Interview with William Gibson

by Andy Diggle in 1997

QUESTION: Every month seems to see some weird riff from a Gibson novel make the transition from science fiction into reality. Whilst hailed as a visionary both by techno-nerds and sci-fi geeks alike, Gibson has regarded the hype with a healthy combination of detached interest and dry irony, and remains modest about his own early writing - confessing that when he began Neuromancer, he didn't really know what he was doing...

GIBSON: Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. I tried to weasel out of it, because it was sort of a commission thing. This editor had come in and said, "Yeah, I want you to do this," and I said "No way, I'm not ready. Come back in four years." And he said, "No, take this cheque." He sort of wrote me a cheque and gave it to me and he said, "Write it. The book'll it'll be about this thick [holding his fingers about four inches apart] Give it to me and if I like it, I'll give you another cheque just like this one." But I felt very uneasy doing it, and when I look at Neuromancer today, a lot of things people take for literary and science -fictional innovation are in fact the desperate moves of an underskilled practitioner. When I started with the short fiction that led up to Neuromancer, I couldn't do the transitions. I could describe a character in a room, but I couldn't get him to the street. It's one of the first things that you learn as a writer, and I didn't really know how to do it. And that's why, like, at the very beginning of my career I was playing around with this kind of jump-cut technology. Film and television had a big influence on me. I've certainly noticed the real pain in the butt with translating my fiction to the screen is that some of the really cool moves are essentially cinematic, and if you do a literal translation, it's just cinema. If you think about how you're going to represent those first-person P.O.V. shifting moves in Neuromancer, it's a nightmare. It's interesting to see, when I wrote Neuromancer, I was so frightened of letting go of the narrative coat hanger that runs through it - it's very driving stuff, almost like it's got a backbeat - and I was terrified that I would bore anyone for even a paragraph. But because of that there are other things you can't do in the narrative. Actually, I think the next time I do a book, I'm gonna turn all that up much higher, and write something that's like sheer cognitive dissonance from the word go.

QUESTION: Much has been written about the so-called 'Cyberpunk Movement' of the early 1980's, of which Gibson was a founder member - and yet Gibson once again questions the hype. Some people seem to take his work way too seriously...

GIBSON: The term 'Movement' - and it's always written with a capital 'M' - has always given me the heeby-jeebies, it's very pretentious. I've been humming and hawing about it since 1984. I was so taken aback the first time I heard the word 'Cyberpunk'. As soon as I realised it was happening I was calling all the different people I was associating with and saying, "Duck and cover! It's a labelling operation! Don't let them do this, we're dead in the water!" But everyone I called just said, "Oh, I want it on the back of my jacket, this is so cool!" And at that point I just thought, "Yeah, you can have it on the back of your jacket but you're gonna have it on your tombstone one day!" The thing is, there isn't any pure Cyberpunk any more. None of the surviving practitioners wanna be labelled like that in their late forties, not if they think they're on the ball. Bruce Sterling, who's one of my very best friends, and the only person in the world I could ever write novels with, is a born rhetoritician; he's sort of built from the ground up, he's got serious demagogue DNA, and he loves to get up there and talk, and stir people up, and often in really brilliant and useful ways, but what's left of that is unfortunately the Sunday-supplement myth of Cyberpunk. I mean, I think 'Cyberpunk' today as a word is useful in a very narrow literary-historical sense for describing this miniscule scene in the United States in 1981, 82, and it's also useful as a pop-culture flavour. I mean, if someone said, "Did you see that new video, it's sort of Cyberpunk" you'd sort of know what they mean. It's like a flavour, like the Blues.

QUESTION: Indeed, Hollywood has finally woken up to Cyberpunk - about a decade late. The past year has seen a spate of Cyberpunk-inflected movies hit the screens - few of which lived up to their potential, both in critical and box -office terms. Gibson's short story Johnny Mnemonic was the first of his works to be adapted into a movie, though it was eventually re-edited by the distributor, with disappointing results.

