All William Gibson's Futures
Our top sci-fi bard is in a race with real life to create the gaudiest dystopia
Written by Andrew Leonard
William Gibson may be the most famous science fiction author alive today, yet he has a low opinion of his profession's impact. "No imaginary science fiction future has anything to do with what the real future becomes," he tells me when I reach him by phone in his New York hotel room. "It — science fiction — is really only about the moment in which it was created. No one is prescient."
I object. The plot of Gibson's newest novel, The Peripheral, published Oct. 28, hinges on the many worlds theory, borrowed from quantum mechanics. In the so-called multiverse, an infinite number of branching universes spawn at every possible juncture. If physicists are right about the multiverse, there are surely universes in which Gibson never coined the word "cyberspace" in his breakthrough 1984 novel, Neuromancer. And that would be truly cosmic — if you're willing to buy the argument that a generation of impressionable young science fiction geeks, like me, fell so madly in love with Gibson's information matrix "consensual hallucination" that they then devoted their energies and imagination to ushering in a world that looked just like it.
He laughs, but he's unimpressed. "The only thing I'm really interested in today vis a vis the word cyberspace is the extent to which it is now a legacy term — to exactly the same extent to which 'the real world' is now also a legacy term," he says, with traces of his South Carolina drawl still lingering despite decades of residence in Canada.
"For your grandchildren," Gibson adds, "holding on to that distinction will be the thing that makes you a kind of quaint and really incomprehensible being."
Cyberspace may be ancient history for Gibson, but how our future unrolls before us has once again captured his attention. After sticking fairly close to the present for his last half-dozen novels, The Peripheral is Gibson's most wide open and far-ranging adventure in decades. Multiple futures, near and far, collide. Characters zip back and forth in time, conspiracy theories come true, and an apocalypse unfolds in slow motion, with all the inexorability of a slowly rising tide.
The apocalypse at the heart of The Peripheral— referred to as the "jackpot" by its survivors — doesn't happen in one fell swoop. Instead, dysfunctions cascade, one mishap piling on top of the next. Global warming bleeds into financial collapse bleeds into war bleeds into plague.
Sound familiar? I mention to Gibson that one could argue that in the real world we're already living in the jackpot."That was the feeling I had when I emerged from writing," he says. "I turned the final edit in in mid-July and I was in a narrative-impaired state when I came out of it; it had been a really long and challenging write. And then I looked around and there's ISIS and Ebola, and I went 'oh no — it's the jackpot.' The manuscript was lying on the table and I was giving it the side-eye, like, what are you? What is this thing that is going on? People who read that book will be doing that for the rest of their lives any time anything dire happens!"
Paradox alert: Gibson's observation on how people who read The Peripheral will be gunshy about oncoming catastrophe slightly undermines his own claim that science fiction can't change or predict the future. Or maybe there's another possibility: Forewarned is forearmed. Instead of building cyberspace after reading Neuromancer, this time we'll dedicate ourselves to avoiding the jackpot.
Gibson calls the branching universes inhabited by our countless doppelgangers "stubs." The great conceit of The Peripheral is that different stubs can interact with one other, though each new impingement naturally spawns new stubs.
It's a plot device with enormous narrative potential — and one that has already been abused by countless science fiction novelists. It's also, according to Gibson, a potential trap. Once you start weaving multiple universes together, you run the risk of losing narrative discipline.
Gibson avoids that pitfall in The Peripheral. But when io9's Annalee Newitz asked Gibson if the new novel was the first installment of a new trilogy, he dismissed the possibility. The danger of "appalling genre cheese potential" was too great. "With the multiverse thing – ewww, it has the worst potential for metastasizing sequelitis of any other riff in science fiction," he told Newitz. "Once you do that, Neuromancer could be a stub. Anything could be a stub."
In other words, characters from The Peripheral could suddenly start interfering with the plotlines established long ago in Neuromancer. Gibson could start rewriting his own science fiction history! It would be better, he seems to be saying, just to leave well enough alone.
But here's the thing: Neuromancer already is a stub. Every novel, in its own way, is a new branching universe, and when we read these fictions our paths change — as mine unambiguously did.
