In his introduction to this book, his first ever collection of essays, Gibson writes of his nervousness around the idea of writing non-fiction:
I have never felt entirely comfortable with the pieces collected here . . . They aren't fiction. Worse still, they somehow aren't quite nonfiction either, it feels to me, because they were written from the fiction-writing place, the only writing place I had, with fiction-writing tools, the only writing tools I had. I didn't feel adequately professional, writing nonfiction. I felt as though I was being paid to solo on some instrument vaguely related to one I actually knew how to play. (p. 5)
For Gibson, the writing of nonfiction is an aberration, a performance, as he puts it, "on the African thumb piano" (p. 6). His instinct, it seems, has always been to refuse such commissions, to conserve his energies for the practice of the skill—fiction writing—he has spent much of his life perfecting. Each foray into nonfiction, we feel, has been undertaken with that same sense of trepidation and rash experiment a distance swimmer must feel when dared to take a plunge from the top diving board.
It is only because such nonfiction assignments have offered him the opportunities for travel, for meeting interesting people and exploring interesting situations, things that, as Gibson puts it, can prove extraordinarily valuable to a writer of fiction, that we have these essays. What I would say to that is one mighty thank you to Wired, The Observer, Tate Magazine, The New York Times, and the other publications and editors who originally commissioned the essays, lectures, introductions and articles that make up this volume. Without them, William Gibson's still small but intensely valuable, valuably intense body of nonfiction work might never have existed. Distrust That Particular Flavor is a book that not just every SF fan but every citizen of the twenty-first century should read.
In the collective imagination of the media, William Gibson is perceived, like Ballard before him, as a kind of seer, not just someone who envisions the future—as SF writers as a body are imagined to do—but who actively predicts it. Wasn't it Gibson, after all, who foretold the internet? In the press release that came to me with this book, Gibson is described as "the guru of contemporary culture." Such misguided fancy made me smile; my own prediction is that it would make Gibson shudder. As a character within these pages, Gibson himself hardly appears, and when he does it is certainly not to pronounce on things or to assume guru-hood.
What he does instead, as any great writer does, is observe and describe. He does not explain our world to us as much as reveal it. In his 2003 piece for The New York Times, "The Road to Oceania," written to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, Gibson is definitive in rejecting the notion of himself as a futurologist:
I had a valuable secret in 1984, though, one I owed in large part to Orwell: I knew that the novel I had written wasn't really about the future, just as 1984 hadn't been about the future, but about 1948. I had relatively little anxiety about eventually finding myself in a society of the sort Orwell imagined. I had other fish to fry, in terms of history and anxiety, and indeed I still do. (p. 167)
Gibson goes on to describe the impossibility any writer faces in describing any era other than the one in which, through accident of birth, he finds himself living. Even an Orwell who had somehow been able to predict the existence of twenty-first century IT and AI would still have been writing, as Gibson puts it, from an older paradigm. The only future we can truthfully imagine is tomorrow.
None of this—and it is a recurring theme throughout the volume—is to suggest that Gibson rejects the concept and value of science fiction. Indeed, he cheerfully and openly refers to himself repeatedly as "a science fiction writer." It is simply that his idea of what SF should do and where its main interest lies is somewhat different from the assertions that are sometimes mistakenly ascribed to him. Gibson's SF is not the SF of shininess, it is the SF of strangeness and alienation, of the shiny things breaking down and going wrong. Like Ballard's freeways and crashed cars, Gibson's mirrorshades and mobile implants are merely the visual imagery and metaphors through which he explores his main area of interest, which, once again in common with Ballard, is actually innerspace. Though he firmly cites his belief that "all cultural change is essentially technology-driven" (pp. 121, 158), it is not the machines themselves that most fascinate Gibson. Although like any detail-obsessed, "stuff" junkie, Gibson clearly derives huge satisfaction in learning how a thing works and what goes into making it, what drives his fiction is our relationship with such devices and environments, what effect they might be having on the way we see ourselves, how they affect—or do not affect—the ghost in the machine. In the 1993 piece on Singapore he wrote for Wired titled "Disneyland with the Death Penalty" (an article that later led to the Singapore government banning that magazine from their newsstands), Gibson memorably describes his bemusement and unease at discovering a city that appeared at that time to have no ghosts at all:
Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I'm inclined to look for the parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce. This won’t do in Singapore, because nothing is falling apart. Everything that's falling apart has already been replaced with something new. (The word 'infrastructure' takes on a new and claustrophobic resonance here; somehow it’s all infrastructure.) (p. 78)
If Singapore disturbed him, Japan clearly energizes Gibson, not just as a "prop shop" but as a concentrated microcosm, a kind of "time pocket" of what the future might hold. Typically for Gibson, he ascribes Japan's far-sightedness to her troubled earlier history, to enforced seismic shifts in cultural attitudes, to overnight industrialization, to nuclear bombs. That the glossiest, most technologically fecund, most teemingly populated and not to mention one of the richest cities in the world is also a fortress of secret solitude must come as no surprise. In "Shiny Balls of Mud," a piece written in 2002 for Tate Magazine, Gibson explores the curious Japanese craze for dorodango, perfectly spherical balls of mud, created by the protracted rolling of lumps of clay between the hands until it assumes the perfect measure of roundness and luster. These mud-balls have no use and no value save their perfection, yet they exert a pull on the Japanese imagination that lends the finest examples of dorodango the status of cult objects.
