The author William Gibson has spent the last forty years carving a niche in literature that is unlike any other. He is considered by many to be as important a literary figure as Phillip K Dick and JG Ballard, is widely hailed as the godfather of cyberpunk, and is revered by many of his fans worldwide as nothing less than a proverbial prophet of the information age. In his dystopian and largely futuristic novels, hitmen download dossiers, foreign languages and memories into their cerebal cortex while midwestern lowlifes and urban junkies kickback in surreal and violent gangs. In his latest offering, Zero History, sinister global fashion marketing strategies and the sale of arms collide in a dizzying and hallucinatory kaleidoscopic view of the mendacity at the heart of modern society. Dazed plugged into the mainframe with the legendary writer to talk prophecy, imperialism and the greatest tricks the devil ever pulled.
Dazed Digital: How much do you think that a writer can inform how a reader reads their work and create a world that's experienced collectively?
William Gibson: That's a really interesting question. I don't know whether it's actually possible to answer. Over the years, I've encountered countless interpretations of my work, and some of them are probably actually pathological. In one sense, you can get so far away from a collective experience that the response is virtually meaningless: I mean, there's always one paranoid schizophrenic who watches Star Wars and understands it in a totally different way. There are also patches of readership that are completely blind to any comic content in the work at all. That happens with the more artistic end of technology people, who just see the whole thing in terms of a model of something groovy that they could build if they only knew a little bit more.
DD: You've been hailed as someone who predicted the information age and our increasing relationship to internet technology – to what degree do you think a writer can be prophetic?
William Gibson: I usually do everything I can to dissuade people from viewing science-fiction writers and other species of futurists as genuinely prescient. You can only extrapolate the future from the best available knowledge of the moment. The Victorians – whose experience of emergent technologies parallels ours in some interesting ways – had so much change going on, and when we look at that era now, we can see that they were in some sort of traumatic shock because their world was changing so quickly. They wound up with these vague but ubiquitous complaints of things like 'railway spine' – you got ‘railway spine’ from going 60 miles an hour on a steam train, but the symptoms of railway spine are basically the symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome. Reading Victorian science fiction, you can see they were extrapolating from their own self-knowledge and imagining a future world based on that. If there's anybody around 100 years from now to look back at us, they'll probably have a very similar experience.
DD: I suppose the modern traumatic shock experience is intensified vastly by the possibility of atomic warfare.
William Gibson: What I find remarkable today about atomic history is the extent to which the emotional or psychological reality of the whole Cold War experience has become something that is impossible to convey to anyone who isn't old enough to remember it. There's this huge single fact that dominated every second for decades, it was the biggest fact there was – that the world could end instantly any moment. Now we've moved into some different modality: we're not in the same psychological moment, plus we have other sorts of doom that we can worry about. If we really believed that nuclear war was constantly imminent now, we wouldn't be worried about global warming.
DD: Another difference is that in the Victorian era you had colonialism and wars based on political ideologies, but now wars are based on religion, do you think that takes everything to a psychotic level?
William Gibson: I think we've gone old school with the religious war thing. The thing with the religious war idea is that in asymmetric warfare the little guy is really little and the big guy is really big: the only way the little guy can hope to score is to induce the big guy to shoot himself in the foot. Al Qaeda and various other wings of the franchise don't have a brand if they don't have a religious war – it’s what they're selling on the street, and the fascinating thing has been watching various elements in the West buy into that idea, and go, 'Yes, it's a religious war!' Whenever that happens I'm sure that guys in the back of a cave in Afghanistan start high-fiving one another because it's reinforcing their brand.
DD: Do you consider the United States to be an imperialist power? Even the Abraham Lincoln memorial has the Roman fasces on the arms of the seat,,,
William Gibson: It is in a sense, but it's not a classic imperialist power – it's kind of a modern version. I wouldn't put too much weight on their use of symbolism, though, because they were basically hicks: it just looked cool. They didn't have those columns and such because they embodied empire, they had them because the Greeks had them and that was what you wore to be taken seriously. It's kind of like scooter guys in Japan wearing Hells Angels colours – you get very far from the original impulse.
DD: Do you think the projections of beauty perpetuated the fashion industry are going to cause huge divides in society in terms of biogenetics in the future? In that situation you might have people who obviously have money with have access to Dolce & Gabana eyes or Gucci eyebrows or whatever, and then you might have a sub-strata of people whowould have no access to that kind of thing...
William Gibson: I would imagine that there would also be a goth quarter – people walking around with enormous tiger eyes and things, then there'd be the 'emo' quarter where everybody's kind of vague and anonymous and doesn't make eye contact. What I always assumed, and it's kind of in the background of my first three novels, is that the result of really ubiquitous plastic surgery would be that people would wind up looking exactly alike. But then you would get the outsiders, who would want to look like something else. I think one result of globalism will be that over a couple of hundred years most people in the world will end up looking more like other people in the world – the variety of humanity that we take for granted is the result of old-fashioned geography and the inability to travel over long distances.
Zero History is out now, published by Viking