Reporting the Future

When fiction trumps clean, simple facts

William Gibson—the ectomorph cage rattler out of Vancouver (via Toronto, via Wytheville, Virginia)—became, with his first novel, science fiction’s reigning monarch. Right out of the box, a category killer, baby Oedipus laying low his fathers. Gibson’s Neuromancer, famously the winner of the SF trifecta (the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards), was so good, so unexpectedly sui generis, he had to break the mould just to keep moving. So after two more linked novels, Gibson wrote a second trilogy set merely in the near future, then a third, this time in the near past. That work done, the very title “science fiction” outgrown, what is next? His tweets suggest he is not through with that last trilogy, not by a long shot, but whatever form the new work takes, certain tropes and passions will recur, as they have always recurred in his stories: the entropic decay of physical objects, the digestion of old tech into new uses, cryptic pieces of art at plot’s centre.

But first, a seeming digression: this collected non-fiction.

Does William Gibson even write non-fiction? In Distrust That Particular Flavor (oh that title—if you ever disbelieved his accounts of living the early 1970s proto-hippie-hangout lifestyle, of wandering north to avoid Vietnam, just grok that title), he collects 25 magazine pieces, speeches and book intros written between 1989 (the fine autobiographical “Rocket Radio” from Rolling Stone) and 2010 (“Talk for Book Expo, New York”—meh). He wrote them, he explains in his own introduction, because of “opportunities to visit new places, to meet interesting people. A certain permission to ask questions … and someone else is paying for it. Is paying for you to be exactly there, doing approximately that, and the fiction-writing place, though you don’t notice it at the time, benefits.”

I am in no position to question the ethics of writing non-fiction for reasons of convenience or cash. The exchange rate seems more than reasonable. The fiction-writing place, though—that is an intriguing consideration in a book of non-fiction (one whose copyright page, by the way, troublingly promises: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places…” Et cetera.) The fiction-writing place, which presumably also gave Gibson permission to visit new places, meet people (well, imaginary people), ask questions, get paid, lays a sizable claim here. In the brief afterword to each essay (they are a good chunk of the value of this collection—many of the pieces are previously published), Gibson uses that fiction-writing place—where “the world washed in, if I was lucky, and was transformed”—to excuse passages of torpor (he is not big on interviewing people) or to celebrate hits of perception.

If this seems vague, good. I want to make a point about clarity and what specificity costs, which might also be a point about reality versus mere likelihood. About characters and motives understood from the inside versus those merely inferred from the surface. About, really, fiction and non-fiction—or, as Stephen Colbert has it, truth and truthiness.

Here is an excerpt from a travel piece Gibson wrote for Wired—for the September 2001 issue, as it happens. This is germane because, as becomes clear in these essays, 9/11 changed Gibson (a displaced American; if not a draft dodger, then a draft skirter; someone who had more friends in Manhattan that day than anywhere else in the world, except back in Vancouver). It was after 9/11 that the third trilogy, still embryonic, made the quantum leap from near future to near past, from science fiction to … whatever cultural-anthropology genre Gibson is now busy inventing with his character Hubertus Bigend. But the Twin Tower attacks were months in the future when Gibson went back to Japan, as he does from time to time, “to refresh my sense of place, check out the post-Bubble city, professionally resharpen that handy Japanese edge.” There was not, seemingly, much to report on, until one night in the Roppongi club district:

I’m waiting at a pedestrian crossing when I see her. She’s probably Australian, young and quite serviceably beautiful. She wears very expensive, very sheer black undergarments, and little else, save for some black outer layer—equally sheer, skintight, and micro-short—and some gold and diamonds to give potential clients the right idea. She steps past me, into four lanes of traffic, conversing on her phone in urgent Japanese. Traffic halts obediently for this triumphantly jaywalking gaijin in her black suede spikes. I watch her make the opposite curb, the brain-cancer deflector on her slender little phone swaying in counterpoint to her hips. When the light changes, I cross, and watch her high-five a bouncer who looks like Oddjob in a Paul Smith suit, his skinny lip beard razored with micrometer precision. There’s a flash of white as their palms meet. Folded paper. Junkie origami.

Those are familiar Gibson story tropes. The fallen beauty sleekly navigating the urban night. The well-dressed heavy. Their exchange, the menace, chemicals. (“The root of street cool,” he wrote for New York Times Magazine, which happens also to be the root of Gibson novel cool, is exactly that “knowing posture that implied connection, invisible lines up to hidden levels of influence.”) I am reminded of the early scene in Neuromancer when the anti-hero Case (himself an ectomorph cage rattler) recalls his junkie ex:

He’d found her, one rainy night, in an arcade. Under bright ghosts burning through a blue haze of cigarette smoke, holograms of Wizard’s Castle, Tank War Europa, the New York skyline … her face bathed in restless laser light, features reduced to a code: her cheekbones flaring scarlet as Wizard’s Castle burned, forehead drenched with azure when Munich fell to the Tank War, mouth touched with hot gold as a gliding cursor struck sparks from the wall of a skyscraper canyon … He’d come in out of the warm rain that sizzled across the Ninsei pavement and somehow she’d been singled out for him, one face out of the dozens who stood at the consoles, lost in the game she played.

The difference is in the details. The fiction girlfriend is spectral, freighted with meaning, hyperreal. She invites the reader to flesh her out, to interpret, to invest. The non-fiction hooker, by contrast, is mere type, a passing cipher Gibson unlocks (rather than interpreting) with timeworn keys. The ambiguity of humanity, fiction’s lifeblood, convincingly piped through all his books, becomes in this collection the scant and scattered details of reportage.

Thus, for all the cleverness and connecting of dots and flights of fleet thinking apparent in Distrust, it lacks the thrumming energy, the “knowing posture,” of Gibson’s novels and stories: it lacks the involuted depth he brings to the characters of his own imagining. The real world we all share is not as deep, it comes to seem, as the particular worlds he calls up from his imagination.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Paris Review last year, Gibson celebrated the messy details of the imagination: he “wanted science fiction to be more naturalistic. There had been a poverty of description in much of it … What would any given SF favorite look like if we could crank up the resolution? As it was then, much of it was like video games before the invention of fractal dirt. I wanted to see dirt in the corners.” The real world, by contrast, just feels too simple, too clean.