Gibson still carving out his corner of cyberspace

Times Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, Canada -- Back then, it didn’t seem like a great career move. “I don’t think anyone told me that I was crazy,” William Gibson recalled last week, sitting on the leafy patio of a Creole restaurant near his home. “But they didn’t read science fiction, they didn’t care. I suspect they sort of thought it was sad, to become obsessed with doing this stuff.”

Gibson, almost three decades later, has had the last laugh. The black hole he disappeared into, day after day after day, became “Neuromancer,” the 1984 “cyberpunk” novel about a keyboard cowboy that envisioned both the Internet and virtual reality years before either existed. Along the way, the book inspired a song by Sonic Youth, much of the “Matrix” phenomenon and most of what shows up in Wired magazine.

His ninth novel, “Spook Country,” which came out this week, takes place in the same world as its predecessor, “Pattern Recognition,” the tale of a “coolhunter” who is allergic to logos and brands. The first of his books to be set in the present, that 2003 book expanded Gibson’s readership outside the self-enclosed world of science fiction and is regarded as one of the earliest and boldest fictional treatments of 9/11. Its story of mysterious “footage,” episodically posted, also presaged aspects of the YouTube phenomenon.

It’s too soon to say what the world will come to emulate in “Spook Country,” which features high-tech artists, international criminals and an ex-rock star writing for a magazine so ahead of its time that it doesn’t exist.

The novel races in several paranoid directions before converging like a high-tech thriller. But it’s a thriller so packed with characters and ideas -- including meditations on drugs, religion and a “private Internet,” invisible to outsiders -- that even Gibson isn’t quite sure what it’s about. “Really,” he said in his fluted drawl. “I don’t know.”


Gibson, who hardly seems like the slick technophile his novels suggest, often has this trouble describing his work. “The part of me that walks around, that conducts interviews and behaves in the world, has no idea how to write a novel,” he said. “I never start with ideas and intentions at all.”

As he looked back at his past and discussed the world’s future over Louisiana cuisine, Gibson, 59, seemed both shy -- eye contact was made only hesitantly -- and intellectually focused. With his wire glasses, red-plaid shirt and Appalachian drawl, he came off as more a reflective banjo player than brash cyberpunk.

And despite the exuberance of his prose -- his early novels are positively psychedelic, and “Spook Country” inhabits so many different cities and subcultures it carries the reader on a bewildering rush -- he admits he’s a bit of a grind when it comes to writing a book.

“If I sit there long enough and become sufficiently frustrated at the page being blank, little windows open up . . . little glimpses of mood and territory,” he said. “And very slowly bits and pieces emerge, and I find myself in the company of a character. But I don’t know what the character is doing.

“My wife says that when I emerge from my office and declare that not only am I writing a bad book, I’m writing the worst book anyone has ever started, then she knows that I’m two-thirds of the way there.”

At that point he can tear up what he’s written and reassemble it in a way that works. “I’ve trained myself to do something that’s nonrational or pre-rational,” he said. “If I had to pitch one of these things in any detail, I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think anybody would go for it.”

Plot twists

“Spook Country” begins with the ex-rock star Hollis Henry, now toiling for a magazine called “Node,” waking in the Mondrian hotel during a stay in Los Angeles. She’s awoken by a call from her editor: “Something in his intonation of the magazine’s name, just now,” Gibson writes, “those audible italics, suggested something she knew she’d quickly tire of.”

One of her earliest encounters is with the subject of her story, an artist who designs celebrity-inspired projections that can only be seen with the use of a headset: River Phoenix collapsed on Sunset, a memorial to Helmut Newton -- “which involved a lot of vaguely Deco-styled monochrome nudity in honor of its subject’s body of work” -- outside the Chateau Marmont.

Chapters switch to a technologically savvy Cuban named Tito, a mysterious “producer” named Chombo and a desperate junkie named Milgrim, all of whom seem to be chasing the same thing.