GIBSON: It was dismaying. Imagine Blue Velvet re-cut by the distributor in an attempt to make it a more accessible, mainstream film. It wouldn't work as Blue Velvet, nor would it work as an accessible mainstream film. I had been so involved with Johnny Mnemonic, and working so closely with Robert Longo the director, who's still one of my very closest friends, that in the last few weeks before it was released we were in a kind of mutual hysteria of denial. All we could see was the film we had made, and we just deeply believed that it would somehow triumph over all these foul things that were being done to it. So I didn't actually see the version you saw until I was sitting in the very first New York press premiere, and at that point it came home to me. It was kind of indescribable. Dismaying, it was deeply dismaying, and I also realised that I could never stand up and say what happened, because it's just too complex. It's all Eisensteinian, it's all montage, and a sort failed re-conceptualisation. Yeah, it was pretty shattering actually.There is no such thing as the director's cut of Johnny Mnemonic, nor would I imagine could there ever be, but the Japanese video, which you guys [in Britain] can play on, is fifteen minutes longer, hasn't been dubbed, has very cool-looking Kenji down one side of the screen, and doesn't have that awful, very expensive Hollywood synth score. I should have known that it was all going south when the man from Sony who was actually most supportive of the project starting referring in meetings to his duty to what he called the "Gibson-impaired". I'd say, "No, you don't want to change that, you're just dumbing it down, don't make it more accessible, it's gonna lose its edge," and he'd say, "Bill, I have a duty to the Gibson-impaired". It's kind of a strange situation. When we began the film it was a relatively low-budget independent movie which had no movie star, because when we began the film, Keanu Reeves wasn't a bankable action star. In fact, we met him when he was just finishing Speed up, and I complemented him on his - for America - very unusually short haircut, and he said, "Oh yeah, I got it for this movie called Speed, I really had fun doing it, I don't think gonna make any money." And that was that. And about two weeks into shooting Johnny Mnemonic, Speed broke huge, and suddenly there were these guys around saying, "Does it have a bus? Could you get a bus? Are you gonna blow anything up?" We did have stuff to blow up, fortunately. We were a first-time director and a first-time screenwriter in a film whose budget kept being jacked up in post-production. I kind of don't wanna get into when it changed, I don't think anyone really knows. It's kind of like telling war stories, I'm sure there are people around who would disagree with me. The weird thing is that I don't actually think it's anyone's fault in particular. It isn't that the people at Sony acted in any way in bad faith - it was, after all, their thirty million dollars at stake. And the cut they produced earned seventy million worldwide, so they doubled their money and made ten million dollars. So in effect it's left me in a position to go back to Hollywood and do more films. I've been told, though I don't know whether it's true, that we were one of Sony's more profitable movies that year. They've had a terrible couple of years. The Japanese have written off billions of dollars, literally, on that studio. I've heard there may actually be a sequel in the works, although it would probably come from Sony International division, and be targeted at the Asian audience that really saved our ass on tickets, because it was hugely popular - it was the all-time highest-grossing first night in Taiwan. It beat out Terminator 2 and Die Hard. I don't know why, but the irony is that it might actually be possible for someone with no budget, working in complete obscurity, to make a wilder film than the one we were allowed to make. I think some of the best Cyberpunk moments have been in real lowball movies. There's a film called Nemesis> that's got little bits of sort of fudged Gibson D.N.A. It's worth renting, it's sort of early Gibson meets Terminator 2. It's kind of a very unashamed B-movie - lots of shooting, lots of babes - it's but it has a few little bits that are just brilliant Cyberpunk and very, very funny. One of the things we were trying to do with Johnny Mnemonic was to do this constant sampled homage to all the good bits in bad science fiction movies. We originally tried to get Johnny Mnemonic off the ground as a one-million dollar movie, and no-one would touch it, so we started asking for twenty million and they immediately said, "Okay, we understand that". But when it was budgeted at twenty million, the structure of the budget, without going into detail, actually left us with very little money. I couldn't tell you what the actual shooting budget was, but it was extremely modest, so when we began we were making an indie S.F. film that was pretty low budget, and we didn't think we were gonna be competing with the Memorial Day blockbuster action movies. We didn't even think it was an action movie, and one of the reasons it moves so oddly is that all of the violent bits were set up to be rather ironic in the cut we were intending, but no, I mean they don't get irony. One of the gratifying things about the UK audience from the beginning is they saw that okay, it's scary, but it's funny too. In America they just don't do irony, they don't get it. It's tedious, but if you wanna get an idea of what we were trying to do, you can read my shooting script from HarperCollins, which I published exclusively for that purpose. It's considerably different, but what you read there is what was shot, and if you compare the two you can see what they wouldn't go for. Actually we were under considerable pressure - I won't say who from - to do one of those cliched "Oh, it's alive!" endings, and we just shot it. Longo did it, he was under orders to do it the other way and he just did it that way instead, "Screw you." And they looked at it and they said, "That's very funny, very cool."

