Books·In Conversation

William Gibson's sci-fi novels shaped how we think about the future — and he's not done writing yet

In conversation with CBC Books, the legendary sci-fi writer spoke about his latest bestselling book and his writing career.

Gibson's bestselling novel Agency is on CBC Books's 'best fiction of 2020' list

William Ford Gibson is an American-Canadian speculative fiction writer and essayist. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

William Gibson is widely regarded as a visionary when it comes to depicting the future in fiction. The sci-fi writer is credited with popularizing the term "cyberspace" and has written presciently on the rise of the Internet, reality television and techno-culture. 

His classic 1984 novel Neuromancer, a thriller about hacking and artificial intelligence, won sci-fi's three biggest prizes: the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award and the Hugo Award. The Vancouver-based Gibson has since written several bestselling books including The Peripheral, Virtual Light, Idoru and Zero History.

His most recent book, Agency, is a bestseller and was on both Time's 100 "must-read" books of 2020 list and CBC Books's best fiction of 2020 list

In Gibson's Agencya gifted app tester meets her match when she is commissioned to beta test a highly social, and combat-savvy, "digital assistant." In an alternate timeline, in 2017 Hillary Clinton has won the presidential election over Donald Trump. Meanwhile, in London in the 22nd century, disastrous events have led to 80 per cent of humanity being wiped out. 

In conversation with CBC Books, Gibson talked about Agency, the future of cyberspace and his literary life and career.

Given that you've been writing fiction for more than 35 years, does it get easier to write a book?

"It depends on the book. In the case of Agency, it was a very difficult book to write. It took much longer than I usually take. Writing Agency may have been the longest it has ever taken me to write a book. Another book that took a long time to write was Pattern Recognition, which went radically off course by 9/11.

"Writing Agency shifted radically, of course, by Trump's election in 2016."

With writing a novel like Agency, how tricky is it to write about the future? In popular culture and fiction today, we are seeing a lot about A.I. technology and alternate universes or multiverses in fiction and pop culture. Why do you think that's happening?

"I think it's a consequence of our present technology. Going back 100 or 200 years, capitalism has played a big part of civilization but I don't know whether some alternative to capitalism would necessarily have spared us.

Writing Agency may have been the longest it has ever taken me to write a book.

"I think what we're experiencing now is capitalism with the brakes fully off. We haven't fully experienced that since the beginning of the Great Depression.

"Everything has been going downhill, as far as I could tell from reading socially minded economists, since 1967. It's a year I remember well as it seemed full of possibilities. It was the peak for America's middle class."

Would it be fair to say your style of prose started to shift, beginning with 1999's All Tomorrow's Parties? Was that more your evolving craft — or was that about adapting to a post 9/11 world?

"I don't know. I always think about what was happening with All Tomorrow's Parties. I had moments of recognition that seemed to be telling me that I no longer had a very good handle on how weird the world was at the moment I was writing it.

"That was because so much had so much had changed. It was the advent of the capital 'D' digital. I began writing just as the digital age, as far as I had experienced it anyway, had begun. And by the time I was writing All Tomorrow's Parties, it had fully arrived. I'm not positive, but I think that it was during the course of writing it that I first got an Internet connection. 

"That contributed to my sense of not being able to judge the level of cognitive dissonance in what we now call the news feed well enough to make certain delicate adjustments that I had always been able to make before — measuring that and then turning it up just a few clicks for a novel. That would somehow hit some sweet spot that I, as a reader, I would enjoy and I hope that other people would. 

I began writing just as the digital age, as far as I had experienced it anyway, had begun.

"But while I was wrapping up All Tomorrow's Parties, I had this growing discomfort about that. With [2003 novel] Pattern Recognition I decided to write a book that would be a speculative novel of the very recent past. It would then be set in a year in which it was written — but it would of course be published about a year later, assuming I could finish it." 

The author of Neuromancer and other iconic science fiction novels on his favourite fictional character, his idea of perfect happiness and more 5:56

Given that you popularized the term "cyberspace," what's your take on the concept and how technology is evolving today?

"I probably spent more time denying in interviews of being a prophet in fiction. I certainly haven't done it flawlessly. I often say any 12-year-old today reading [1984 novel] Neuromancer would read it and think that big mystery was going to be what the hell happened to all the cell phones!

"The cyberspace of Neuromancer is nothing like the cyberspace we are living with today. When I was writing Neuromancer I actually thought it was madly optimistic. I was writing during the deep end of the Cold War and anyone I knew, who I regarded as talented and reasonably well informed, pretty much expected the world to end at any minute.

The cyberspace of Neuromancer is nothing like the cyberspace we are living with today.

"That said, it does seem like I got close to the cyberspace of today. It was the result of my having ignited some existing piece of emergent 'something' — be it technology or social behaviour — that I thought might have legs to carry us into the future. I would extrapolate that forward and get wherever I got with it.

"That's really my technique in that regard."

Do you like a dedicated writing space? And how much technology do you use to write?

"I've always used computers and word processing! They became something someone in my modest economic bracket could afford. Prior to that I worked on a succession of manual typewriters.

"I never learned how to properly type. While I was writing NeuromancerI was hunting and pecking on a typewriter and using white out for edits.

I never learned how to properly type. While I was writing Neuromancer, I was hunting and pecking on a typewriter and using white out for edits.

"I then got an Apple IIc machine, which I bought at Eaton's on sale. I've never looked back and stopped using an Apple machine, except to upgrade. I'm using a three-year-old Mac right now."

What message do you hope readers take away from a novel like Agency?

"I've never tried to make some didactic 'thing' that people can learn from. I want the reader to ask their own questions. I don't want to write books that pretend to give answers. I want to write books that make people curious and make them aware of the variety of ways of looking at various things. I think of how recently we discovered what an entity like Facebook can do politically.

I've never tried to make some didactic 'thing' that people can learn from. I want the reader to ask their own questions.

"I knew so many people in the mid- 80s and 90s who were so blindly optimistic about what the Internet could do for us. I thought it was ridiculous at the time, but the view was so prevalent that I wasn't interested in challenging it.

"But I would think, 'How could you read my work and then look at what's coming through coloured glasses?'

"It still baffles me."

William Gibson's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews from our In Conversation series here.

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