I was born on the coast of South Carolina, where my parents liked to vacation when there was almost nothing there at all. My father was in some sort of middle management position in a large and growing construction company. They’d built some of the Oak Ridge atomic facilities, and paranoiac legends of “security” at Oak Ridge were part of our family culture. There was a cigar-box full of strange-looking ID badges he’d worn there. But he’d done well at Oak Ridge, evidently, and so had the company he worked for, and in the postwar South they were busy building entire red brick Levitown-style suburbs. We moved a lot, following these projects, and he was frequently away, scouting for new ones.
It was a world of early television, a new Oldsmobile with crazy rocket-ship styling, toys with science fiction themes. Then my father went off on one more business trip. He never came back. He choked on something in a restaurant, the Heimlich maneuver hadn’t been discovered yet, and everything changed.
My mother took me back to the small town in southwestern Virginia where both she and my father were from, a place where modernity had arrived to some extent but was deeply distrusted. The trauma of my father’s death aside, I’m convinced that it was this experience of feeling abruptly exiled, to what seemed like the past, that began my relationship with science fiction.
I eventually became exactly the sort of introverted, hyper-bookish boy you’ll find in the biographies of most American science fiction writers, obsessively filling shelves with paperbacks and digest-sized magazines, dreaming of one day becoming a writer myself.
At age fifteen, my chronically anxious and depressive mother having demonstrated an uncharacteristic burst of common sense in what today we call parenting, I was shipped off to a private boys’ school in Arizona. There, extracted grub-like and blinking from my bedroom and those bulging plywood shelves, I began the forced invention of a less Lovecraftian persona – based in large part on a chance literary discovery a year or so before.
I had stumbled, in my ceaseless quest for more and/or better science fiction, on a writer name Burroughs — not Edgar Rice but William S., and with him had come his colleagues Kerouac and Ginsberg. I had read this stuff, or tried to, with no idea at all of what it might mean, and felt compelled – compelled to what, I didn’t know. The effect, over the next few years, was to make me, at least in terms of my Virginia home, Patient Zero of what would later be called the counterculture. At the time, I had no way of knowing that millions of other Boomer babes, changelings all, were undergoing the same metamorphosis.
In Arizona, science fiction was put aside with other childish things, as I set about negotiating puberty and trying on alternate personae with all the urgency and clumsiness that come with that, and was actually getting somewhere, I think, when my mother died with stunning suddenness. Dropped literally dead: the descent of an Other Shoe I’d been anticipating since age six.
Thereafter, probably needless to say, things didn’t seem to go very well for quite a while. I left my school without graduating, joined up with rest of the Children’s Crusade of the day, and shortly found my self in Canada, a country I knew almost nothing about. I concentrated on evading the draft and staying alive, while trying to make sure I looked like I was at least enjoying the Summer of Love. I did literally evade the draft, as they never bothered drafting me, and have lived here in Canada, more or less, ever since.
Having ridden out the crest of the Sixties in Toronto, aside from a brief, riot-torn spell in the District of Columbia, I met a girl from Vancouver, went off to Europe with her (concentrating on countries with fascist regimes and highly favorable rates of exchange) got married, and moved to British Columbia, where I watched the hot fat of the Sixties congeal as I earned a desultory bachelor’s degree in English at UBC.
In 1977, facing first-time parenthood and an absolute lack of enthusiasm for anything like “career”, I found myself dusting off my twelve-year-old’s interest in science fiction. Simultaneously, weird noises were being heard from New York and London. I took Punk to be the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society’s flank a decade earlier, and I took it to be, somehow, a sign. And I began, then, to write.
And have been, ever since.
Google me and you can learn that I do it all on a manual typewriter, something that hasn’t been true since 1985, but which makes such an easy hook for a lazy journalist that I expect to be reading it for the rest of my life. I only used a typewriter because that was what everyone used in 1977, and it was manual because that was what I happened to have been able to get, for free. I did avoid the Internet, but only until the advent of the Web turned it into such a magnificent opportunity to waste time that I could no longer resist. Today I probably spend as much time there as I do anywhere, although the really peculiar thing about me, demographically, is that I probably watch less than twelve hours of television in a given year, and have watched that little since age fifteen. (An individual who watches no television is still a scarcer beast than one who doesn’t have an email address.) I have no idea how that happened. It wasn’t a decision.
