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Through the Looking Glass
The Post-9/11 Era Has Caught Up With William Gibson's Vision

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
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 --'

"And I'd say, ' But wait! Islamic terrorists from the Middle East have hijacked airplanes and flown them into the World Trade Center.' Not only would they not go for it, they probably would have called security."

Richness in the Details

Ask his peers for help getting at the ways Gibson has grown, and they e-mail questions to put to him. Kevin Kelly, a founding editor of Wired magazine, suggests, "Does the future matter anymore?"

Gibson is the man who, after all, in the late '80s observed, "The future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed."

He arranges glasses and cutlery on the restaurant table to describe how our lives have changed.

"When I wrote 'Neuromancer' " almost 25 years ago, he says, "cyberspace was there, and we were here. In 2007, what we no longer bother to call cyberspace is here, and those increasingly rare moments of nonconnectivity are there. And that's the difference. There's no scarlet-tinged dawn on which we rise and look out the window and go, 'Oh my God, it's all cyberspace now.' "

That, nonetheless, is the sort of recent past examined in "Spook Country."

It's plenty strange. His spring of 2006 involves a female main character who was once the lead singer of a rock band and is now reporting for a start-up magazine called Node, which may or may not ever publish a first issue. There are also a Cuban-Chinese New Yorker whose family business is crime-enabling, a mysterious old man who may or may not have once been important in American intelligence, and a recluse who has turned an advanced form of global positioning into a radical new art form with sinister applications. Many other characters run the gut-tightening gamut of the clever and the damned.

Gibson puts a premium on making his details rich. He's always wanted his world to be "naturalistic -- where people used toilets. And dry cleaners. And things got rusty and things broke." He recently caught up with the HBO series "Deadwood," which, among its many achievements, once portrayed possibly the most convincing case of kidney stone suffering ever captured on film. Gibson thinks it's the greatest television America has ever produced. "This is like what I wanted to do" in his work, he says, "but they were doing it with westerns."

He used to hang out in West Coast junk shops, cool-hunting. Not so much now. "Is eBay a much scarier thing than a pawnshop?" asks Bruce Sterling in an e-mail. Sterling is credited with co-founding with Gibson the "cyberpunk" movement, which turned away from white men in shiny rocket ships toward much more recognizable, if dystopian, worlds full of high-tech and lowlife. He adds, "I want you to ask him about the fact that he's got Google open" all the time now as he types.

"Bruce was the only guy I ever knew who was watching MTV with the sound off while listening to his own soundtrack while he was typing," Gibson says. "So I don't know why having a little Google open is that big a deal."

EBay as Curator

Having said that, Gibson says: "One of the biggest technologically driven changes in my writing is the awareness that every text today has a kind of spectral quasi-hypertext surrounding it." It is "all of the Googled information that found its way into the book but which isn't available to the reader as a literal hypertext unless you're willing to be the animator of the hypertext process" and Google each term that's distinctive and new.

"It's curious. When I published 'Pattern Recognition' " -- his previous book, which was also set in the recent past and achieved mainstream success -- "within a few months there was someone who started a Web site. People were compiling Googled references to every term and every place in the book. It has photographs of just about every locale in the book -- a massive site that was compiled by volunteer effort. But it took a couple of years to come together. With 'Spook Country,' the same thing was up on the Web before the book was published." Somebody got an advance reader copy, and instantly put up a site for his fictional Node magazine.

Even more important, "Google is the pi?ce de r?sistance of weird [stuff] finding," he says. "One of the things I've been doing in the eBay era -- I've become a really keen observer of the rationalization of the world's attic. Every class of human artifact is being sorted and rationalized by this economically driven machine that constantly turns it over and brings it to a higher level of searchability. . . . The tentacles of that operation extend into every flea market and thrift shop and basement and attic in the world. . . .

"Every hair is being numbered -- eBay has every grain of sand. EBay is serving this very, very powerful function which nobody ever intended for it. EBay in the hands of humanity is sorting every last Dick Tracy wrist radio cereal premium sticker that ever existed. It's like some sort of vast unconscious curatorial movement.

"Every toy I had as a child that haunted me, I've been able to see on eBay. The soft squeezy rubber frog with red shorts that made 'eek eek' noise until that part fell out. I found Froggy after some effort on eBay, and I found out that Froggy was made in 1948 and where he was made and what he was made of. I saw his box, which I'd long forgotten. I didn't have to buy Froggy, but I saved the jpegs. So I've got Froggy in my computer.

"This is new. People in really small towns can become world-class connoisseurs of something via eBay and Google. This didn't used to be possible. If you are sufficiently obsessive and diligent, you can be a little kid in some town in the backwoods of Tennessee and the world's premier info-monster about some tiny obscure area of stuff. That used to require a city. It no longer does."

The Book as Magic

Gibson is less than seven months away from turning 60. At one level, he's become a paragon of bourgeois respectability, having lived in Vancouver for 35 years, which is also as long as he's been married. His two kids are 30 and 24. He is lean and still shows up in denim shirts and khaki jeans and black sneakers. Is our new world one in which you can be a cool-hunter and an edgy world-inventor and a best-selling hipster forever?

"I saw an older gentleman walking down the street in San Francisco last week," Gibson says, "and he was like majorly Bluetoothed and rigged for very high connectivity and I thought, that's what we're all going to look like. The geezer of the future will have more plugs and jacks -- will be more into that, probably, than younger people -- because he'll need it."

In addition to the books for which he is best known, Gibson has worked on films and television and theater and dance and art and poetry and music. "Ask him about the dying days of ink on paper," Sterling writes in an e-mail. "Why 'books'? Why a narrative?"

"People are still asking me about the death of the book," Gibson responds, "and yet here I am and every day I go out to the biggest bookstores that have ever existed and are doing the most business daily of any bookstores in history.

"It's the oldest and the first mass medium. And it's the one that requires the most training to access. Novels, particularly, require serious cultural training. But it's still the same thing -- I make black marks on a white surface and someone else in another location looks at them and interprets them and sees a spaceship or whatever. It's magic. It's a magical thing. It's very old magic, but it's very thorough. The book is very well worked out, somewhat in the way that the wheel is very well worked out."

Near the end of his 1986 novel "Count Zero," Gibson presents a vision of a creature orbited by an endless swirl of novel stuff -- "A yellowing kid glove, the faceted crystal stopper from some vial of vanished perfume, an armless doll with a face of French porcelain, a fat, gold-fitted black fountain pen, rectangular segments of perf board, the crumpled red and green snake of a silk cravat . . . Endless, the slow swarm, the spinning things." This creature reaches out with dozens of arms and manipulators selecting items, shaping them and snipping them, transforming them into intricate and beautiful little works of art.

It is in part a homage to the collagist Joseph Cornell, an early artistic hero of Gibson's. But this is also his vision of himself. This is who he is, what he does, when he now describes our futures past.

In the same scene, a character "looked up in time to see a glittering arm snag the floating sleeve of her Brussels jacket. Her purse, half a meter behind it and tumbling gracefully, went next, hooked by a manipulator tipped with an optic sensor and a simple claw.

"The new box came tumbling out of the shifting flitter of arms. She caught it easily. The interior, behind the rectangle of glass, was smoothly lined with the sections of leather cut from her jacket. . . . The crumpled wrapper from a packet of Gauloise was mounted against black leather at the back, and beside it a black-striped gray matchbook from a brasserie in Napoleon Court."

"I am honored," she says.

"I sing with these things that float around me," says the creature.

Gibson, of course, would call his little box of magic -- the function of which is to raise eyebrows, and questions -- a book.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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