins with a description of a weird scene he once witnessed in Tokyo while riding in a taxi along an elevated highway and seeing into a lit room where a naked man sat at a long marble table. That unsettling vision leads him into "this strange meditation on the profound restlessness I was feeling after the quake and the tsunami, which made me feel I should go there, I should do something. I don't even know if it was an urge to help. It was an urge to make sure one of my favourite places was there."
An anonymous blogger known only as "our man in Abiko" also felt that urge to do something: An Englishman and a teacher in Chiba Prefecture, he ruminated on Twitter about some kind of fundraising project and within a few hours found himself organizing a collaborative book that has been using volunteer writers - some of them professional journalists; some not - editors and translators, and has even drawn a contribution from artist and musician Yoko Ono.
Titled 2:46 for the hour the quake struck, the electronic book, filled with accounts written in English or translated from Japanese, is expected to go on sale this Friday, with proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross. "Our man" appeared at a Tokyo press conference last Friday announcing that the book was ready and arrangements were being made to sell it through Amazon, but he has still not given his name.
Although the book is being published with a speed possible only with 21st-century communications tools and social media, Gibson points out that its form harks back to a tradition of collecting writing on celebratory or disastrous occasions.
"These are what the Victorians would have called occasional pieces: 'on the occasion of the great earthquake.' The form is an ancient one, but the platform is up to date. … In the past, it was gathered after the fact. Now, we have this facility to respond in real time."
One might think that will make the responses more visceral and less coated in either sentiment or analysis, but Gibson won't speculate how the speed of communications might change the message or the messengers: "It's a given in first-year anthropology one can't know one's own culture," he said, saying we don't have enough distance from the technology we use to evaluate its effects.
Gibson is credited with defining cyberspace, coining the term and popularizing the concept in his 1984 debut novel Neuromancer, but he declines to play futurist. "I don't think we know [what is going to happen with media and technology] but some of us make a very good living pretending we do. … I constantly run into people whose business cards say, 'I know what is happening.' "
He is, however, deeply convinced of the merits of Twitter: "It's the only social-media tool I ever use. The incredible simplicity of the thing strips away all the culture-building, the nation-building that comes with Facebook. Facebook feels like living in a mall; Twitter is like living in the street. You can bump into anyone. Nothing is guaranteed to be pleasant, [although] one can customize one's experience.
"I wind up with something that is like an ever-changing 24-hour magic magazine, with a constant stream of novel, if pointless, information, which sounds like it could be lethal for a novelist, so I try to keep that in mind."
Gibson's Quakebook essay itself was but a brief, 300-word distraction that "our man" gave him only three hours to write - "I did it immediately, else it would go into the promised-I-would basket" Gibson said - and he is now back to planning his next novel.
Information about 2:46 is available at www.quakebook.org or on Twitter at #quakebook.