William Gibson Has No Idea How the Future Will See Us
But he knows it won't be anything like how we see ourselves.
Don't call William Gibson an oracle. Sure, he was the first science fiction writer to twig that the semantic zone behind the computer screen might be as vast and compelling as the cosmos. And yes, he gave it a name—cyberspace—a neologism that helped steer our imaginations through the early years of the Internet. For this, he has been lauded as a prophet; his predictions scrutinized for technological feasibility.
Such a sobriquet is intended to be complimentary, of course, but Gibson is so much more than a futurist trend-spotter. He's a great writer, one of our best. The way he thinks about the future is rooted in a deep and nearly reverent understanding of the past—and a keen awareness that history, in its unknowability and its capacity to adapt to the narrative requirements of whoever controls the way it's taught, is as speculative as the most science-fictional future.
The Peripheral, his first new novel in four years, will be released at the end of this month. It's the first of his novels to take place in the future in over a decade, and Gibson compensates for this by stacking the story with not one, but two distinct future timelines. One is near-term and relatively recognizable; the other is a profoundly changed world marked by the consequences of our present-day hubris.
It's a dizzy, refractive book. In it, Gibson manages not only to look forward, but to imagine how residents of the future might feel as they look backwards at us. Readers cracking the The Peripheral for futurist speculations from the oracle will instead find themselves looking deep into a mirror, realizing, perhaps, that every moment of today will eventually become someone else's distant yesterday.
I had seven discrete anxiety dreams the night before speaking to William Gibson on the phone, but he was as extraordinarily gracious an interviewee as any trembling cyberpunk might hope for.
Motherboard: In The Peripheral, the future sends instructions into the past to build things, but the past's technological capacities are so limited that when they follow those instructions, the end result is some cumbersome, rudimentary version of the thing. Do you think we're not equipped to perceive the future on its own level, eye to eye?
William Gibson: One of the things I'm playing with in The Peripheral is the way in which, in time-travel stories, we tend to imagine that the people in the past are hicks and rubes. And when we imagine people in the future in time-travel stories, they're always weak and decadent. That seems to hold true ever since H.G. Wells, those two things.
You always begin a new book with an opening sentence in mind. When did you know you had the first sentence of The Peripheral?
Initially, all I had was this young woman walking down what seemed to be a rural hill, to do I knew not what. I find that the characters who work best for me don't seem to emerge from anywhere in particular. They sort of turn up at the casting window out of the rain and knock. You let them in and let them audition, and then they take over the whole book. I had assumed whoever this was would be the central character in the book, but it could have gone the other way.
As for when I knew I had the first sentence: my compositional method, such as it is, is so torturous and repetitive that I don't think I locked the first couple of pages completely down until I turned in the draft after the draft in the proof that you've read. I keep tweaking everything—it's truly an obsessive thing—I keep tweaking until the process finally forces me to stop.
In your interview with The Paris Review, which I love, you talk about how when you were starting out, you were reacting against how the science fiction you grew up reading depicted technology as something so clean and slick that it was "practically invisible."
Even back in the day of science fiction of which I was complaining—even then, Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I've never doubted that. I've never doubted that if we were somehow able to experience much more advanced technology, we would just have no idea. It might as well be a wizard demonstrating a spell.
Technology in The Peripheral is actually kind of cranked back in a couple of places. For instance, I had worked out an entire model for how their embedded smartphone communication works that was completely like telepathy and involved communal dreaming. It was, I thought, a really good piece of completely far-out extrapolation, but when I did a test chapter—when I introduced it—it was just impossible to use, because it was too distracting. It was so weird that it was impossible. I could tell that readers wouldn't be able to follow the actual narrative.
They'd be lost in this really interestingly weird experience, so I would up giving them smartphone technology that's only a little more advanced. Even then, I think it will distract some people, because the phones are embedded. I think people who aren't native readers of science fiction will find that a little bit challenging, but the fully extrapolated telepathy-phone thing just blew the whole story! It was impossible to tell the story because the technology was so weird.
