Compared to the AI entities and digitally-enhanced hackers of his debut novel, Neuromancer, William Gibson's current cast of characters is remarkably dialed-down. But their quest is the same—to gain an edge by identifying critical, emerging patterns of data among the noise. In his new novel, Zero History, global marketing genius Hubertus Bigend and his team find themselves in less virtual though equally dangerous realms of military contracting and fashion, chasing the holy grail of post-modern marketing—the secret brand.
Like Bigend, Gibson's ability to discern codes among the background noise of our culture has made him a larger-than-life figure in both science fiction and information technology. Gibson talked with The Atlantic from his home in Vancouver about why, since coining the term cyberspace, he's become interested in the comparatively low-tech pursuit of marketing, and whether it's possible to find the cool in a post-geographic age. He also explained why he thinks we need the science fiction toolkit to handle the complexities of the present.
In your first novel, Neuromancer, you paint a very internal, hermetic vision of the future, which was at odds with the grand, "space opera" version of science fiction. That is the future we're getting, though. With the US space program being downsized and unmanned—the narratives of our future seem to be far less "out there" than they are earth-bound, and increasingly internal.
I think that our future has lost that capital F we used to spell it with. The science fiction future of my childhood has had a capital F—it was assumed to be an American Future because America was the future. The Future was assumed to be inherently heroic, and a lot of other things, as well. When I wrote Neuromancer, I had a list in my head of all the things the future was assumed to be which it would not be in the book I was about to write. In a sense I intended Neuromancer, among other things, to be a critique of all the aspects of science fiction that no longer satisfied me.
As I was writing it, when I really got to a fork in the path—should I do this or do that?—my guide was to just do the opposite to what I assumed traditional science fiction would do. I stuck with that, thereafter, and eventually brought it back to the present. I think I'm actually still doing the same thing.
How do you think younger people today think about the future? Do they think about the future at all? Is there a disappointment among those who once thought in a big way about the future?
I'm not going all Sex Pistols, shouting No Future!—I'm suggesting that we're becoming more like Europeans, who have always retrofitted their ruins, who've always known that everyone lives in someone else's future and someone else's past. It's the American aspect of futurism that, as I understand it, was for a very long time to assume that there was more space over the next rise where you could go and build an entirely new future. That was America's experience as a growing country. If things didn't work out, you moved West. There was a seemingly infinite amount of unsettled land that we had. People supposedly moved West out of their inevitable discontent with how things were going where they happened to be living.
Whether or not that was historically true I don't know, but we carried that idea into our vision of the future, and it acquired its capital F around the beginning of the 20th century and held onto it until maybe sometime in the '70s. It was still very capital F in the '60s. At some point the blush went off it a bit, and we've been entertaining a different sort of future since then.
Zero History revolves around post-modern fashion marketing. People now seem more invested in technology than clothing styles, however. Is technology in a sense replacing fashion?
For me fashion is like Oscar Wilde's dictum, that "Fashion is something so ugly that we're compelled to change it every six months." I've never been very interested in that kind fashion. I'm interested in how people all over the world array themselves and go forth in the morning to do whatever they have to do to make a living. The kinds of codes of information inevitably involved in that—what passes for fashion—is, for me, more anthropological.
I agree with you in the sense that the old, annoying, Oscar-Wildeian sense of fashion has been to a large degree overtaken by technology. That's not to say that technology isn't to a very large degree about fashion and marketing—it obviously is. But I don't think there's any wearable designer product in the world that could get the sort of overnight-standing-in-lines-a-mile-long consumer turnout that you could get for a new iPhone, say. That's an intense response. Prada is not likely to get that kind of line.
But certainly, we live in an age when people are as invested in appearance as I've ever seen them to be. People still have to cover themselves in something when they get up in the morning, and there's still competing with one another with clothing, and making declarations of self with clothing, and disguising themselves with that which they aren't—with clothing. It's just a fantastically basic thing that we do. I think that it's always a bit dangerous to write about codes of apparel and the sociology of dress—there's something about our culture that demands that we think of it as inherently lightweight. I was a bit concerned about that but I thought ah, you know, I can afford to be seen to have gone a bit lightweight here, particularly if I don't think I'm going lightweight with it.