I do have an email address, yes, but, no, I won’t give it to you. I am one and you are many, and even if you are, say, twenty-seven in grand global total, that’s still too many. Because I need to have a life and waste time and write.
I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.
A conversation with William Gibson, author of Pattern Recognition…
Why did you decide to set this novel in the present, unlike your previous novels? I’ve been threatening to do it for a while. The last three books feel to me more like “alternate presents” than imaginary futures. Science fiction is always, really, about the period it’s written in, though most people don’t seem to understand that. The way that September 11 changed the world is a major theme in this book. How would you describe that change? By writing this book. And I’d leave it at that. I’m more interested in finding questions than answers. Questions are more enduring.
Your main character, Cayce Pollard, is a young woman who specializes in pattern recognition – in recognizing group behavior around certain cultural objects or activities or events or ideas before anyone else does. Isn’t this also what a novelist does? How strong is the parallel between you and Cayce? I don’t take the labels off my jeans, or go into anaphylactic shock at the sight of certain designer goods, but I’m aware of branding, and interested in it, in how it’s done, and how central it seems to be to what we do as a culture. There’s been some sort of investigation of celebrity, in my last couple of books, and that may be the ultimate in branding.
Cayce has an ambivalent relationship with cultural trends. On the one hand, she’s exquisitely sensitive to them. On the other, she can be physically repulsed by them – particularly by certain forms of advertising or fashion or corporate marketing. Do you think this is a common experience today?I would imagine so. In sense we need that sensitivity to navigate, but I also think we need a healthy layer of callous to protect us. Cayce is lacking that.
There’s a phenomenon you describe in the book, in which people are paid to mention products casually in social settings as a part of marketing campaigns. How advanced is this, and are we likely to see more of it?When I was writing that, I had heard of it being done, but assumed it was an urban legend. Then a ran across a news piece that claimed it was being done in Manhattan, but that the public response to it was intensely, almost violently negative. As perhaps it should be.
Hubertus Bigend, the marketing guru in the book, describes the footage as “the single most effective piece of guerilla marketing ever.” To what extent is marketing now purely about buzz, and only incidentally about product, or not at all?The energy that goes into making the trailer for a feature film is genuinely frightening, but I think most consumers have developed an inbred resistance to sizzle-no-steak marketing. You might get them through the door, but you’ll have a harder time keeping them there.
The way that the footage attracts attention on the Internet is by making apparently random and nonsequential appearances, yet the randomness and unpredictability is a big part of what actually draws people’s attention to it. Do you think we’ll see more marketing efforts, or maybe political campaigns, take this tack? I was trying to imagine a product that was, in a sense, The Anti-Product. I’m not entirely sure such a product could actually exist. The closest thing I can think of was how bohemias used to incubate – back when it was still possible to have a bohemia. We can’t, now, because the mechanism of commodification harvests them too early, before they’re ripe.
The nature of the footage is ambiguous and enigmatic, with very few clues as to what is actually happening, or to a particular place or time. It’s something that people are able to project a lot of meaning onto, yet it affects them strongly. Do you think this is an increasingly common feature of cultural products of all kinds? I think I was trying to explorer how new media may differ from old media. Old media (broadcast television, say) was hierarchical, top-down, and randomness of content was minimized.
Cayce refers often to the “mirror world” – the parallel realities that seem to exist in other countries and other cultures, which are both like and unlike our own. To what extent is globalization reducing the differences between these “mirror worlds”? What kinds of differences are likely to remain? I don’t know, but I know how much difference I’ve seen vanish in the past thirty years. Which equates, perhaps, to a loss of “pyschogeographical” space. A lot of the writing that I’ve found most interesting, over the past decade or so, has dealt in some way with the idea of spirit of place, and I’m uncomfortable with the notion of losing that.
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