I’ve been obsessed with William Gibson’s last novel, “The Peripheral,” since it came out in 2014. It touches on many widely discussed themes in 2016, including growing economic inequality, rule by technology, and the catastrophic effects of climate change.
Gibson is most famous for inventing the term “cyberspace,” which he coined in his 1982 short story, “Burning Chrome,” and elaborated on in later novels, most famously 1984’s “Neuromancer,” which has sold in the millions. His early work formed the bedrock for a lot of later science fiction franchises — everything from “The Matrix” movies to Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, “Ready Player One,” which is used as inspiration by those working on Facebook’s Oculus Rift VR headset.
His books are subtler, funnier, and more psychologically astute than most of what’s called science fiction. Often, they read like a classic noir novel in an uncanny valley setting — totally recognisable and disturbingly off-kilter at the same time.
“The Peripheral” flips between two futures. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The first is somewhere in rural America fast-forwarded 20 years, filled with drones, meth labs, and megastores serving questionable fast food like “pork nubbins.” There’s also a more distant and confusing 22nd century populated by plutocrats, celebrities, and publicists, wielding impossibly advanced technology that shapes the world to their whims and destroys their enemies instantly.
Between the two, a series of catastrophes has wiped out 80% of the world’s population, leaving only the wealthiest to survive. Gibson’s far-future characters, in typically wry tone, have dubbed this troubling period “The Jackpot.”
I talked to Gibson about the book, his highly active Twitter account (@GreatDismal), and what he’s working on next. Here’s a transcript, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Matt Rosoff: You wrote several books in a row — “Pattern Recognition,” “Spook Country,” and “Zero History” — that were set in the present or near present, and then all of a sudden with “The Peripheral” you went to a much more distant future, as you did in your earlier books. Why the change?
William Gibson: The three books prior to “The Peripheral” were each actually set in the year prior to their publication. So they were speculative novels of the very recent past. Having written six novels prior to that which were ostensibly set in the future or set in variously imagined futures, I was starting to have a sense that my own sense of just how weird the present moment was was eroding due to the exponential storm of technologically driven cultural change that we all experience. I was looking for a way to reset that.
“Science fiction is never really about the future.”
It had also been my belief since I started writing fiction that science fiction is never really about the future. When science fiction is old, you can only read it as being pretty much about the moment in which it was written. But it seemed to me that the toolkit that science fiction had given me when I started working had become the toolkit of a kind of literary naturalism that could be applied to an inherently incredible present. So those three books were experimental for me in that sense.
When I got to what seemed to be the end of the cycle it was time then to test the previous experiment to see if in fact by writing those three novels, I had been able to get a sense of how weird the present actually was. “The Peripheral” was the result of that.
I didn’t initially have an inkling of the second future. I had the near future, which is sort of like “Winter’s Bone” with better smartphones and drones. But I had assumed that the other world, the “future” world in that book, would simply be Miami or Atlanta or some other large city that to Flynne [the heroine] would seem like the future.
But in the meantime I had worked on a spec screenplay with a friend of mine that recently became a limited comic series instead of a movie. That narrative involved something very close to the idea of the “stubs” in “The Peripheral,” which eventually came to be written. [Ed: in the book, a “stub” is a fork in time that creates an alternate reality.]
Rosoff: When you were writing the book, did you think of it more as a prophesy, a thought experiment, a warning, or something else?
Gibson: I have always been intensely uncomfortable with the idea of a science fiction writer as prophet. Not that there haven’t been science fiction writers who think of themselves as having some sort of prophetic role, but when I think of that, I always think of H.G. Wells — he would think of what was going to happen, and he would imagine how it would happen, and then he would create a fiction to illustrate the idea that he’d had. And no part of my process has ever resembled that at all.
“When I start writing a new imaginary future, I have no idea what it is.”
When I start writing a new imaginary future, I have no idea what it is. The characters arrive first. They help me figure out where they are living and I get to fill in the gaps with that and where we are. So when I get to the end of the process of composition, if I feel that I have really done my job, I have no idea what I’ve got — and I then spend essentially the rest of my life figuring out what it might mean.
That was more the case with “The Peripheral” than with anything I’ve done perviously, so I paradoxically felt very satisfied with it. I got to the end and had no idea what it meant.
