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Nostalgia for the Future
by Dale Sproule

WILLIAM GIBSON'S BASEMENT OFFICE IS SPARTAN. HE SLIPS off a heavy khaki coat, drapes it over the back of his chair, and sits down in front of the computer. The large, signed artworks on the wall are bold and monochromatic: a revolver with its chamber open ... and Johnny Mnemonic in suit and narrow tie, reeling backwards. Gibson has just written a scene to accompany the opening credits of the upcoming movie Johnny Mnemonic (The highest-budget project in Canadian movie history at something in excess of $28 million), directed by the renowned post-Warhol painter, sculptor, and video-maker Robert Longo.

During the interview Gibson faxes the script fragment to South Africa, where Johnny Mnemonic is being filmed.

William Gibson: Excuse me if I'm a bit out of it. I just did 10 days back-to-back, nine-to-five, hour-off-for-lunch, half-hour media interviews in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

BiC: Is the movie being released early in Europe?

Gibson: No, I'm just supporting my Scandinavian publishers. I've been extensively published in Denmark and Sweden but hadn't been published before in Norway, so they all got together and footed the bill for me, my wife, and my daughter. They got to go sightseeing. I think I did every interview ... [he suddenly brightens] I got the greatest thing, actually this is the coolest ... [he stands up and digs through a pile of papers on his desk, coming up grinning and waving a magazine] it's this sweet little soft-core porno literary magazine. I'm going to have a couple of these framed for my friends. [On the cover: two naked women on their knees, face-to-face in balletic freeze frame. Inside: William Gibson and assorted literature]. The Danes do the coolest erotic stuff.

BiC: On the phone, you expressed surprise that you've been in such demand as an interview subject, when you didn't have a new book out. Do you think people are trying to capitalize on the release of the movie?

Gibson: Yeah. But they might miss it because nobody knows exactly when the movie is coming out. Including me. I mean, nobody knows but the studio. We've been saying, "Oh yeah, spring," but the most recent dates I've heard are in June.

BiC: Actually, I hope to talk about writers on the Internet.

Gibson: [Grinning and motioning toward his Macintosh computer] No modem. [In a towncrier-like voice] William Gibson has no Internet address! Apparently, one of the most frequently asked questions in certain esoteric discussions in places on the Internet like alt.cyberpunk, when new guys ask "What is William Gibson's Internet address'?" The old guys say, "Well, stupid, he doesn't have one." One of the reasons I don't have one [he motions to fax paper billowing from a corkboard surface and brushing the floor] - that is a morning's faxes. I have 35 feet come out of there in 12 hours, most of it from strangers, so you can imagine what I'd be facing in terms of incoming Internet messages, most of which would be like, "Hi! I got your Internet address." The terrible truth is that if you're middle-aged and vaguely affluent you can phone or fax anywhere in the world and it's just a business expense. What I think is really cool about the Internet is how people who don't have any money can communicate with people all over the world. It's great. I love the Internet. I just don't actually ... do it.

BiC: Do you think you've had an influence in shaping a medium [the Internet a.ka. the Matrix] you described in your books before most of the world knew it existed?

Gibson: No. It's an illusion. A great tagline for journalists writing articles like "William Gibson and/or the Internet," as if it's a cause-and-effect thing. Yet historically it's not true. The Internet is there - and this is an infinitely groovier creation myth than William Gibson at his typewriter - because the American defence community envisioned a need during the cold war for a global communication network that would be immune from whole cities and countries being nuked and the raging perpetual storms of electromagnetic energy anticipated in the wake of nuclear war. So they suggested that all the mainframes at all the universities in "the free world" be linked up on a packetswitching architecture that would deliver a message no matter what was happening to the physical system. You couldn't use radios, satellites, but you could use these land lines. I suspect it was well underway when I was writing Neuromancer. And I had no idea that it existed. Neither did anyone else, because people didn't have computers in their homes then. Other than that, I steadfastly deny any predictive capacity except in the sense that the future is always made up entirely of the past [he laughs].

BiC: Robert Longo [director of Johnny Mnemonic] said in a recent interview that "we're nostalgic for the future."

Gibson: That's what European journalists are talking about. "The Future with a capital 'F' as a historical phenomenon." That there is no capital 'F' future any more. That it's gone.

BiC: What do you think?

Gibson: I think they're right. We've recognized that the future is always made of the past. The whole modem period, there's this [he gestures at the walls around us] stuff, and then there's [he spreads his arms and says in a one-man crowd cheer] "the Future." That's what science fiction has run on since the '30s and I think it's at the end of its rope.

BiC: How do you think your celebrity status affects your writing? Is there pressure as a result? Do you find yourself being pulled in too many directions at once?