QUESTION: Gibson's new novel Idoru is about a 'virtual celebrity', a computer - simulated idoru or 'idol singer' with complex - yet programmed - human responses. On a promotional tour, a popular author might find himself offering the same answers to the same old questions... so is there a difference? Is William Gibson a 'virtual celebrity'?

GIBSON: Yeah, well, I try to avoid that but it's very hard. The first time I really became aware of that was about 10 years ago, I was invited to a big, very luxurious writer's festival in Toronto. I was one of the most minor figures there and I spent most of the weekend in the Green Room eavesdropping on really famous writers doing one interview after another. William Golding was there, E.L. Doctorow - and they were giving great interviews, but they were giving the same interviews over and over. And I realised these guys had 'tapes' - that's what I called them. It's like they've got tapes in their heads, and journalists ask them questions and they go "Yeah" and lay down this line of patter. It's like a stone worn smooth in a river, and it really is kind of brilliant. They've done it before, and as I go on doing this I realise that I'm starting to do it too. You start doing it out of self-defence. Jet lag just makes you less coherent. My jet-lag's gone now, so this is about as coherent as I ever get, but every once in a while someone asks you something really weird, and that's always good. I think the last one that completely stopped me on a dime was "What's the most interesting thing you've seen today?" Although it proved to be something that's not interesting at all... Idoru began when I was reading an article about the real idoru scene in Japan, which is this sort of shameless Milli Vanilli factory that turns out these completely artificial little girl pop singers, who aren't expected to have a very long shelf life. And in the course of this they mentioned one delightfully anomalous case in which they somehow forgot to attach a physical girl to the product - and perhaps because she didn't really exist, she became a cult figure, and it sort of kept rolling and rolling until she was having gallery shows of her watercolours in Tokyo and publishing books of haiku, which were selling fairly well. And I thought that was very resonant somehow. I don't know, it got me going somehow, I thought it resonated with V.R. and with this idea of the very expensive Coke commercials where Humphrey Bogart dances with Marlene Dietrich. Also I love the idea that someone is paying the Humphrey Bogart office somewhere for the right to use him. There is a virtual idoru in Japan, although I didn't know about her until I'd finished the novel. She's somewhat of a garage effort, but she is there and I keep track of her, I go to her web-site occasionally and download new pictures. Actually I'm trying to do a Q & A with her for an American style magazine and I sent her twenty questions. They're being translated for her now, or for her handlers as the case may be. She's named Kyoko Date, although she's sometimes called DK96, and she's just this perfect little Japanese idoru babe with rather unlikely long legs. I thought she'd be more like an anime, but she's more like what they call an eigin-head in the computer-person generation. She looks almost like a human being, but... Actually she looks like a girl designed by boys who haven't had too much hands-on experience with girls, and I suspect that might well prove to be the case. She really does look like the product of otaku in a big way.

QUESTION: You've said before you knew nothing about computers when you wrote Neuromancer - is that changing?

GIBSON: It's changing to the extent that I'm surrounded by them, we're all surrounded by them. This digital thing is becoming so ubiquitous that I have to learn more about it simply to make my way in the world, let alone in my fiction. One of the differences between Idoru and Neuromancer is that in Neuromancer I had nothing at all to extrapolate from to Cyberspace, whereas in Idoru I can extrapolate from the World Wide Web to whatever that is they're doing in Idoru. That's like a big difference. I think it's my duty to maintain the deepest possible level of ambivalence towards technology. To me, ambivalence seems the only sane response. Technophobia doesn't work, and neither does technophilia. So you don't want to be a nerd, and you don't want to be a Luddite, you have to try to straddle the fence and just make constant decisions. In a way, I'm not so much writing about the future as like I'm exploring an unspeakable present. That's the bottom line. To me, this is the future, and it's only going to get weirder. This is the future that science fiction writers were fumblingly trying to describe to me in 1962, and yet this is a future so much more peculiar than anything any science fiction writer predicted in 1962. Every day I wake up and turn on the television and it just floors me. Frederick Jameson, the guy who dreamed up the concept of the post-modern in American literature, said something once which I've always been very taken by. He's trying to describe the characteristic emotion of the post-modern era, and he describes it as "the simultaneous apprehension of ecstasy and dread". I think that's what I experience. And also, I suspect that's what I try to induce...