William Gibson: 'I Never Expected to Be Living in an American Retro-Future'
In his latest work, the spawner of cyberpunk has become unstuck in time and has come face to face with nuclear apocalypse.
Image: Butch Guice/IDW Publishing
William Gibson has become unstuck in time. After defining cyberpunk and coining cyberspace, Gibson retreated from ventures further afuture in the 00s, penning a trilogy of closer-to-now works. His 2014 novel The Peripheral was widely hailed as a return to science fiction, and at its heart was, well, time itself. The book took place in two futures, one nearer, one far, and used an inventive speculation about time manipulation to explore, among other things, how they might be linked. His latest, Archangel, a screenplay-turned-graphic novel co-created with Michael St. John Smith and illustrated by Butch Guice, features a similar mechanism, exploring present calamity through "split" realities and alternate timeline nuclear follies.
Those early books—including the legendary, genre-defining Neuromancer—pioneered the art of approaching digital worlds as if they were physical spaces. His latest (as well as an incoming third work, which he tells me he's finishing now) seem to, in my reading, at least, take a similar tack with time itself. What if the progression of time, and the reality attached to it, was anything but immutable? What if alternate timelines, or forks, or 'stubs,' could be visited and explored, with the right technologies—and the right resources, as only the megarich and world governments have able access—as if incomprehensibly detailed software programs?
It makes for a much more implausible narrative arena than cyberspace, the threads of which were already fast spooling together while Neuromancer was granting them a vernacular. But it's also a good vehicle for thinking about the future, and which factors do or don't influence our arriving there. In the case of Archangel, the focus is on nuclear weapons—a topic, that unfortunately, has become of utmost and terrifying relevance again. I had a chance to conduct an interview over email with the author of a not-inconsiderable swath of our future, and we touched on all of the above. It's been lightly edited for continuity.
A few spoilers below, but one that isn't, in any case, is that Archangel opens in 2016 on a world, almost ours, that has been decimated by nuclear annihilation.
MOTHERBOARD: It's an interesting choice to ground the action in an alternate dystopian present, and to specifically timestamp it 2016. The move pays off in a narrative sense in the end, but beyond that, what motivated the choice in opening the work with scenes of total collapse in the here-and-now?
William Gibson: Anyone my age lived about half their life so far with the daily and very real possibility of nuclear apocalypse. For anyone under thirty or so, that's only been an abstract idea. Boomers lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and some of us were traumatized thereby. I know I was. So opening on a nuked Pax Americana isn't particularly about now, for me. Or rather, it wasn't, a few years ago, when we wrote our screenplay.
"If you look at American science fiction from the Cold War, that's not a novel scenario. It's more like a meme. Using it in Archangel felt like resurrecting an American retro-future, which is what it is. But I never expected to be living, right now, in that American retro-future!"
Especially given your social media activity—you're an outspoken critic of Trump—it's hard to separate the physical catastrophe visually depicted here from the political catastrophe that was unfolding in 2016 in the US. Can we in some ways read this fiction as a visual representation of your mood at the time of writing? Or as a parable?
The graphic novel is based on a screenplay a couple of years old. When I started working with IDW on the adaptation, the last thing I would have imagined was a Trump presidency. But Trump's presidency isn't *thematically* out of place, in terms of American culture and history. It's just very *extreme*.
On that note, in Archangel, present-day post-apocalyptic America has been brought about at least in part by a US president-cum-wannabe-dictator, who consolidated power in the wake of a nuclear tragedy. Any present-day through-lines you'd like to comment on there?
If you look at American science fiction from the Cold War, that's not a novel scenario. It's more like a meme. Using it in Archangel felt like resurrecting an American retro-future, which is what it is. But I never expected to be living, right now, in that American retro-future!
Not to get spoiler-y, but there's a foreboding specter of nuclear annihilation in Archangel, in a way that both a) we haven't seen in fiction for a while—we'd moved from nuclear holocausts to zombies and YA dystopias, with a few exceptions—and b) suddenly feels prescient and tragically topical again. Even before the Donald Trump/Kim Jong-un nuclear pissing contest, was this something you thought about exhaustively? Do you think we should or will see more fiction exploring it? How can fiction help us better contextualize the gravity of our unending nuclear predicament?
This isn't new material for someone my age. I literally knew the Cold War logic of assured mutual destruction before I knew that World War II had ever happened. But once that constant existential threat had evaporated, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a strangely powerful amnesia set in. And, of course, for younger people, it's the worst possible reanimated retro-future. I never found fiction very helpful with Cold War nuclear reality. In fact, when I wrote Neuromancer, in 1981, I felt I was being absurdly optimistic in positing a future taking place after only a single, very limited nuclear exchange.
