On Listening: A Night With William Gibson
One man’s dystopia is another man’s nice new neighborhood. — William Gibson
It’s a cool early September evening outside the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco @jccsf. It’s to be expected really, set back a few of klicks from the Pacific shore. The fog rolls in over the hill as if being piped in by a Hollywood special effects team. I keep looking for surly grips holding massive blowers hidden off camera nearby.
Tonight writer William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, coiner of the term cyberspace, noted oracle known as @greatdismal on Twitter is draped comfortably on plush honey-mustard colored chair with high arm rests and a plucky Ken Goldberg, Craigslist Distinguished Professor of New Media at UC Berkeley (Ken’s work alone is worth an hour and a half of discussion so pairing these two heavyweights was a laudable coup for the community). The crowd, an assortment of local digerati, including the likes of John Perry Barlow, Craig Newmark, V. Vale, all comfortably tousled in dark knits and warm handheld screens. Gibson’s untucked midnight blue shirt said: I’m cool. I’m relaxed. His slate-toned wide-striped socks and low-top Jack Purcell sneakers said: I’m cooler than you think.
What makes Gibson particularly endearing tonight is his candor. There is little if any pretension left in him after years of writing professionally. Gibson is a code breaker. He grew up differently than the world he saw in movies, on t.v., in magazines in the 50s, early 60s. He could not connect what he saw in his daily life to the images he gleaned on tv. He saw a language, a syntax, in the way people dressed, the clothes they chose and wore. Clothes, apparel, were messages to Gibson, coded statements he needed to decipher, a language made flesh.
While certain critics have never been easy on Gibson, he has learned to push back. His writing reflects his own character: a novice initiated into a new reality he never knew existed. He’s not afraid of looking forward since the past and present are still up for grabs. He offered insight into his own writing process exposing a dilemma of getting a central character through a door. A simple process in one sense. The bad guy needs to get into the room to plant a tracking device, but how does he get into the room? What is his motivation? And how is this motivation compelling enough to create a remarkable story?
This simple movement, getting from point A to point B, is behind every conceivable action devised by a writer. In truth, so much depends on how the man gets through that damn door. An activity at once so mundane and so overpowering for a writer, it can become paralyzing. The entire shape, tone, and tissue of the story depends on this one simple act. One Gibson calls out to illustrate the daring and the indeterminacy of his art.
Gibson is tall, well over six feet, taut, and even a bit gaunt. The look of a former leader singer in 80s punk band. Haunted may be a better word. His dystopias or utopias, depending where you stand in life, draw their origins from his own childhood fixation on The Bomb. He grew up in a world, rural and unencumbered, where his interest in science fiction overcame his sense of being remote and isolated, connecting him to great minds past and present.
My mother who is about Gibson’s age used to tell me about growing up with dreams of a complete nuclear wipe out, total destruction, hell in a white bikini. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis made a massive impact on Gibson like it did my mother. 13 days our world stood on the edge of complete annihilation, mutual assured destruction. This was no joke. And then nothing happened. No bombs went off as assured, promised across pulpits, bars, kitchen tables, and newsrooms. Yet, the feedback loop caused by it generated ripples of panic, distress, and anxiety that bound and gagged a generation’s psyche in numerous geopolitical/geosocial ways we are still feeling today.
Writing was Gibson’s toolkit, his way through the past and into the future. Neuromancer advances an argument where nuclear war is averted by capitalists who find death and destruction simply bad for business. In this sense, Gibson paints himself an optimist. As a writer he created a new space for things to happen. His oracular power is derived from searching not for a scientific answer, but for a poetic one to decode the jargon spoken by researchers, futurists, politicians, criminals and lunatics. By listening to the sweet, spell binding, rustling of language, Gibson was freed to see things anew. This ability to listen served him well: had he thought to call cyberspace the World Wide Web, he would not be on stage today.
A space where the audience and the broadcast are one
Gibson is a fan of the absurd. He has taken to Twitter like a duck to soup, tending his feed, adjusting it to teeth, searching for spiciness and variety. He follows a hundred or so people at a time preferring the stark raving insane to the timid, the insane being the “salt on the egg.”
The beauty of Twitter for Gibson is it’s surface lack of complexity. It acts more like a street compared to the Facebook’s shopping mall. For Gibson, social media sites that stream like Twitter allow users to not necessarily “cure their souls” (i.e., curate), but to create a living, daily magazine chock-full of stories, links, references, news, useful and inane information, community events, inspiration, new and renewed contact. He applauded the design beauty of the retweet (RT), the ripple in the pond, the fun of tinkering with Twitter like a customizable sidebar. The tail begins to wag the dog.
When asked about Steve Jobs and other Silicon icons/tycoons and their impact on his work, Gibson playfully responded that none of the computer industry guys registered as “mythical” for him. Instead, he invented his own myths: “They are much weirder.”
As the evening came to a close all too quickly, I boarded the 1 bus to take me back to the Embarcadero to catch the train back east to Berkeley. These Bay Area cities make regular appearances in Gibson’s work as liminal spaces, the spaces in between, “and there’s a lot of in between the in-between.”
Speaking as a recent transplant from the East, I find myself regularly observing life in-between-the-in-between within a psychological topology that feels designed to allow me to do this. The Bay Area is as real a place as it ever is, which is difficult to understand until you’ve been out here and seen it close up, licked it’s teeth. SF and Berkeley are house proud, eager to please; cities so irresistibly kinetic and charming, from their skylines and bridges, to the microclimates, microcultures, coffee roasters & houses, and remarkable cocktails. SF & B sit on the edge of the continent, at the edge of international commerce, the edge of scientific and social innovations that have changed the way the world does business. It’s multi-ethnic, bio-diverse, health- and spiritually conscious area that shifts geophysically on a daily basis; two cities that are the living result of throwing artists and criminal into the same room and throwing out the key.
William Gibson will continue to write what he sees. He’ll ask himself each time he picks up a pen, “Is this something Neal Stephenson would have written 10 years ago?” He will continue to put it out there, “whipping the oracular on us” from time to time. He enjoys playing the role even though he takes it slightly seriously. We should be so lucky.
Published Tuesday, September 4, 2012