Joshua Rothman, the ideas editor of newyorker.com, interviews the author of the Science Fiction classic, Neuromancer and reports How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real. Midway through his career, the inventor of “cyberspace” turned his attention to a strange new world: the present.
Instead of fantasizing about future worlds, Gibson sets his novels in the ongoing, alarming realm of the present.
After “The Peripheral,” he wasn’t expecting to have to revise the world’s F.Q. (fuckedness quotient ). “Then I saw Trump coming down that escalator to announce his candidacy,” he said. “All of my scenario modules went ‘beep-beep-beep—super-fucked, super-fucked,’ like that. I told myself, Nah, it can’t happen. But then, when Britain voted yes on the Brexit referendum, I thought, Holy shit—if that could happen in the U.K., the U.S. could elect Trump. Then it happened, and I was basically paralyzed in the composition of the book. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block—that’s, like, a naturally occurring thing. This was something else.”
Gibson has a bemused, gentle, curious vibe. He is not a dystopian writer; he aims to see change in a flat, even light. “Every so often—and I bet a lot of people do this but don’t mention it—I have an experience unique in my life, of going, ‘This is so bad—could this possibly be real?’ ” he said, laughing. “Because it really looks very dire. If we were merely looking at the possible collapse of democracy in the United States of America—that’s pretty fucked. But if we’re looking at the collapse of democracy in the United States of America within the context of our failure to do anything that means shit about global warming over the next decade … I don’t know.” Perched, eagle-like, on his barstool, he swept his hand across the bar. “I’m, like, off the edge of the table.”
Two years ago, in December of 2017, I e-mailed Gibson to ask if he’d consent to being profiled, since his new novel was to be published that spring. He replied, explaining that the election of Donald Trump had forced him to delay the book. “I’ve had to get an extension,” he wrote. Extrapolating from current events, he had already written into his novel “a nuclear crisis involving Syria, Russia, nato, and Turkey”:
But then Trump started fucking with N Korea, here, so how scary can my scenario be? He keeps topping me, but I think I can handle it in rewrite. And if there’s a nuclear war, at least I won’t have to turn in the manuscript! …
In March, 2018, I e-mailed Gibson again, but he had delayed the book a second time. “Cambridge Analytica now requires a huge rethink, major revisions,” he wrote. “This is very comical in a way, but still a huge problem.”
“What I find most unsettling,” Gibson said, “is that the few times that I’ve tried to imagine what the mood is going to be, I can’t. Even if we have total, magical good luck, and Brexit and Trump and the rest turn out as well as they possibly can, the climate will still be happening. And as its intensity and steadiness are demonstrated, and further demonstrated—I try to imagine the mood, and my mind freezes up. It’s a really grim feeling.” He paused. “I’ve been trying to come to terms with it, personally. And I’ve started to think that maybe I won’t be able to.”
[Jack Womack, one of Gibson’s oldest friends,] nodded. “My daughter’s sixteen and a half,” he said. “Sixty years from now, she’ll be in her mid-seventies. I have absolutely no idea what the physical world will be like then. What the changes will be.”
“It’s totally new,” Gibson said. “A genuinely new thing.” …
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the recently published “The Second Sleep: A novel” by Robert Harris.
The novel is set in a seemingly slightly post-medieval Britain. The central character is a priest who has discovered an ancient manuscript. The author of that manuscript belonged to a group of ancients who contemplate a post-apocalyptical world.
We have broadly identified six possible catastrophic scenarios that fundamentally threaten the existence of our advanced science-based way of life:
- Climate change
- A nuclear exchange
- A super-volcano eruption, leading to rapidly accelerated climate change
- An asteroid strike, also causing accelerated climate change
- A general failure of computer technology due either to cyber warfare, an uncontrollable virus, or solar activity
- A pandemic resistant to antibiotics
Our purpose is not to propose counter-measures to avert any of these potential catastrophes—a task that, in the cases of 3 and 4, is in any case impossible—but to devise strategies for the days, weeks, months and years" following such a disaster with the aim of the earliest possible restoration of technical civilsation.
We regard our society as having reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse. The gravity of the threat has increased vastly since 2000, with the transfer of so much economic and social activity to cyberspace, and yet there has been no corresponding contingency planning at government level.
A prolonged general interruption to computer networks, for example, would lead within twenty-four hours to food and fuel shortages—especially in urban areas—a dramatic curtailing of money supply (due to the loss of ATMs, credit card transactions and online banking), communications and information breakdowns, transport shutdown, panic buying, mass exodus and civil disorder. Interruption of food distribution in particular, which relies upon computer-based information networks for round-the-clock resupply, would have serious consequences within a matter of hours. Thirty years ago, the average British household contained enough food to last eight days; today the average is two days. It is no exaggeration to say that London, at any time, exists only six meals away from starvation.
Our fear is that an initial collapse could spread exponentially and at a speed that might rapidly overwhelm any official response. …
Do we, our technical civilization, have “strategies for the days, weeks, months and years” following such a disaster"?