I think if someone had somehow had a dream in which they had seen our smartphone technology as it is today in the 1950s, and they'd written a science fiction story, I doubt they would have been able to publish it. It would be so hard to tell a story while you're simultaneously describing this thing that these people do with these weird little pocket television sets they all have.
The one constant in how we look at the past is that we never see the inhabitants of the past as they saw themselves.
For all of these technological inventions, the things which affect me the most in The Peripheral are the physical objects that survive from one timeline to the next.
I grew up in an old place in the South and there were a lot of old things around. As long as I can remember, I've had this sense, this kind of poignant sense, of things. I'll see things at a flea market that are a couple of hundred years old, and they may not be very significant objects, but hundreds of years ago one day they really mattered to one person. And there's no way of knowing who. And in this whole market, everything in it has that secret history of objects. I guess at some point it occurred to me that within the structure of this book, if it were real, there would be a secret history of objects. People in the future might well be going to the specialist antique store to buy bits of pieces of the physical past.
That feels like the historical American antiquities in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle—you talk about how The Peripheral is a time-travel novel, but it also really feels like an alternate history novel in that tradition.
It straddles the line, and that's what saves it from all of that endlessly tedious paradox stuff.
Philip K. Dick was so obsessed with historicity. There's a lot of that in your book, too, the difference between something authentically old and something which has a false patina of age.
In our current era, there's been quite a lot of faux patina. Faux-patination? From blue jeans to whatever. I think we may have actually gotten over it, at least until the next time it comes around. I guess I assumed that in the vast project of curating London for its relatively few inhabitants of the future, if they were being as tasteful about it as I would imagine them being, they wouldn't make things too shiny. If they had to make new things to replace missing bits, everything would be weathered and indistinguishable from the thing with historicity.
I do not know how long it's been since I've read The Man in the High Castle, but I don't remember Dick being concerned with fake historicity. I don't think he lived long enough to really, fully experience the horror of fake historicity, but I imagine it would have given him a hissy fit if he had.
In the last ten or twenty years, the entire history of the human population of North America has been changing violently
Could you ever see yourself writing a historical novel?
I've definitely thought about it, if only because I have the toolkit. The toolkit that I've developed would, I think, be as suited for the past as for the future. When Bruce Sterling and I wrote The Difference Engine, I was much more interested in seeing how those tools worked—in seeing how the pieces of the actual past we were using worked on the alternate past we were inventing.
Most science fiction concerns our fascination with the future, but The Peripheral is so much more about the future's fascination with us. What interests you about what the future might think of us?
If there were somehow a way for me to get one body of knowledge from the future—one volume of the great shelf of knowledge of a couple of hundred years from now—I would want to get a history. I would want to get a history book. I would want to know what they think of us. From that, I would be able to infer anything else that I might want to know about the future. The one constant, it seems to me, in looking at how we look at the past, how we have looked at the past before, is that we never see the inhabitants of the past as they saw themselves.
We have a very detailed idea of what the Victorians were like. They're not really very far away, but they were different. Their view of themselves is nothing like our view of them. They probably didn't think they were puritanical and kinky. They probably didn't think that conditions of child labor were that problematic. I'm sure they didn't think that colonialism was a problem—it was a feature, not a bug. Their whole business was based on it. We see them very differently, and I think that the future won't see us as anything like we see ourselves to be.
Part of my whole working method in fiction, which I think I became more consciously aware of while writing this book, is that I've always assumed that history is fully as speculative a discipline as writing science fiction. Our narrative of history changes as we go along, and hundred years from now, the deep past—assuming that technology continues to emerge at the same rate—the deep human past that those people will be able to see will be quite unrecognizable to us.
We don't have the tech to read the reality of it, but they very likely will. In the last ten or twenty years, the entire history of the human population of North America has been changing violently, and it's probably going to continue. That sort of history to continues to change.