Gibson’s career has gone in all kinds of directions since he started writing, but he’s held close to his personal and idiosyncratic commitment to science fiction. The alien planet these days, as he sees it, is Earth. But life has always seemed strange to Gibson. As a kid in South Carolina and southwestern Virginia, he’d fallen for old-school pulp sci-fi as well as the fringy, left-leaning writers from New York and Britain who constituted what was sometimes called the New Wave. “It was my first bohemia, my first source of subcultural information,” he said.

When he started writing in the late ‘70s, though, as a young slacker who’d settled in Canada because of the Vietnam War, it seemed like the genre had, in his words, “gone Nashville.” Bloated, corporate, conservative, the field was in need of a turning back, Gibson thought. “I felt like someone who had grown up with really great blues and country swing, who was looking at the Country Channel and going, ‘What happened?’ ”

He reached back to the old-school writers he loved, filtered in the William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon he’d gotten into more recently, and tried to create something contemporary.

“I was asking myself questions like, ‘What kind of novel would Robert Heinlein write if he’d been in the Velvet Underground?’ . . . Or, ‘What if Jim Thompson could have been a science fiction writer?’ ”

That first book, famously, was written on a 1927 portable typewriter by a guy who was not a computer jock.

“I think it was a case of being able to see the forest while knowing absolutely nothing about the trees,” Gibson said, still sounding a bit baffled. Because the idea of “cyberspace” -- a term he coined -- was swirling in the work of writers like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, he worried that the idea was so “painfully obvious” that his novel would become obsolete while he was writing it. When he saw “Blade Runner,” based on one of Dick’s novels, he ran from the theater after 15 minutes, “virtually in tears.” Conveniently for Gibson, the film initially bombed.

“I was looking for a replacement for outer space and the spaceship. As soon as I thought of computers being the motive engine of some realm, it led me to think up the term cyberspace -- without having any idea of what it was going to be or how I would represent it. But I knew I was onto something.”

Jack Womack, a fellow science fiction writer and fellow Southerner, attributes Gibson’s ability to stay ahead of the curve to “intelligence and the skewed sense of perspective that’s necessary for artists. No special tricks, but a good eye for detail, and seeing how the details fit together in possibly unlikely ways.” Gibson, he says, devours blogs, newspapers and many news sources, while mostly ignoring television.

As Gibson tells it, part of the appeal of science fiction was its illegitimacy. “Deliberately becoming a science fiction writer,” he said, “was a little like running away and joining a freak show.”

He’s never been a purist with genre. “Neuromancer” was suffused with Dashiell Hammett- inspired noir just as “Spook Country” is at least half thriller. But, “The thrill is in the details,” Womack said of his friend’s books. “The joy is in the ride.”

Gibson put it this way: “I’m running so many genre tropes here it’s not really anything. So the science fiction guys aren’t getting their needs met, the women who like thrillers aren’t getting their needs met, the people who like hard-boiled stuff aren’t either.”

His goal, he said, is to poke fun at genre expectations, and to keep from getting bound by them.

Back to the future?

At one point “Spook Country” arrives in Vancouver, the naturally beautiful, Asian-flavored city where Gibson has spent his entire career as a writer. He likes the place because of its laid-back tone and a climate, which he likens to Helsinki, Finland, that gives him time to think.

“It’s important,” he said, “to be able to walk around in a bit of a daze.”

The city also suits his detached nature. “It’s not part of the United States, and not really part of Canada: It’s this odd little bit caught between the mountains and the ocean and the border, so you can see it all but view it from a bit of a distance.”

Because he doesn’t plan his books before he writes, he can’t predict whether his next novel will be set in the present-day universe of “Pattern Recognition” and “Spook Country” -- though two sets of his earlier books are now grouped into “trilogies” -- or if he’ll leap into the future.

“I don’t yet have any sense where this one has left me, in terms of a starting place for the next one,” he said. “There’s so much great stuff on one’s plate, on the front page of the morning papers.”

William Gibson will read from and sign “Spook Country” tonight at Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.