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The 'spooky' worlds of William Gibson

  • Story Highlights
  • William Gibson's new novel is "Spook Country"
  • Novel a story of crossroads of technology, humanity, truth, reality
  • Gibson coined term "cyberspace"; writer speaks with an amused wonder
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By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- It's an illusion, William Gibson says. A trick. Fiction is a construct that plays with your mind, creating a world within.


William Gibson's recent books take place in a murky, techno-infused present.

"A high-res realism," the author calls it. "It's a trick, but I love it."

That shared illusion of author and reader fascinates him.

"One human being sits down and makes black marks on white paper, and somewhere on the other side of the world someone sits down and interprets black marks on white paper. ... It's an amazing thing," he says in a phone interview. "It's like the movies without the projector. It's like the movies without the screen. And it's kind of immortal in some weird way. You can sit down and get the ... experience direct from Charles Dickens."

* * * * *

Like Dickens, Gibson is an author-magician in the world-creating business. He first gained renown for "Neuromancer" in which he coined the word "cyberspace," later with "Mona Lisa Overdrive," "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Pattern Recognition." His latest is "Spook Country" (Putnam).

"Spook Country" primarily revolves around three characters: Hollis Henry, a journalist and former member of a cult rock band; Tito, a Chinese-Cuban tech specialist who becomes involved with a small family of smugglers; and Milgrim, a junkie translator working for alleged government agent Brown. The three characters' stories converge in the pursuit of a mysterious shipping container.

Gibson is big on technological and pop cultural details, and he drops them into "Spook Country" like silicon chips into a murky stream.

Hollis tries on a virtual-reality helmet that shows the death scenes of notables. IPods carry encrypted knowledge. Milgrim is hooked on a drug called Rize, usually -- if not readily -- supplied by Brown. Hubertus Bigend, the tycoon from "Pattern Recognition," is back, offering rides in Volkswagen Phaetons and sleep on maglev beds.

It's all shadowy, conspiratorial, Thomas Pynchonesque. The Los Angeles Times compared Hollis to Pynchon's Oedipa Maas, from "The Crying of Lot 49"; the Guardian offers the same assessment.

Gibson says he doesn't mind.

"I had a decade or more of being called Chandleresque," he says, referring to hard-boiled detective writer Raymond. "I think I prefer Pynchonesque any day."

* * * * *

Gibson's subject matter has often involved technology and its impact on humans. Inevitably, humanity gets lost in technology -- or perhaps it's the other way around.

He notes that it's always been so. Television changed us; so did radio before that, and the telegraph before that, and transportation improvements and agriculture and running water.

"What we call technology in our science is almost always emergent technology. ... They don't mean the technology we've had for 50 years, which has already changed us more than we're capable of knowing," he says. "When I say technology, I'm sort of thinking of the whole anthill we've been heaping up since we came out of the caves, really.

"So we're living on top of a quite randomly constructed heap of technologies that were once new, and that now we don't even think of as technology," he continues. "People think technology is something we bring home in a box from some kind of future shop."

* * * * *

He calls himself a technology "agnostic." Whatever the innovation, it's generally morally neutral, he says, "until we do something with [it]."

Sometimes, that human action ends up changing -- or at least amplifying -- his own opinions. "I don't write books to express any political philosophy I might have. Partly, I write them to discover what I do think about things. ... I don't want people to believe what I believe, but I love it if I'm encouraging people to ask questions and find their own answers."

* * * * *

Who is William Gibson? He was born in coastal South Carolina, according to the bio page on his Web site. His father was in construction and moved the family from suburb to suburb. He died when Gibson was 6; his mother took William back to her small hometown in Virginia. She died suddenly when he was 18. Gibson evaded the draft, relocated to Toronto, Ontario, and later moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he lives today.

He started writing in the late '70s and hasn't stopped. Neither have the misconceptions. "Google me and you can learn that I do it all on a manual typewriter, something that hasn't been true since 1985," he writes. "I did avoid the Internet, but only until the advent of the Web turned it into such a magnificent opportunity to waste time that I could no longer resist."

He loves his fans, but he keeps his distance. "I do have an e-mail address, yes, but, no, I won't give it to you. I am one and you are many, and even if you are, say, 27 in grand global total, that's still too many. Because I need to have a life and waste time and write."

He takes neither himself nor his celebrity seriously. He sees no need to tinker with the voluminous Wikipedia pages devoted to his work.

"I think of Oscar Wilde's remark that cats and mirrors are both inherently unhealthy to spend too much time with. I would include one's Wikipedia entry and one's most rabid fans [in that]," he says.

* * * * *

Gibson recently gave a reading in Second Life, uniting emergent technology with old-fashioned storytelling.

"That was very strange," he says. Because of limits with Second Life servers, his immediate audience was limited to 50 people. Audience members' avatars flew around the room. Questions came in via instant messaging.

But Gibson, in the end, was unfazed.

"I think what struck me most about it was how normal it felt. I was expecting it to be memorably weird, and it wasn't," he says. "It was just another way of doing a reading."

* * * * *

"Pattern Recognition" and "Spook Country" are set in the present. Gibson's previous books were set in the future. But they're all about today, of course; the best science fiction usually is. He doesn't mind watching reality outstrip his futures.

"When I watch my work sort of travel down the timeline of the real future, I just see it acquiring that beautiful, absolutely standard patina of wacky quaintness that any imaginary future will always acquire," he says. "That's where your flying car and your food pills all live -- and all the other stuff they promised our parents," he chuckles.

Gibson speaks with a voice of wonder, as if he's continually surprised at what emerges from his brain -- and, for that matter, the raw material with which the world supplies him.

"I've been writing stuff set in the 21st century since 1981. Now that I've actually arrived into the 21st century the hard way, the real 21st century is so much wackier and more perverse than anything I've been able to make up. I wake up in the morning, look at the newsfeed on my computer and away I go."

In the case of "Spook Country," he even surprised himself. Gibson admits he had no idea what was in the container until he was well into the novel. He made lists; he played with ideas.

In the end, he says, "I feel like I found the punch line." The reader in him was pleased by the trick.

"It came as kind of a surprise for me and I actually enjoyed it," he says. "I usually don't enjoy writing the ending of a book as much as I enjoyed writing the end of this one." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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