William Gibson (aka @GreatDismal) on the future in fiction

Fascinating discussion from William Gibson in Bristol last night, ranging over his whole career. The future naturally figured prominently. I wasn’t taking notes, but a few points that caught my attention, and didn’t quite seem to fit together… At various points, he said that science fiction is not trying to predict the future – though the culture keeps trying to insist that it is (check) – and that when you read old SF, as he did as a kid, you have to refer to the history of the times when it was written to understand the authors’ preoccupations (check again).

His wonderfully wry and self- analytic take on the early cyberpunk novels included that the style of, say, Neuromancer was largely a product of trying to learn how to write a novel by doing it – having previously written nothing over 2700 words long – but also that it was a determined attempt to depict an optimistic mid-21st century future. Optimistic in the context of the cold war, as it was a future which had avoided nuclear holocaust (there was nuclear war but it kind of fizzled out, and then the corporations took over to make sure it didn’t happen again – deeply implausible but necessary, in other words).

Consider, then, his take last night on the question which people keep asking: why don’t you write about the future any more? (The last two novels have been set in the year before they were published, so the action in Zero History takes place in 2009).

He had two answers. One was that there are so many problems now that imagining your way past them defeats him. (“In 2050, did we solve global warming? How? I don’t know…”). You can sort of see that, though it doesn’t seem to me harder in principle than “solving” the nuclear arms race, at least well enough to achieve suspension of disbelief for the time it takes to read a novel.

Then there was a longer answer. It argued, if I have it right, that when “realistic” near –future science fiction, including his own, was being written – up to the 1970s, say – the present was longer than it is now. That is, things stayed discernibly the same for years or even a decade or so at a time. This stable present – he even called it the “long now” at one point, though the sense then is different from the other promoters of that tag – offered a kind of firm foundation for extrapolating a future of some complexity which hung together, he suggested.

That’s the part I don’t quite get. Some things must be changing, or you don’t get to extrapolate at all (the modern idea of the future as different doesn’t really get going until people can see change in their own lifetime as the industrial revolution gathers pace in the 18th century). And to me it’s really hard to see that things changed more slowly in the decades after World War 2 than they have since the turn of the century. After all, Future Shock, which is as good a way of summing up what I think he was arguing as anything, was the title of a book published in 1970. I don’t buy the thesis of Toffler’s book either as it happens (watch this space), but it does seem to argue against a radical difference in rates of change then and now.

Maybe I’m missing a key quality of the contemporary present – which a keener observer like Gibson (and he’s keener than most) perceives more clearly. Or maybe perception of passage of time and rates of change is largely subjective and says more about the age and stage of the observer than tapping any larger social or historical truth. Guess which way I’m leaning here…













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2 Comments on “William Gibson (aka @GreatDismal) on the future in fiction”

  1. David Roden Says:

    Hi Jon,

    Walking back to the bus stop last night I wondered aloud if WG’s ‘long present’ was an artifact the Cold War. The inconceivability of its cessation perhaps making genuine technological and political changes appear incidental.



  2. […] discussed in his speech at the Cadogan Hall, few days ago (see >a write-up here and there), William Gibson’s work is grounded into three interesting […]

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