William Gibson heads for 'Spook Country'

The science fiction author talks about his backward-looking new book, the "Google-ability of the text" and how Second Life meshes with the real world.

Steve Ranger
Steve Ranger UK editor-in-chief, TechRepublic and ZDNet
Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic. An award-winning journalist, Steve writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing tech issues. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.
6 min read
Science fiction novelist William Gibson has been exploring the relationship between technology and society ever since he burst onto the literary scene with his cyberpunk classic Neuromancer in 1984.

He invented the word "cyberspace" and his influential works predicted many of the changes technology has brought about. Silicon.com's Steve Ranger caught up with him in the run-up to the launch of his latest novel, Spook Country.

Q: You've written much about the way people react to technology. What's your own attitude toward technology?
Gibson: I'm not an early adopter at all. I'm always quite behind the curve but I think that's actually necessary--by not taking that role as a consumer I can be a little more dispassionate about it.

Most societal change now is technologically driven, so there's no way to look at where the human universe is going without looking at the effect of emergent technology. There's not really anything else driving change in the world, I believe.

Has the impact of technology been positive or negative?
Gibson: I'm absolutely agnostic about it, and if I was either a Luddite or a technophile I couldn't possibly function in my job. I think that, generally speaking, technologies are morally neutral until humans beings pick them up and use them for something.


It's a positive thing depending on what happens when we use it. Nothing that I can see other than the market drives the emergence of new technologies. The technologies that change society most profoundly aren't legislated into existence.

There's a blue plaque in London that says, in effect, "Broadcast television was invented here." Nobody in that room above the shop was filled with a kind of eldritch horror and a vision of a world of closed-circuit surveillance--it was the last thing they were thinking.

All of the big changes that emergent technologies bring us are, for the most part, completely unanticipated by the people that introduce those technologies. It's out of control by its very nature and if you could control it, it wouldn't work.

Unlike many of your novels, which are set in the future, Spook Country is in the near past. What's different about writing about the past rather than the future?
Gibson: I'm writing speculative fiction about the year before last (rather than) speculative fiction about the year after next Tuesday, which is what I was doing for a while.

I'm not an early adopter at all. I'm always quite behind the curve but I think that's actually necessary--by not taking that role as a consumer I can be a little more dispassionate about it.

There's not a lot of clever, made-up, semi-imaginary new technology cluttering the thing up but all the pressures in these books the characters are feeling are ultimately technologically driven, so I'm using the same tools to look at the same things but without the conceit that one is viewing this in some imaginary future.

So what's the difference?
Gibson: It's much harder to just make s*** up to get oneself out of a tight plot spot. When I'm writing about the future, if I get really stuck I can just go back and reinvent some other aspect of the amazing whatsit machine that makes it possible to drive the truck past the checkpoint, or whatever it is.

For me it's harder work to irradiate the content of a shipping container (in Spook Country) in a way that at least convinces me, than it is to dream up some gizmo from Chiba city that will crawl in there and do it all by itself.

So why not write about the future?
Gibson: The trouble is there are enough crazy factors and wild cards on the table now that I can't convince myself of where a future might be in 10 to 15 years. I think we've been in a very long, century-long period of increasingly exponential technologically driven change.

We hit a point somewhere in the mid-18th century where we started doing what we think of (as) technology today and it started changing things for us, changing society. Since World War II it's going literally exponential and what we are experiencing now is the real vertigo of that--we have no idea at all now where we are going.

Will global warming catch up with us? Is that irreparable? Will technological civilization collapse? There seems to be some possibility of that over the next 30 or 40 years--or will we do some Verner Vinge singularity trick and suddenly become capable of everything and everything will be cool and the geek rapture will arrive? That's a possibility too.

You can see it in corporate futurism as easily as you can see it in science fiction. In corporate futurism they are really winging it--it must be increasingly difficult to come in and tell the board what you think is going to happen in 10 years because you've got to be bulls****ing if you claim to know. That wasn't true to the same extent even a decade ago.

What would you say are the big themes of Spook Country?
Gibson: In the process of doing the tour I will be informed by interviewers of what the broad themes are. I haven't been interviewed sufficiently to be able to tell you. It's set in the same world as Pattern Recognition and involves some of the same characters but they're a few years down the road and the world has changed a bit. I suppose one of the things it's trying to do is take some measure of how much the world has changed since Pattern Recognition.

How has technology changed writing?
Gibson: The thing that has affected me most directly during Pattern Recognition, and subsequently, is the really strange new sense I have of the Google-ability of the text. It's as though there is a sort of invisible hyperlink theoretical text that extends out of the narrative of my novel in every direction.

I've noticed now, very occasionally, I'll see on the street someone who looks as though they have escaped from Second Life.

Someone has a Web site going where every single thing mentioned in Spook Country has a blog entry and usually an illustration--every reference, someone has taken it, researched it and written a sort of little Wikipedia entry for it and all in the format of a Web site that pretends to be from a magazine called Node, which is an imaginary magazine, within Spook Country, and which turns out to be imaginary in the context of the narrative.

I have this sense when I write now that the text doesn't stop at the end of the page and I suppose I could create Web pages somewhere and lead people to them through the text, which is an interesting concept. I actually played with doing that in Spook Country but I didn't know enough about it. Everything is bending toward hypertext now.

You've done a reading in Second Life. What did you make of that?
Gibson: It's a lot more corporate than the vision I had. What I find most interesting about Second Life is that I've noticed now, very occasionally, I'll see on the street someone who looks as though they have escaped from Second Life. There are people who look all too much like Second Life avatars and I don't know if they were there before or whether I just hadn't notice them.

How well do you think your earlier novels such as Neuromancer have stood the test of time?
Gibson: Any imaginary future as soon as you get it down on screen starts to acquire an instant patina of quaintness--it's just the nature of things.

If I were a smart 12-year-old picking up Neuromancer for the first time today I'd get about 20 pages in and I'd think "Ahhaa I've got it--what happened to all the cell phones? This is a high-tech future in which cellular telephony has been banned."

So I completely missed that (mobile phones). When people ask me about Neuromancer as a predictive construct, they always ask about the technology. They don't ask about globalization, which wasn't even a word when I started that book. The world of Neuromancer is a post-globalized world and it's hurting from it and that may carry a lot of people through it today. But if that wasn't there then maybe it would be hopelessly dated.

Except for the Soviet Union--which is another whopping anachronism looming in the background of Neuromancer--there don't seem to be any nation-states in that world, it's completely corporate.

So what's next?
Gibson: I think what I may be doing here with this current batch of books is attempting to take the measure of the present, which will allow me to try that sort of projection again. I sort of hope so--otherwise I don't know what I'll do!

Steve Ranger of Silicon.com reported from London.