Rosoff: The trajectory between the two futures shows a sort of extreme version of rising income inequality. Flynne lives in the rural underclass in the first future, and then in the second future, the only people who have survived are Russian plutocrats and British royalty and so on, and everybody else has died. How much of that was informed by being in a place like Vancouver, which is going through similar things as San Francisco right now? We have people who have lived here for decades being forced out because they can’t afford to live here. And then you have sort of a technocratic overclass buying up a ton of property.
Gibson: To the extent that I am conscious of where I get the raw material to feed into the scenario, yeah that’s a factor.
What we’re seeing here is in one way pretty simple and in another way it is very complicated. It is about shifts in post-modern capital. Suddenly, a lot of money that wasn’t generated here has arrived. The people who have it are spending it and they aren’t connected to the local economy yet, and they have a lot of money, so they are making the various aspects of the local economy do things that no one would have predicted twenty years ago.
The more complex version of it are people widening the contextual brackets on that until you have the weirdness of the whole world …. If you live anywhere where there is a lot going on, you’re living in an inherently unstable situation. The two are basically the same.
Rosoff: By a lot of measures, things are getting better if you look at the whole world. You have fewer children dying of disease, less starvation. Does that give you some hope?
Gibson: Well, in terms of the scenario that forms the basis of “The Peripheral,” it wouldn’t be much of a factor.
The seriously downer aspect of “The Peripheral” scenario is that Armageddon is not a singular event … Something that is taking 600 years to kill us, we are not going to be conscious of it in the same way we could be conscious of a meteorite impact or a great war or a great plague. Those are the events that we have in our cultural model. But something moving very slowly from the first extraction of fossil fuel — you can’t get a handle on it. A lot of people can’t get a handle on it right now. I am inclined to agree with the scientific consensus that it is happening. Obviously it is a good thing if the least wealthy people in the world are doing generally better, but that wouldn’t be enough to stop the mechanism that is supposed in “The Peripheral.” Unfortunately.
Rosoff: Do you see something like The Jackpot, that slow-moving apocalypse, happening to the human race this century? And if so, how can humanity save itself? Does there need to be some sort of collective awakening and communication to everybody? Or is this something where a group of elites, like Bill Gates and others like that, will save us, or perhaps eventually save themselves only as is the case in that book? How can it play out?
Gibson: What I do is drive people to ask the questions that you just asked. But I don’t really have any answers because I’m totally not that guy. I have no idea.
I can do the first part of the equation.
I can look at the extent to which migration out of the Middle East into Europe in the last little while, driven by some really, really ugly wars, is impacting Europe. We can see that that is impacting Europe. And then I see NASA’s climate projection for the Middle East in 2050 or so, when they say none of it will be livable by human beings who don’t have space suits. What’s that migration both ways going to do in the human sphere? At this point we haven’t even demonstrated that we are able to deal with what’s going on because of Syria and Iraq and all of that. And what NASA’s projecting is exponentially larger, and it’s not that far away. I don’t know.
Rosoff: Does this have to be solved by everybody, or is this going to be solved by the most educated, the most scientifically minded? This question is informed by some of the Silicon Valley culture that I am steeped in, probably, where the technological leaders think they can solve all problems.
Gibson: That takes me back to H.G. Wells yet again. In “The Shape of Things to Come,” where after the terrible umpteen-millionth terrible world war that has reduced everything to Mad Max level, the technocrats come from Silicon Valley in their mighty airships and they set it all right, and they set it all right by running the world and not letting the cavemen do their cavemen thing. That was Wells’ vision just prior to the Second World War. And that was basically all he got to in history.
Having grown up in and lived through the American post-war technocracy, all of that got us where we are today. Where are these technocrats going to come from and how will they be different than the last batch?
I would be hard-pressed if my life depended on making up a scenario that would convincingly depict all of that stuff being solved. The way the narrative of “The Peripheral” takes care of it is to suppose people in the future looking back will take mercy on us and interfere with us and change things, which they can afford to do in my fantasy world because that won’t affect them — they will still be where they are but it can improve our circumstances.
When some people read “The Peripheral” they think it has a ridiculously happy ending and I think those are the people who haven’t understood the text. Because if nothing else, everyone in Flynne’s world at the end of the book is living in a conspiracy theory, but for real because all the events in her world are being controlled by these secret agents a century ahead … from the future, who are interfering with things. In some cases simply by assassinating people. So, you know, it is cold comfort. It was a very hard book to end and for me to feel that I had gotten it right. When I finally felt I had gotten it right I thought, “Damn that’s chilly.” But at the same time, I thought some people will think it has a happy ending because the protagonist has had a baby.