Maybe it's just my particular little world in my part of San Francisco, but looking out at the parade of people passing by my window I sometimes wonder if we are in this post-fashion period.
Well, I was in San Francisco last month, and what struck me about it was that I'd never seen San Francisco manifest such coherent street fashion. People under 30, particularly, were dressed to global urban standard. You could have plucked them out of San Francisco and dropped them into Tokyo, London, New York or Williamsburg and you'd be absolutely unable to pick them out of the crowd. People 30 and under are taking their codes from the web, not from fashion magazines. Young people in Vancouver have never dressed like young people in New York or London. Now they do. They get all the details right, because they're reading The Sartorialist every day. They've got a way to crack the code without having to go to New York, Tokyo or London. And it's kind of—I don't know, is this a good thing? Like we're losing local palettes. Everything is starting to look the same.
In the post-modern marketing intrigues in your recent books, characters like Hubertus Bigend must trace larger movements in culture before anybody else knows they are there. But if everybody is seeing the same things, dressing the same way, and hewing to the same cultural norms because of the Internet, are there any cultural differentiations left to make?
I don't know. That's a really good question, and it's going to be interesting to see how that goes. It reminds me of what some people including myself were saying ten years ago about bohemias, and whether it's still possible to do them in a culture that has evolved to detect and commodify them, and sell them back to you before you can even get into the second gear with your bohemia. Bohemias are sort of like designer lifestyles, in a way, and it seems like the Internet may have put an end to them, at least in terms of how we were viewing them before. We're post-geographical now.
Perhaps that same mechanism applies to coolness. Maybe what we're really talking about is novelty. Because a mechanism like Twitter is probably the single most powerful and efficient aggregator of novelty that ever existed. The real function of magazines, for the most part, has been to aggregate novelty, to run around to find a lot of new things, put them in your issue, and get them out ideally before the other magazines notices it—then people buy it, bring it home, and wolf down all this novelty.
Now if you've got your Twitter feed set up right, every day you can get more raw novelty dumped on your desktop than you can get buying an entire magazine store. And it changes every day. What does that mean? One thing it means is that magazines have to find something different to do—you have to find some niche that you can operate in.
If novelty is available wholesale at that level and at that quantity for free to a 15 year-old in Nebraska, what's that going to do to the rest of us? I don't know, but I'm sure the next time I'm writing a novel that's going to be one of the post-it notes on the windshield.
Is this commodification of novelty—that novelty is so available to everyone that novelty, per se, may not be a novelty anymore—behind the more here-and-now setting of your recent novels?
Well, when I started writing in my late 20s, I knew that I was a native of science fiction. It was my native literary culture. But I also knew that I had been to a lot of other places in literature, other than science fiction. When I started working I had the science fiction writer's specialist toolkit. I used it for my version of what it had been issued for. As I used it, though, and as the world around me changed, because of the impact of contemporary technologies, more than anything else, I found myself looking at the toolkit and thinking, you know, these tools are possibly the best tools we have to describe our inherently fantastic present—to describe it and examine it, and take it down and put it back together and get a handle on it. I think without those tools I don't really know what we could do with it.
Whenever I read a contemporary literary novel that describes the world we're living in, I wait for the science fiction tools to come out. Because they have to—the material demands it. Global warming demands it, and the global AIDS epidemic and 9/11 and everything else—all these things that didn't exist 30 years ago require that toolkit to handle. You need science fiction oven mitts to handle the hot casserole that is 2010.
Do you think that there are Hubertus Bigends around somewhere, scanning the world with a heightened perception of these larger trends that interweave marketing and fashion and technology and enormous revenue streams?
I doubt that there are, but I sort of wish there were. The closest thing that might ever have existed, however briefly, was when [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren was hired by the Polish government to "rebrand Poland". I think the very idea of that having happened was part of the original inspiration for Bigend.