Gibson: No. As much as you get to be a celebrity as a writer in North America. In Europe, people take writers much more seriously. And consequently, it's more of a hassle.

BiC: You're not just a writer. You're a guru.

Gibson: I don't do guru gigs. That wastebasket is full of faxes from people who offer me guru assignments like "come and lecture to our holistic weekend." I've done it a couple of times if it's been attached to a nice enough plane ticket. I guess I'm lucky, I'm not a didactic writer, I have no agenda or philosophy or need to say "Guess I'll quit writing now and speak directly to the audience." There's no danger of that because I hardly even have an opinion. All of it goes into these books.

BiC: But you've obviously gotten quite glib. You must get asked the same questions over and over.

Gibson: To an amazing degree, all around the world. Most journalists base their questions on other journalists' questions. They just kind of do them from press releases. That's a weird phenomenon. If you get one or two good reviews for something, going out, doesn't matter exactly where they are, as long as it's not too obscure, all your reviews will be quite good. If you get a bad one going out, they'll tend to be very bad. Most of the time I spend in interviews trying to disabuse people of the hype.

BiC: No wonder you're nervous about hype with Johnny Mnemonic coming out. Were you very involved with the movie? Gibson: To a deeply abnormal degree.

BiC: Do you go through the same mental stages with a movie as a book? Like the doubts about its worth while you're in the middle of it?

Gibson: Oh, no. It's a totally different thing. It doesn't have much to do with writing. It's a collaborative process with 300 other people. By the nature of it, it has to be done pretty much by committee. Diplomacy and compromise seem to be the only things that make it possible to make films. You have to get all these people to agree to go ahead. But it's not as though they ever really say "Well, okay. You're driving." They're more likely to say, "How are you driving? What are you doing with your feet?"

BiC: What kind of vehicle have you got?

Gibson: Yeah, that's always a big question too, because nobody quite knows what kind of vehicle this picture is. I'm a little leery because even a bad movie attracts more media attention than anything you can do with a book [he shakes his head]. Probably more media attention than you'd get if you won the Nobel Prize.

BiC: The motion picture business seems more than a little dangerous and unpredictable. You did an early draft of Alien 3, didn't you? But no one ever got to see what you did with it.

Gibson: You can see it if you know anybody on the Internet, because somebody - not me - posted it, so you can download it. Legally, in no way is it my intellectual property, so I can't publish it, or do anything.

BiC: But it's going to survive through the Internet.

Gibson: Lots of people, when I go on tour, say "I read your screenplay," and that's an amazing thing, how it just got stuck on there.

BiC: Let's go back to the start of your writing career. "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" (1977) was the first story you ever completed?

Gibson: The only thing I ever tried to write before that was a sentence. It was going to be a story in the mariner of J. G. Ballard ... and it turned into this sentence that was 56 words long. I can still recite it, often to gales of laughter, if I explain thoroughly beforehand what the sentence is. In "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" I suspect you'll find the entirety -- in some strange son of compacted larval form -- of everything I've done subsequently.

BiC: Little did you know ...

Gibson: My expectation -- and I think this is sort of a common experience -- was that two hours after I'd mailed it off, limousines from the Pulitzer people would pull up outside. It was really kind of like "Wow, what have I done?" And of course, nothing happened. I got paid $22.

BiC: But it wasn't long before your first sale to Omni.

Gibson: That Omni thing created a lot of anxiety for me. They bought "Johnny Mnemonic," I think they paid $750, and I immediately bought a plane ticket to New York, which was actually kind of a smart thing to do. I had put the story in the mail and got $750. Why? This was worthy of investigation. So I went back and stayed a week and met people, other science fiction writers who were living in New York. You could get $ 1,000. Enough to buy a television. Serious enough money for me then that I couldn't afford not to sell them another one. I think I would have just kept doing that if Terry Carr hadn't come along and said, "Okay, you have to write a novel." I really didn't want to do it. I was very scared to do it. They're such big and unwieldy things. I figured I might be ready to write a novel in five more years or so, I really didn't see it as something I was capable of doing.

BiC: Do you think the computer is a good research tool?

Gibson: Bruce Sterling [a collaborator of Gibson's] and I were just talking about how he hates CD-ROMs. They're like those old-fashioned arcade machines where you work the little levers and the thing goes and eventually you scoop something up, drop it down the chute, and it's some wretched little 250 thing from Hong Kong that it cost you $5 to get ... I always think it's that way with CD-ROMs.

BiC: The Internet must be even worse as far as digging around and getting into this and getting into that ...