Rosoff: There is a very strong strain of populism emerging in politics right now. You saw Brexit and you saw Trump do surprisingly well in the United States and some far right movements in Europe. What global changes are making this happen? Is this just a pendulum swing, or is this a taste of what’s to come?
Gibson: It seems to me that you get a disenfranchised class of people who can be convinced that they were doing much better than before, you can pitch them the “We are going to make it great again” deal and some of them will buy it because they are frightened and angry because they feel they have lost something, or they are in the process of losing something.
Rosoff: You’re very active on Twitter. I follow your stream and you talk a lot about politics and some other things. What do you like about Twitter? People in tech are kind of down on the company and service right now.
Gibson: I probably like it for a lot of the reasons I suspect people in tech wouldn’t. It’s the only brand of social media that I have ever taken to at all …. I like the feeling of having my perception of the world expanded daily, 24/7, by being able to monitor the reactions of 100-and-some people throughout the world that I personally follow so I have some sense of who they are.
There has never really been anything like that before, at least in terms of the digestible 140-character bandwidth that Twitter is based on. I am able to wake up, open Twitter, and sort of glance across the psychic state of the planet.
I am able to wake up, open Twitter, and sort of glance across the psychic state of the planet.
It’s limited to some degree. I’m in a consensus bubble because I have tailored my feed to be people who I think are interesting or likable. There are other universes of stuff on Twitter that I never even look at. I find it too compelling actually. I keep thinking I’m wasting too much time doing this.
But on the other hand, I am used to spending $300 or so on piles of mostly foreign magazines that I would sit leafing through, thinking all the while that I am actually working in a sense, but it left no evidence in the world. If I didn’t tell you that, no one would know that I had been doing that instead of writing. So people can now spend 6 solid hours on Twitter in 2016.
Rosoff: You are a novelist, a profession where you disappear to write for a couple years and you’re really focusing on one thing. Twitter seems to be almost the exact opposite of that. It’s quick bursts.
Gibson: Yeah, but as a novelist, I have never been focusing on only one thing. I have found that it doesn’t change my level of concentration on my work.
The scary thing about it is that it provides almost too much material. Magazines in the traditional sense were aggregators of novelty.
Magazines in the traditional sense were aggregators of novelty.
A good magazine was a lot of novelty, stuff you’ve never heard of before, clearly aggregated by people who have been able to travel further and dig deeper than you have been able to do. And that used to be really an important source of stuff for me. And now it is less important because the Internet has eaten it all up. But my Twitter feed as an aggregator of novelty is like … I don’t know what I would do if it became any more powerful, I would have to start reining it in somehow.
Rosoff: Speaking of magazines …. Newspapers, magazines, recorded music, those industries have all been very heavily damaged by the move to digital and to the web. But it seems like books are doing pretty well. What do you think happens to movies and TV? Are they next to be spread into these millions of small pieces of content, fragmented all over the place?
Gibson: One of the things I have taken for granted, in terms of how technology works in the world, is the people that develop it and get it out there don’t really know what we are going to do with until we have really gotten ahold of it and it has become ubiquitous. And then we wind up doing things that its inventors never dreamed of and those things become the real change drivers. That is actually where the whole technocracy thing falls apart for me, because the people who invented it can’t predict what we’re going to do with it.
My catch phrase for that over the years has been “the street finds its own uses for things.” You invent the telephone pager never knowing that you’re altering forever the geography of urban drug dealing and causing pay phones to be removed from entire neighbourhoods. And it all works like that in some organic sense.
Twenty-some years ago, I was able to look at “Cops,” which I think was the first American reality television show, and I was really able to extrapolate that into something that actually feels a lot like early 21st century reality television, say in “Virtual Light” or the other Bridge books.
But I would never have predicted episodic dramatic television becoming the form of stuff on the screen to which the serious talent has now migrated. Meanwhile, in movie theatres there’s the Marvel franchise and the DC franchise, there’s actually not a lot happening. Movies have gotten dull, the way network television got dull. And television, if we can still even call it that, is still really exciting and riveting and people are totally into it. I am always meeting people who have these favourite shows that they are completely wired too and not only have I never seen it but I don’t even know how to find it. I still haven’t seen “Mr. Robot” and I know people that would live and die for it!