Do you think that's because there was a deficit of thoughtful work on the topic, or just that the scale of the prospect of nuclear annihilation in some ways transcends meaningful fictional treatment?
There was thoughtful work on the topic: On The Beach, A Canticle For Leibowitz, Level Seven… I think the most thoughtful work was done fairly early on in the reality of the situation, and then began to decay into a useful entertainment formula. I think we actually got our zombie plague meme out of that; they just kept on shambling, even after the threat was seemingly gone. But I've never thought of Archangel as having anything to say about nuclear war other than You Do Not Want This To Happen.
To that end, there's a sense given by the plot that despite the unspeakable tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it could have been so much worse—that there are just alternate histories full of nuclear wintered Earths. Did you structure this as a comment on how precarious a situation various states' decisions to amass nuclear stockpiles has placed the world, and its billions of innocent citizens, in? That we're a hair trigger away from a timeline where a nuclear blast in Baltimore brings human civilization to rubble?
More like I've always, at some level, simply assumed that to be the actual case. How it is. What it's like to live in any world with nuclear weapons.
What's behind the title? Who are the high-ranking angels of this story? Can they save us from MAD?
The climax of our story takes place in the air, over the Russian port city of Arkhangelsk, Archangel in English, where Stalin is secretly meeting with his military leaders. An atomic bomb dropped on that would end the Soviet Union, the bad guys from the future assume.
In the screenplay the graphic novel is based on, there's more sense of Archangel being a place. The good guys have to get there in a borrowed Russian plane, etc. I was of course aware that the symbolic interpretation you mention is possible, but at best felt neutral about it. Torres, as I read it, is primarily concerned with destroying the Splitter, so that Junior and Dad don't get a second chance in a fresh timeline. I think that's the Pilot's top priority as well. The world, ours, that the Splitter initially creates is no happier than ours is today, but it's still preferable to theirs, the "real" one.
Between drone-flies, time splitters, and expanding belly bombs, Archangel marks another return to the realm of the decidedly science fictional, after you'd left the future settings alone for a while. Is still more future-pointed fiction on the way?
My most recent novel, The Peripheral, has two futures, one mid 21st-century, the other mid 22nd-century. And the mid 22nd-century is out-there post-Singularity weird-ass, so I guess I'm already there. The book I'm currently finishing, called Agency, is set in that same 22nd Century future, but also in a 2017 San Francisco, in a timeline where Trump lost the election (but which is itself no picnic).
"I think we may one day look back on the day of the unevenly distributed future with envious nostalgia."
Can we touch on your recent interest in time travel and alternate timelines; here, in The Peripheral , and apparently in your next book? What has drawn you to this mechanism, where we're not seeing time travel in the traditional sense, but means to physically inhabit our pasts and futures, and perhaps spawn new ones? What appeals to you about this general concept, and what compelled you to approach it again in the graphic novel medium?
When I began to write The Peripheral, I had Flynne's small near-future American town, which is sort of like Winter's Bone with better cell phones and industrial meth-cooking. I thought that the "other future" might be Miami in the same time, but more futuristic by virtue of being where the rich folks live. Then I got the idea of the further-future London, but time travel paradox stuff really bores me. But I remembered "Mozart In Mirrorshades," a short story by Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling, in which time travel works differently, so I adopted their rules of time travel. When Michael St. John Smith and I started fooling around with the ideas that became the screenplay that Archangel is based on, I had finished The Peripheral but was still intrigued with what that model of time travel can do.
I have to ask you about Twitter, too, as you're one of the more influential and engaged forces from your field on the platform—what's your relationship to social media these days? As someone whose ideas helped shape the way our online spaces were formed, what do you think about the platforms we've wound up logging most of our time on? Does anything you see on your timeline there make it into your rapidly-forking fictional ones?
Twitter is the only social media platform I've ever used. I've literally never been on Facebook. Twitter's a wonderful source of material for me. I used to buy about a hundred dollars worth of magazines a month, mostly foreign, just to get a fraction of the curated novelty I can get in a day from Twitter.
Another one I have to ask, because it's one of my all-time favorite quotes : Where's the future most concentrated now? Least concentrated? And how do you believe we might achieve a more equitable distribution going forward?
Equal distribution of a future is only a good thing if it's a good future! And maybe not even then. I think we may one day look back on the day of the unevenly distributed future with envious nostalgia.
Thanks for taking the time.