Note that they are made with the hands. In a city where everything is purpose, everything is machine tooled, the phenomenon of dorodango for Gibson is a clear indicator that surface texture is rarely a reliable indicator of internal composition:
Limiting oneself to purchases from vending machines, it's possible to spend entire days in Tokyo without having to make eye contact with another sentient being . . . The silent young men who must sometimes appear, blinking, in the unaccustomed glare of a Tokyo 7-Eleven at three in the morning . . . in their unlaundered, curiously outmoded clothing, are themselves engaged in the creation of dorodango, their chosen material: existence itself. (p. 102)
Such stark and sideways images of the city as organism—not just Tokyo but New York, Shanghai, London—are everywhere in this volume, confirming Gibson as a major contributor to the literature of psychogeography. Unlike some of its other proponents though, Gibson aims surely for clarity rather than obfuscation, and there were many times while reading this book that I found myself unable to escape the thought that this is what Iain Sinclair's writing should be like. Gibson's feeling for the territory is as acute as Sinclair's; the main difference here is that Gibson is obviously writing stuff he wants to be read. I have long admired Sinclair's erudition and consummate involvement in his chosen subject, but find it sad that he feels the need to impose a kind of petty dictatorship over his readers, stewing his metaphors into submission until they become fibrous and indigestible as old boots. Sinclair's writing is too often a display of virtuosity, not, as good writing should be, a communication of passion. Gibson on the other hand is like a curious tourist, enthusiastically leading the way into uncharted territory. These essays—though immaculately crafted—feel as immediate and vernacular as the best blog posts, a personal journey of discovery that we are invited to share. Gibson's own mini-commentaries on each piece, written specifically for this publication, continue the welcome sense of reader inclusiveness.
For most of all, I am happy to say, it is the writing itself that distinguishes this volume. Gibson needn't have worried about his fitness for purpose as a nonfiction writer; he brings the poetry and rhythm of his fiction writing with him. No word is wasted, no image is chosen rashly or falsely. His literary sensibilities are always keenly engaged, even in—especially in—the way he structures his paragraphs. His response to a subject, even a subject as politically explosive as 9/11, is always technically brilliant, a rounded, considered and beautiful literary whole, thus lending it an emotional honesty and intellectual rigor often missing from the cutting edge journalism he defers to as a mere fiction writer. In "Mr Buk's Window," a piece written for The Globe and Mail in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks, Gibson eschews the grand statement in favor of a searingly poignant recollection of a moment spent window-shopping in front of a favorite Manhattan antiques emporium:
But the image that kept coming to me, last week, was of the dust that must be settling on the ledge of E. Buk’s window, more or less between Houston and Canal Streets. And in that dust, surely, the dust of the atomized dead. The stuff of pyre and blasted dreams.
The fall of their dust requiring everything to be back-read in its context, and each of Buk’s chosen objects, whatever they might have been, that Tuesday: the dust a final collage element, the shadowbox made mortuary. (p. 94)
The solo-paragraphed "so many" here cannot fail to evoke the first section of T. S. Eliot's great meditation on war, The Waste Land. Gibson's imitators show a demonstrable lack of judgement in that although they appear to take account of the "what" in Gibson's fiction, they seem ill-equipped to pay attention to the "how." It is the poetry, the craft, the intent on display here that justifies the description of Gibson of one of today's most significant writers, not his status, as The Spectator describes him in the cover blurb for this collection, as "an astounding architect of cool." Cool is by its very nature transient, throwaway, almost immediately supplantable by something cooler. Gibson is that more elusive and valuable quantity: just a great writer.
I don't agree with everything he says—how dare you dis Vinterberg's Festen, Mr Gibson!—and I found the piece on the making of Johnny Mnemonic too redolent of the shallow and essentially witless Hollywood milieu it seeks to portray. I guess I'm always going to be more interested in mechanical watches than I am in computer goo. But so what? Anyone who can write about Borges (and mechanical watches) with such conviction and compelling enthusiasm is someone I’m prepared to go on listening to for a long time.
I think I understand something of what Gibson means when he talks about his uncertainties around writing nonfiction. Writing fiction involves the whole mind but in a good way, as long distance running involves the whole body. Writing nonfiction erodes the senses like caustic soda. When the story-writing is going well I invariably end the day tired but invigorated. Writing a review or an article—even this one—leaves me muzzy-headed, exhausted and uncertain, convinced that everything I have put on the page defines the epitome of self evident boringness. That is why, for the whole time I've been writing this review, I have been wanting to step back, to let Gibson speak, to stop wasting your time with my inadequate analysis and to simply encourage you to get yourself a copy of this fabulous book and read it.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared regularly in the magazines Black Static and Interzone, and have featured in the anthologies Catastrophia, House of Fear, Best Horror of the Year #2, and Year's Best SF #28. A first collection of her short fiction, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by the story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. Her stories have twice been shortlisted for the BFS and BSFA Award. Nina's next book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in autumn 2012. Her website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.