Gibson: Oh, people hang out in very specific environments There's only one Internet but there's all kinds of stuff happening in it. People who use it have no idea what's going on simultaneously in this space, so that families of American army personnel living in Europe use it to communicate with Aunt Gracie back in Waukegan to find out what's happening to

all their friends in the Baptist Church, and get the new cookie recipes, and Rotary Club news ... they don't know that there's hard-core porn, videos, and pirated U2 demos, and just about everything you could think of on there at the same time, and nobody anywhere saying "Oh, no, no you can't put that on the Internet."

BiC: No traffic cops.

Gibson: When they get them, it won't be so good any more, it will stop evolving. The reason it's been able to evolve so quickly is that it's out of control. That's the only way that real evolution ever happens anyway, so any attempt to install top-down control ... it won't kill it exactly, it'll just no longer be the same.

BiC: There's no way for writers to collect payment off the Internet, is there? Or to find out how many people have read what you've sent out?

Gibson: The interesting thing about it for writers is the power. You cannot get power by limiting the extent of your commodification. The power you get is directly due to how well you can write and what you know. And that's why Bruce Sterling loves it, because I think he's always been basically uncomfortable with the idea of commodification of his art. Even though he makes a living from it, he thinks that getting money for what he writes is a kind of necessary prostitution. He's much happier just pitting the power of his mind and talent against ... not against the Internet, but sort of against the universe, so that he'll never know how many people come and pay attention. He downloads his books and manuscripts to the Internet before they're published, makes a point of it. The publishers hate it. He says it's the best free advertising he could get. He's very serious about it politically. For instance, if you have to make hard copy it's almost cheaper to buy a book. I'm kind of interested in that.

BiC: The whole computer age is a scary prospect for writers. Are things like the novel going to survive over the next 20 or 30 years?

Gibson: Well, what are you going to do? Have you ever tried to read a manuscript from disk? Boy, it's tedious. [The phone rings. Gibson says hello a few times then hangs up.] Hackers. There's no such thing as an unlisted number if you've got hackers. I've heard them going through my answering machine. Apparently it's relatively easy to hack people's answering machines. I think mine's got six code numbers, which is nothing to somebody with the right software. I've sat here and watched it. [The phone rings again, with the same result].

BiC: I understand you're committed to a new novel.

Gibson: It won't be finished on time but it will be finished eventually, and it will be a great pleasure to do and not have to run it by people at a studio. I suspect it will be the least "movie-makable" thing I've ever written. I think it's a reaction to continually coming up with ideas and being told they won't work. It happens a lot with the visual effects. Computer- generated stuff is just a nightmare. Fast as ... knitting. It's just Writing code, basically. We've only got a little bit of that in this movie, but I was reading my daughter's copy of the book about the making of Jurassic Park. And Spielberg's got it set up so that two years before they commence principal photography on the movie, the special-effects guys started animating the dinosaurs. That's about the lead-time they need.

I think that's why this one has taken us so long. We wrapped the photography and spent six frantic months trying to get what amounts to about a minute and a half of code popped in -- computer-generated stuff. Ninety seconds equals $150,000 with 10 people working flat out for six months, and those poor guys never sleep, they're in this boiler room office. I talk to them and maybe send in a candy bar every 10 hours or so. They're, like, "Oh yeah, I haven't slept for 48 hours. We were animating these arms." [Gibson's arms rise playfully. He gets up, scoots into another room, and returns with some snapshots of the set. I

BiC: How does it feel walking into this enormous set and thinking, "this is something I imagined, now here it is?"

Gibson: I just kind of grooved on it. Some of the stuff you won't be able to see in the movie, unfortunately. I don't think they documented the building of the set as thoroughly as I would have liked. But the set was wonderful ... like the texture, they aged everything. [He shuffles to the next picture] That's my daughter with the Dolphin. He's a completely animatronic critter. There's Jane, she's a Molly substitute. Molly [a character of Gibson's own creation] is apparently too much a part of the "Neuromancer franchise."

BiC: I think everyone's looking forward to a truly "intelligent" science fiction movie.

Gibson: We're fighting to keep it intelligent, but it's kind of hard. With people saying "Yeah, but nobody will understand that." That's how Bladerunner wound up with all those stupid voice-overs.

BiC: It also ended up with some important things cut.

Gibson: Yeah. This guy this morning says "Well, Bill," -- we were having an argument -- "for the 'Gibson-impaired' in the audience, and there are quite a few of them, I think we should make this more clear." And I said "No. You're just making it more dumb. We shal l see how it turns out. We shall see."

OVER THE COURSE of 90 minutes, every path of the conversation led back to either movies or the Internet -- as inevitably as in any "Twilight Zone" episode. Gibson may not do the Internet but its existence is an integral part of his life. And he may disparage the movie business, but it's very much on his mind these days. He has a lot to think about. After all, the future is the future is the future -- and a hologram rose is more than just a rose.


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