Through the Looking Glass
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Southwest Washington is an antique vision of the future. It's mid-century's idea of "progress," a never-to-be-repeated experiment in bulldozing shabby if genuine neighborhoods and replacing them with chilly high-rise modernity. To this day it struggles to present much sense of life or soul.
It is weird finding William Gibson here, even given his acute sense of irony.
He gazes at his Mandarin Oriental hotel surroundings off Maryland Avenue. "It looks like one of those low-resolution, decaying-fractal hotels you'd find in Second Life," Gibson muses as he walks around the broad, empty meeting-room corridors, thinking of that Internet virtual world where residents interact through animated selves. "You keep waiting for somebody to scoot out of one of those doors and shoot you like in a video game."
Back when it was a more meaningful phrase, Gibson achieved renown for writing "science fiction." He famously invented the word "cyberspace" in his 1984 novel "Neuromancer," which has sold more than 6 1/2 million copies. This was before virtually anyone -- including him -- knew that something called the Internet was being born. He is also credited with inventing the idea of the "matrix," as well as foreseeing some of the twistiest aspects of globalization.
He was in Washington recently, however, because he has morphed. Gibson is still producing literate and thought-provoking novels featuring the kind of gritty, anonymous warehouses where the future is sometimes fledged. But recently his novels have transcended categories. His new book is even set in the recent past. He now appeals to sufficiently diverse readers -- including women not generally attracted to his original genre -- that right out of the shipping cartons, "Spook Country" leapt to No. 6 on Publishers Weekly's national hardcover fiction bestseller list.
"Ah, well, honor your mistakes," he says of the hotel. The nearby attractions, he has been told, amount to one Starbucks. Unless you count the blasts of diesel horn from the adjacent trench of weed-lined railroad tracks that trundle black tank cars full of chemicals into a tunnel near the Capitol, giving chills to terrorism aficionados.
This post-9/11 frisson fits, as it happens. "Despite a full complement of thieves, pushers and pirates," the Washington Post book review says, " 'Spook Country' is less a conventional thriller than a devastatingly precise reflection of the American zeitgeist, and it bears comparison to the best work of Don DeLillo. . . . With a clear eye and a minimum of editorial comment, Gibson shows us a country that has drifted dangerously from its governing principles, evoking a kind of ironic nostalgia for a time when, as one character puts it, 'grown-ups ran things.' "
"Politics has, like, jacked itself up to my level of weirdness," Gibson acknowledges. "I can work with this," he says, thinking of recent turns of events. "I like the sheer sort of neo-Stalinist denial of reality. That's what makes it work. It's interesting. I'd like to see it get less interesting. But I don't know that it necessarily will."
Stranger Than Fiction
As uncannily as Gibson has sometimes foreseen the future, there are other times when the events of the real world outstrip anything he could conjure up. In 1998, for example, when Viagra was brand-new and he was presented with a sample, he examined it carefully and responded incisively, "It does what ?"
Behind the hotel courtyard lunch table, a Marine helicopter roars low over the Potomac. Thoughts turn to the future of Washington. Could Gibson have predicted that in 2007, two leading candidates for the presidency would be a white woman and a black man?
That's the problem with his game, he says. "If I had gone to Ace Books in 1981 and pitched a novel set in a world with a sexually contagious disease that destroys the human immune system and that is raging across most of the world -- particularly badly in Africa -- they might have said, 'Not bad. A little toasty. That's kind of interesting.'
"But I'd say -- ' But wait! Also, the internal combustion engine and everything else we've been doing that forces carbon into the atmosphere has thrown the climate out of whack with possibly terminal and catastrophic results.' And they'd say, 'You've already got this thing you call AIDS. Let's not --'