Rosoff: I haven’t either. Now the consensus is season 2 is not as good as season 1. I haven’t even seen season 1.
Gibson: I have had more options for television than I have ever had options for film. And it is not about me at all — there is this feeding frenzy in the television industry where the marching orders are basically “cult fiction, go find and option cult fiction,” and there has been one guy after another knocking at the door. Who knows where any of this is going? I am totally delighted that actual paper books have some legs in this century, and not just in the same way that vinyl records have legs, you know?
Rosoff: The desire for books seems to be more organic than the vinyl, it’s not just hipster or whatever you want to call it. So what are you working on now?
Gibson: I am writing a novel that as far as I can tell is set in SF, about now. And it’s Silicon Valley startup culture, SF culture — as I see it anyway. I can’t tell whether or not it has any relationship to “The Peripheral,” which is kind of a weird feeling. I realised it mainly has to do with the stub structure of “The Peripheral,” so having written that I’ve got to write something in the present. Is this our continuum, or has someone interfered with this? Or are these people headed in the same direction or maybe somebody is about to interfere with it? Now that I am getting further into it, I am not that sure.
Also the world is already that much weirder than it was when I started writing the book. You know the level of freakiness we have experienced in 2016 is so far off the charts, I am having to go back and crank up the weirdness in parts of the book I have already written.
The level of freakiness we have experienced in 2016 is so far off the charts, I am having to go back and crank up the weirdness in parts of the book I have already written.
Rosoff: So it won’t seem boring! I imagine the writers for HBO “Silicon Valley ” struggle with this — the parody is already way behind reality when the episode comes out.
Gibson: It’s really, really hard work for science fiction writers and people writing about tech culture in that way. Trying to stay ahead of the curve. Because the pleasure of reading that sort of fiction is someone taking the pleasure of where we are now and increasing it fractionally so it makes some sort of really enjoyable cognitive dissonance. That’s long been the way I thought science fiction, or the way I write, worked, in terms of the pleasure that’s derived from it. But now it is becoming much more difficult, because — how weird is now? You don’t know until you get up and turn your device on in the morning. It is either no weirder than it was yesterday or it’s hugely weirder than it was yesterday. There is no way of getting used to that.
Rosoff: I have to ask: What do you think of the sort of newest crop of virtual reality headsets, the VR that Facebook and others are doing, versus what Magic Leap and Microsoft are doing with so-called augmented reality? Have you tried them?
Gibson: I have tried bits and pieces of it. I have yet to try Magic Leap, but I have spoken with actual humans. Even the ones that I assumed wouldn’t be that cowed by the NDA were sort of like, “Yeah it’s far out, next.” They have a certain look in their eye and it probably was fairly far out.
VR has had a very funny course, at least how I happen to see it. When I first experienced VR, pixels were the size of a human head. I looked at Jaron Lanier’s and I think that was the most advanced I had seen at that point, and gradually over the years people brought them around.
It didn’t work at all until smartphone technology developed all on its own, purely to be smartphones, and then provided the bits and pieces you can use to make a pretty good VR system, when really you’re just looking at a smartphone being held in front of your eyes.
I only know Pokemon Go from watching people do it. I think, “Hmm, this AR maybe really does have some legs,” because you can get 20 people out running around a statue in the middle of the night chasing something that doesn’t exist.
Rosoff: It’s remarkable. I live near a park that has a huge cross near the top of a hill and nobody was ever up there except for Easter and sometimes Sunday mornings, but with Pokemon Go it’s been packed with people holding their phones. It’s the weirdest thing.
Gibson: Like it’s repurposing the world. If I had owned an iPhone when I was writing “Spook Country,” which has a lot of augmented reality suppositions in it, I think now I would have seen how your iPhone could be your AR portal. It’s ready to go so you can go around chasing things or looking for things. I actually didn’t think about, I never imagined the mobile things to chase. I just thought of these stationary art works.
But I have yet to have the experience of demoing something, taking it off, and then 15 minutes later thinking, “Damn I want to do that again.” Never had that experience. I kinda go, “Yeah that was interesting” but I don’t go home and go, “Yeah I’ve got to get one of those.”
For me that would be the cue, that would be the tell, that something was really happening.
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