I first read Neuromancer in 1986, while lying on a tatami mat in Taipei. I was in a part of the world where everyone was convinced that the 21st century would belong to China, and I already felt like I was living in the future. But there was no resisting Gibson's science fiction seduction. After finishing the novel, I hungered to have my own neural pathways realigned in the "black clinics of Chiba"; to wrestle with artificial intelligences yearning to be free. And that "consensual hallucination" of cyberspace? I wanted it, and I wasn't alone. A generation finished Neuromancer and promptly went looking for a way to jack in. And we found it! Gibson reports that during every book tour, "some 50 or 60 people announce themselves as owing their now well established career in some digital business to having read Neuromancer when they were 10."
In the alternate universe in which I didn't read Neuromancer, I stayed in China and became a foreign correspondent, instead of a reporter who made a career of covering "the Internet" (and wrote for publications with titles such as, believe it or not, "Cyberspace Today.") Ever since reading Neuromancer I've been living in a Neuromancer stub. And I don't mind. It's a pretty cool universe.
So having read The Peripheral, the natural question becomes: what stub am I living in now? At least one of the futures described in the book is just around the corner. It's a world in which we use 3D printing technology to build our food and drugs and phones, and drones hover protectively around us like so many airborne guardian Dobermans. With the concept of the jackpot now embedded in my head, am I ready for a rolling apocalypse?
Gibson himself might not be inclined to connect his literary stubs, but he couldn't stop me from returning to Neuromancer after I finished The Peripheral to see how the futures compared. I wanted to link them with my own imagination. Where has Gibson been taking us?
I found my 30-year-old ACE paperback copy of Neuromancer and was immediately taken aback. Its pages are yellowing around the edges—not at all how I care to reminisce about the future. No matter how many new worlds spawn every nanosecond, in this universe there's no getting around it: I'm getting old. I am nostalgic for decaying fantasies about the future. Talk about dystopia!
Gibson tells me that he never really bought into the whole cyberpunk obsession with gloom and doom. "That was never my thing," he says. But he's been unnerved by people who see The Peripheral as an optimistic book. They're not paying close enough attention to what's really going on, he says, although he tempers his observation with a caveat.
Maybe, as he ages, he's just getting more ornery.
"I don't know anyone whose opinion I would take very seriously who doesn't give the current moment the serious side-eye, numerous times daily," says Gibson. "But I do have a personal concern. When people reach a certain age — and this has been true throughout history — they look around them and go, 'after us, the deluge.' It's just going to be fucked from here on out, the good times have passed. The ancient Greeks did that; the Mayans were probably doing that. It just seems to be a human thing to do in reaction to one's own aging and decline.
"And so sometimes I wonder, am I just doing that? Is what I am feeling my version of that?"
It's a fair question. The novels Gibson wrote in his youth are yellowing on our bookshelves. The drugs of our youth, the cyberspace matrices we were so eager to jack into, the fantasies of escape that we gobbled down — their efficacy tends to fade as "the real world" beats up on us. We have journeyed to the future, and just like any other frontier, getting through it turns out to be a pretty tough slog.
Whatever. I reread Neuromancer — yellow pages and all — and I think it held up. Certainly, it's a youthful novel, with all the adrenaline and sex and drugs that youth demands. And it is of course amusing, in retrospect, that Gibson's future failed to include cellphones or wifi, but one of Gibson's greatest strengths has always been the quality of his prose. Good writing keeps ideas fresh. Where superlative style meets the future — that's consistently William Gibson's favorite universe. There's also a heck of a lot of future in there that still hasn't happened: rampaging AIs, embedded mirrorshades, personality constructs embodied in silicon. Ten years from now, we may find those impossibilities as commonplace as our smartphones or 3D printers.
But Neuromancer still works, and in any case, its impact can hardly fade. Gibson's made it clear that he thinks it would be lazy or cheap to merge the universes he's already created, but for his readers, that's already a fait accompli. We're citizens of all his stubs, and we have no choice but to let all his futures mingle. There's a lesson of sorts that emerges out of all these jumbled quantum realities, from the yellowed pages of Neuromancer to the fresh hardcover of The Peripheral. Cyberspace may have seduced us with promises of escape — from our meat-bound existence, our humdrum lives — but the threat of the jackpot reminds us us that nothing's ever quite that simple. The real world will always be a mess.
Animated Graphics by Jason English Kerr
Written by Andrew Leonard
Thanks to Sandra Upson and Steven Levy